For a writer inspiration can strike from just about any source. A beautiful sunny day, a litter of fuzzy newborn kittens, wrenching public humiliation on a television game show. Make no mistake, we're not referring to the innumerable indignities contestants have suffered at the hands of a self-righteous Regis Philbin on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Nor are we alluding to the loathsome-to-some Alex Trebek, lording all the correct answers over everyone on Jeopardy! We're talking about being treated to the priceless sight of a smarmy guy being made to look like an idiot on none other than the Love Connection.
A common occurrence, and one that can touch so many lives in so many ways. It's a moment South Carolina-based folksinger/songwriter Carla Ulbrich experienced when she flipped on the television late one night. Soon after she penned a song bearing the same title as the show, describing and slightly embellishing what she saw. "You stood real cocky and you flipped your hair/Waited for your chance to be put on the air./You answered your questions and you thought you impressed/But all the host had to say was 'NEXT.'"
Ulbrich defies the stereotype of the earnest and sweet folksinger. "I've never been accused of being weepy and whiny," she declares proudly. In the liner notes to her first album, modestly titled Her Fabulous Debut, she wryly confesses to "writing depressing songs about broken relationships and upbeat songs about broken relationships." What that amounts to are tunes such as the mellow "It Reminds Me of You," recounting battles with all sorts of addiction, from TV to love to alcohol (depressing); and the jaunty if ever-so slightly psychopathic "What if Your Girlfriend Was Gone?" in which a diabolical narrator humorously speculates on the possibility of getting a former partner back under inauspicious circumstances (upbeat): "If she died in a fire from a broken light fixture/Or happened to swallow a poisonous mixture/Would I find my way back into the picture/If you were suddenly alone?"
Ulbrich's skillful finger-style acoustic guitar playing (without a pick or just a thumb pick, eliciting a ragtime piano sound) showcased on the album derives from music lessons that began when she was nine. Her acerbic wit, she claims, comes from being a middle child: "It's the way I am anyway; it's not something I just made up for songs." The entertainer's quirky sense of humor and penchant for the absurd will be on display this weekend, when she performs a rare South Florida show. She was last in town this past January headlining at the South Florida Folk Festival, a gig she got by winning awards for Best Upbeat Song and Best Overall Performance at the fest's 1999 songwriting competition.
Writing funny tunes may seem simple, but making a living as a female solo folk musician is no laughing matter. To stay afloat and stocked up on guitar strings, Ulbrich teaches and tours extensively. "It beats the heck out of getting a job," she quips. There is always a downside, however, and for her it's the driving. "You get a lot more speeding tickets, and you're in more accidents," she offers, noting that recently near Athens, Georgia, she got into a fender-bender with, of all things, a deer. "I didn't hit the deer; it hit me! It hit the rear of my car and I went into a little spin into the guardrail. Not nearly as bad as it could have been."
Granted life on the road can be scary at times, but it indisputably provides great fodder for future tunes, that old inspiration thing. "The truth with some artistic license is basically where a lot of my songs come from," Ulbrich explains. "Take the truth and change it however much you have to, to make it either rhyme, be interesting, or be funny." Next on the agenda: a song about getting a wedgie (yes, that kind of wedgie) and its resultant trauma, plus one about speeding tickets. "I have a lot of experience with that," she sheepishly admits.