Carla Olson has traveled to many places throughout her musical career, but her heart may always be in Austin and Los Angeles.
Olson, who produced and performed on Americana Railroad, a new album released last month, was born in Austin and lived in the Texas city before moving to Los Angeles at age 25.
“Austin was just a small college town when I lived there,” says Olson, whose album salutes America’s railroad heritage and is a compilation of songs by numerous musicians, including John Fogerty and Dave Alvin. “The city has an incredible appetite for green space. I love the parks, river, lakes and natural surroundings that the city has maintained until today.”
Olson recommends that first-time Texas travelers visit her hometown.
“The best Texas trip combines Austin and San Antonio because of the cultural differences,” she says. “San Antonio is mostly natives, and Austin has lots of transplants. The Riverwalk in San Antonio is a good way to see the natives, who still revere their local sites.”
Austin’s heat and humidity, though, is now too oppressive for Olson.
“I don’t tolerate the heat and humidity well anymore,” she explains. “Austin’s best month is April, when the temperature is still mostly warm. It’s a great time to see the azaleas and wildflowers.”
A singer-songwriter and guitarist, Olson moved with her friend Kathy Valentine to Los Angeles in the late 1970s, where they formed the roots rock band the Textones. Valentine later became a member of the Go-Go’s, and Olson later released albums as a solo artist, a producer and a collaborator with other musicians, including the Byrds’ Gene Clark and the Rolling Stones’ Mick Taylor.
“I went to Los Angeles after Kathy Valentine and I decided to flip a coin to see if we would go west or to New York City to seek our fame and fortune,” Olson recalls. “It landed on tails which took us to Los Angeles where my only friend was Don Henley (the Eagles’ drummer and lead vocalist). I had a job waiting for me as a travel agent with American Express in Beverly Hills.”
Today, Olson loves her home in the San Fernando Valley with her husband Saul Davis, who co-produced the new railroad album. She says she loves Los Angeles and California because of the many microclimates.
“One can ski, swim in the Pacific Ocean, bake in the desert sun or try mountain climbing — all within two hours of each other,” she says. “And that’s just Southern California!”
Olson is also fond of Santa Barbara, where she has performed in concert and recorded, and says she feels at home on the road.
“I can make anywhere comfortable and adapt to the situation,” she explains. “I quite like the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, Easton and Bethlehem — a great area!”
She also has fond memories of a European trip she made as a teenager with her sister. Their brother lived in Rome, and Olson went there to live.
“I graduated from high school and left for Europe the next day,” Olson recalls. “I took my 1956 Gibson Les Paul Jr., one suitcase with four vinyl albums, some jeans, T-shirts to tie dye and sell on the Spanish Steps, a pair of sandals and a swimsuit. I had to buy a sweater in Innsbruck, Austria, on my 18th birthday after we decided to take the train to somewhere different because Rome’s heat was getting to us. We looked at the end of the line on all the trains and picked Munich, figuring that we could jump off wherever it looked interesting. We spent the night in the Tyrol and went back to sunny Rome the next day.”
A train trip with Olson’s sister and brother during her European stay was harrowing. Heading back to Rome, they boarded a train at London’s Victoria Station, took a ferry from Dover to Calais, France, and traveled by train through the Swiss Alps.
“Along our route, we stopped for passengers in Bellinzona, Switzerland, where my brother and sister went to buy cigarettes and snacks,” Olson recalls. “They were gone for 10 minutes or so when the train started moving! I was panicking, because I had the passports, luggage and money, and they were nowhere to be seen. The train moved backwards, and there still was no sign of them. Fifteen minutes later, they ran to our compartment out of breath. The train had switched tracks! C’est la vie!”
Train travel has always been part of Olson’s life, so the theme of the new album Americana Railroad should not be a surprise.
“Growing up in Austin during the 1950s, the fascination with trains was the stuff childhood dreams were made of,” she recalls. “Walking home from school, the temptation to put an ear to the track to hear if a train was close was a daily routine. We lived five blocks from the railway and heard the whistle of the trains well into the night. For some, the call was a way to escape small-town blues; for others, thoughts of exotic destinations lured many to hop a freight and disappear over the horizon.”