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I knew none of this when I first met her at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival a couple of years later, then again at the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance Conference. In early 2011, How Can You Not Laugh at a Time Like This?, Carlaa€™s book about her survival and victory over illness, was published.
Our phone interview spanned almost two hours and contained more than we can cover here, but wea€™ll do our best. Carla started classical guitar lessons with a woman down the block when she was 8 years old. Carla still wanted only to be a classical guitar player, so the other teacher was not an option. Carla majored in music at Brevard College in North Carolina a€” at that time, a two-year school. Carla got an Associate in Fine Arts degree from Brevard and then got a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (both in music). Carlaa€™s first steady gig was at a restaurant a€” four hours with only eight songs in her repertoire! After Carla met Joe in 1996, they stayed in touch through lengthy middle-of-the-night and holiday phone calls. Carla still had her life down south and moved to Atlanta in 1998, a few miles from Eddiea€™s Attic. Carlaa€™s first CD, Her Fabulous Debut, was released in 1999, the same year she won the South Florida Folk Festival Song Competition.
An acupuncturist in Florida shea€™d used before heard about the strokes and offered to treat Carla every day for a a€?couple of weeks.a€? When that wasna€™t enough, Carla lived in her house for a month and then found another place to stay while she got treatments.
Joe would make up hybrid joke costumes for Halloween, like a€?Felix the Cat Stevensa€? and a€?Gumboa€? (Gumby and Rambo). Once in a while Carla would do concerts where shea€™d conduct talks about alternative medicine and people taking responsibility for their own health, getting well and beating the odds. Carla got an Associate in Fine ArtsA  degree from Brevard and then got a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (both in music). When Carla got on stage, she told jokes and used the weight of her arm to thump around on the bass strings. While I was not immediately sold on her comedy, it was just a matter of time until I would discover and appreciate her complete array of talents and remarkable will. Her parents listened to NPR and records by Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie, so a seed was planted. She found classical guitar study to be a€?very, very uptight.a€? Body position, fingernail length and musical selection were tightly controlled.
After the first year at UNC in Greensboro, she spent a summer at the Guitar Institute of Technology in Hollywood, Calif.


Many songs were instrumentals but some were humorous songs about annoying teachers and fellow students that she never showed to anyone. Carla would sign up for open mics during college, but would leave before her name was called. Without enough students to pay the rent, she switched to sales, teaching just one day a week. She would start over, follow her dream of playing music and a€?build a new castle.a€? Compared with staring death in the face, stage fright was a non-issue.
You should be playing it!a€? Carla finally understood that she could combine her love of humor with her songwriting. She pushed herself relentlessly, teaching in guitar camps and gigging around the country, traveling too much on too little sleep and forgetting to stay away from caffeine and junk food. Carla wanted people to know that they can affect their own well-being, that their choices do matter. After one show, she sat with Preston Reed, a respected guitar virtuoso, and told him a true story about getting rejected by an egotistical guy who wound up on a TV dating show, then bombed horribly. At the same time Carla was in Florida, Joe had lost the use of his left hand due to nerve impingement and tendonitis. That hadna€™t gotten better and she thought, a€?Ita€™s the lupus kicking in again.a€? Nevertheless, she set out on the hour-and-half drive from her apartment in Athens to her gig at Eddiea€™s Attic in Decatur, just outside Atlanta. Inside the covers, I found a brilliant writer who maintained an earthy sense of humor about even the grimmest aspects of her health struggles.
When she was 4, her aunt Pat Brothwell, who had a degree in classical guitar, visited the family. At the end of sixth grade, the woman told her a€?I only teach beginners, so youa€™ll have to find another teacher.a€? It was a small town and the only other guitar teacher taught rock a€™na€™ roll. In the eighth grade, she got John Denver and Eagles songbooks and played every song in both of them.
It was an a€?old schoola€? music store and it meant shea€™d have to wear business suits to sell pianos and pipe organs worth thousands of dollars.
Shea€™d be gone for nine weeks at a time.A  Finally, the stress took its toll and in 2002, she suffered the strokes and kidney failure mentioned earlier. They commiserated with each other by phone, bonding even more over their mutual loss, like two people stranded on their own island.
Afterward Carla was told shea€™d had two strokes, the first affecting her left foot, the second, her left hand. Amid the advice to sufferers of autoimmune disorders, there is also advice to others whose negativity affects those afflicted. Theme songs for shows like The Love Boat, The Brady Bunch and Gilligana€™s Island were like the miniature art on the bottle caps she collected.


She gave in and got through it and managed to play a couple of coffeehouses before she graduated. She told me a€?I thought I had to save the world with every song.a€? She also realized that funny people get respect, too.
Once more, she thought it was lupus, which she had fought off since it had first struck her in 1991. These included clarinet, xylophone and tuba, besides the piano lessons she took outside of school. During the half-minute intro they were played, a€?They all seemed to tell stories, set the scene and pull you in.a€? She laughingly recalled, a€?Roots music? It was a nice balance-out from the whole fear-based, think-inside-the-box approach.a€? When Carla got back to Greensboro, she played guitar for eight or nine hours a day. This eventually resulted in an all-parody album of humorous medical songs, Sick Humor, released in 2004. It was a nice balance-out from the whole fear-based, think-inside-the-box approach.a€?A  When Carla got back to Greensboro, she played guitar for eightA  or nine hours a day.
Her mantra to her parents from then on was a€?I want a guitar, I want a guitara€¦a€? So they got her a a€?fine musical instrument at J.C. Her condition worsened and the music store fired her in 1993 when she became too sick to work. And you cana€™t leave until I LICK YOUR FACE!A A  Later, reconnecting with her recorded work, my impression of a witty, acerbic chronicler of human foibles was fully established. Marching around the field under the instrument, she looked like a a€?tuba with legs,a€? and that was what they called her. Carla went to the library, checked an encyclopedia and got scared reading about the side effects, so she didna€™t take it. Maybe her next book will just be one healthy persona€™s sharply funny observations about how crazy this world is.
Her weight fell to 80 pounds and she lost most of her hair and was too weak to take care of herself. She agreed to take the prednisone, but once she was well enough, she researched diet and alternative medicine to resume life without it.



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