If you have not yet discovered the wonderful musical talent of Kate Wolf (27th January 1942 – 10th December 1986) then now is the time.
Born Kathryn Louise Allen in San Francisco, California, Kate Wolf was an American singer-songwriter. The family moved around; Kate spent her young childhood in Oregon and Michigan. They returned to Berkeley where Kate attended high school.
Although receiving piano lessons as a child and being very aware and interested in music Kate put it on hold in her teens due to feeling overly self-conscious. Nevertheless she was always thinking about music and was influenced by a wide range of artists: the Weavers, Hank Williams, the Carter Family, the Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan and The Beatles among many others.
Kate began playing at age 27 with friends who were a great influence including Gil “Jellyroll” Turner and George Schroder. She began writing in 1971. Although married (to Saul Wolf) with two children she decided to leave – an amicable parting – to pursue music and move Sonoma County, initially living out of a Plymouth station wagon She played music a couple of times a week in a small restaurant and a local bar. Kate commenced her fully professional music career forming and lead-singing in the band Wildwood Flower. They played at all kinds of community benefits. Kate also became interested in radio and presented a show on KVRE, Uncommon Country, and later on KSRO hosted Sonoma County Singers Circle – these shows enhanced her profile and recognition.
An important mentor, close friend and touring companion was Bruce “Utah” Phillips. Kate’s recordings also benefited from first-rate instrumental support from various small bands and individuals; guitarist Nina Gerber was her most important musical associate. Bill Griffin and Tom Diamant were also important collaborators co-producing with Kate a number of her albums – details are included below.
Kate’s career had a significant and lasting influence on the folk and new country music scene. She worked primarily in her home area and organized the Santa Rosa folk festivals. Many artists, including Nanci Griffith and Emmylou Harris – whose recording of ‘Love Still Remains’ was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1999 – have recorded her songs. Her best-known compositions include ‘Here in California’, ‘Love Still Remains’, ‘Across the Great Divide’, ‘Unfinished Life’ and ‘Give Yourself to Love’. Her music had a strong country flavour, although not of the Nashville variety. Her fusion of country, folk, and singer-songwriter influences helped point the way for later female country-folk performers.
Kate’s early albums (aside from BREEZES – see * below), BACK ROADS (1976) and LINES ON PAPER, were recorded independently and released on her own Owl label. Both were recorded with her fronting the band Wildwood Flower (with Don Coffin who became her second husband) and merged contemporary folk with country and bluegrass. In 1979 she recorded SAFE AT ANCHOR for the Kaleidoscope label, which many critics rated as her finest set.
In the Eighties, Kate continued to tour throughout the US. Her concerts never lost their intimacy; playing to 500 people in a music hall, or 85 in a coffee house, audiences felt that she touched each one of them individually. Fans would tell her that she was expressing just what they were feeling. A strong narrative thread about the ebbs and flow of life, the preciousness of life and the precariousness of relationships, characterizes her songs with brilliantly and clearly constructed poetic lyrics and melodies. She describes family, romance, and the rural life of her native Northern California, but with universal themes, projecting a reserved sensitivity. Kate’s is a voice of wisdom, comfort, and independence. There are few other performers who convey such consistent warmth and dignity, making listeners she never met personally feel as if they were hearing letters from a friend.
As Kate’s popularity grew so did critical recognition. She was nominated twice for best folk singer at the San Francisco Bay Area Music Awards (Bammies). Kate’s favourite medium was the stage, and in 1982 and in 1983 realized her ambition to record a live (double) album, GIVE YOURSELF TO LOVE. The title song, written for a friend’s wedding, became Kate’s most popular work, and the record received the “Best Folk Album of 1983” award from NAIRD, The National Association of Independent Record Distributors and Manufacturers. She was also a fine interpreter of others’ material. A slow version of Jack Tempchin’s ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’ (recorded and made famous by The Eagles), and John Stewart’s ‘Some Kind Of Love’ were recorded for this album. One her favourites, ‘The Redtail Hawk’ by George Schroder, became a regular concert finale.
In November 1985 Kate recorded a memorable television concert for Austin City Limits, which became AN EVENING IN AUSTIN. It was her last happy moment: she developed leukaemia and although not fit to record, she compiled the retrospective, GOLD IN CALIFORNIA. The title track of THE WIND BLOWS WILD was recorded at her hospital bedside.
Kate had had no hits and her songs were largely unknown at the time, but gradually, the quality of her work has become more widely appreciated. Her (third) husband, Terry Fowler – the subject of ‘Green Eyes’ – and her children, Max and Hannah, keep her name alive. Ironically her songs include titles such as ‘Love Still Remains’ and ‘Unfinished Life’. Kate died in 1986 aged 44. She is buried at a small church cemetery in Goodyears Bar, California.
KATE WOLF MEMORIAL MUSIC FESTIVAL
Kate Wolf’s legacy is renewed and commemorated every year with the Kate Wolf Memorial Music Festival in her native Northern California. That area is the backdrop to many of her songs, which tackle themes of family, love and loss with uncommon sensitivity and insight. It’s music for those with open ears, hearts and minds.