Folk Notes | Stories

Kate Wolf had a Sonoma County kind of sound

October 18, 2019

By Gaye LeBaron of Press Democrat on 10/12/19 –

Just the mention of his name can create a national audience for Ken Burns’ documentaries. His recent “Country Music” series was a classic example.

As expected, last month’s eight-part documentary was — as they said back in the day — “a trip.” He took viewers through the South, from Jimmie Rodgers’ Mississippi and the Carter family’s hills of southwest Virginia to Memphis, to Nashville and Luckenbach, Texas, and all those southern spots where guys and gals with guitars created a series of “sounds” deemed unique to performers in that region.

Burns, of course, couldn’t get around to all the other places in this great land where folk music has flourished since the whistle of “Yankee Doodle.”

He didn’t go to Wisconsin to sing a chorus of “My Name is Yon Yonson,” or south to “old San Antone.” He didn’t make it to the North Dakota prairies where people sang, as my father did, of their “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Plain.” Nor did he get to O’Connell’s Grove in Sebastopol in the early 1970s to hear the first notes of what became the “Sonoma County Sound.”

At the center of it all was a remarkable young woman from Berkeley who had chosen Sonoma County as her musical home. Her name was Kate Wolf and she not only sang and wrote what amounted to poems set to music (as so much of country music does), but she was instrumental (no, not a pun) in creating one of those circles that wouldn’t be unbroken that we heard so much about from Burns.

Kate died far too young of leukemia in 1986, just as her star was ascending with regular gigs on both PBS’s “Prairie Home Companion” and “Austin City Limits” and a successful recording of a song called “Give Yourself to Love.”

She not only sang but wrote and organized and guided the area’s unique music in the transitional era of the 1970s. (Often, in fact, she was at the start and the center of the songs that those of us of a certain age are still singing, still know all the words, perhaps still own the vinyl.)

WRITER GERALD HASLAM has summed up Kate’s place in the broad spectrum of California music. The retired Sonoma State English professor knows country music well. He grew up in the Bakersfield suburb of Oildale, right around the corner from grammar school classmate Merle Haggard. His excellent book on the subject is just one entry in a long list of literary credits.

On a recent visit at his oak-shaded Penngrove home, Gerry remembered Kate as he had written of her in his 1999 volume on California “country” called “Workin’ Man Blues” — a distinct talent who created a unique country-folk brand attracting “a heterogeneous audience of farmers and ranchers, back-to-earth hippies, suburbanites, and, increasingly, feminists.” Kate’s kind of feminism he describes as “unabashed but not shrill.”

He writes of the “intimacy” of her music and her refusal to “go southern.” He credits her with staying with the “old-timey” acoustical accompaniment and being among the small group of songwriters of her time who could honestly be regarded as a poet.

HUGH SHACKLETT is a poet as well. He has not only written, played and sung original Sonoma County music for the past four decades, he also is the acknowledged chronicler of that transformative era. For a half-century he has played and sung the songs of the region and written his fair share of them.

As part of a duo known as the Perfect Crime, with the late schoolteacher-minstrel John Brandeburg, Hugh has been in the midst of it all the since “folkies” gathered on weekend nights at the Painted House on College, just east of Mendocino, to sing along with the new music of a duo calling themselves Wildwood Flower.

Kate and her then-husband, Don Coffin, a first-rate player of anything with strings, made what would come to be regarded as the “debut” of that Sonoma County Sound. They were seldom alone on the makeshift stage. The “Crime” often joined them.

“It was a synergistic process,” Shacklett recalls. “More music, more new songs … All of us fledgling singer/song writers had a place to display our wares. We were trying out a new song every weekend.”

The Painted House, as Hugh remembers, led to some interest from Berkeley’s innovative KPFA radio station and a closer-to-home three-year Sunday night spot on KSRO, which was then broadcasting from the other end of that block on College Avenue.

Shacklett credits Kate with being the inspiration to other musicians. “She was a ‘doer,’ he recalls, “She made it happen.”

“The takeaway was a environment healthy for being creative. People like me had as many gigs as we wanted. The more the environment flourished the more musicians emerged,” Shacklett said. Some of the songs he is proudest of were written in that era, including “Everybody’s Looking for the Same Thing,” inspired by “wanted” notices on a bulletin board outside one of the county’s iconic country stores” — “old Chevy, bass player, country house on three acres, three bedrooms, absolutely free.”

ED LaFRANCE has another of the area’s “music memories” to be reckoned with. LaFrance, a retired communications instructor from Santa Rosa Junior College, came to town in the late ’60s to run KVRE, the acknowledged “western” station. It was owned by the same man that owned The Squirrel Cage, a bar at 5th and A streets that LaFrance describes as “a fightin’ bar,” defined as “a place where they put chicken wire in front of the bandstand so that when the fight started, the band wouldn’t get hurt.”

Under LaFrance’s management, KVRE encouraged an upgrade to the western music scene. New clubs like the Roarin’ Twenties in Roseland brought in Bonnie Owens, whose then-husband, Merle Haggard, stood up from the audience and sang three songs. Resident talents like Ace Atkins, who drove a gravel truck and considered music an entertainment, not a living, got airtime, as did Sal Sage — generally billed as “Sal Sage and His Horse” — a “singing cowboy from Penngrove who played at least three decades locally and was a regular on the rodeo circuit, including an annual gig (with his horse) at the Cow’s Palace’s Grand National.

Then, the early ’70s, when Kate Wolf brought her family, her talent and her energy to gather an entourage of innovators and write another verse for America’s “country song,” KVRE was all aboard. Ed hired Kate for a two-hour Sunday gig as a DJ.

THERE WERE many factors in Kate’s rise. A new university was among them. Sonoma State students increased her fan base.

By 1977, Wildwood Flower was on tour across the country and, inevitably, in ’79, she said goodbye to Sonoma County and went off to play at venues like Wolf Trap and to challenge the national scene.

But she never really left. She was back every year to play here, whether for a benefit for Santa Rosa’s recreation program, a gathering at People’s Music in Sebastopol, a Christmas festival at the county fairgrounds, at Mark Braunstein’s Inn of the Beginning or at the Cotati Cabaret. The Sonoma County sound was almost a brand name.

Don’t for a minute think that Kate was an unwitting participant in all this, swept into the limelight by the whirlwinds of change.

She was the whirlwind. From the old Painted House days, she gathered musicians for word-of-mouth concerts in O’Connell’s Grove to create the original Sonoma County sound. She achieved a degree of respect on the national scene and stood on the brink of real musical fame when she died.

Her music and her name did not die. The annual Kate Wolf Festival, which began modestly at Caswell Vineyards in Graton now gathers thousands of people for four days each summer at Black Oak Ranch north of Laytonville to hear the top names in the kind of music she loved — many singing her songs.

One of the “regulars” is Nina Gerber. Nina was a Sebastopol teenager, a mandolin student of Don Coffin’s, when she was first invited to sit in with them at a concert in ’76. At 16, she was already very good. Today she’s one of the best in the business, touring with top-tier musicians like Karla Bonoff and Eliza Gilkyson. She’s still a “local.” She is half an ” acoustic duo with Chris Webster. She and Chris are also half of the Duo Quartet with Pam Delgado and Jeri Jones.

Whenever she plays, Nina says, “we always make sure to play a couple of Kate’s songs — to keep her music alive.

That’s also the mission of Kate’s son, Max Wolf. He and Nina went through multiple tracks from Kate’s concerts on the North Coast between ’79 and ’82 to choose 20 songs the for the most recent Kate Wolf album called “Live in Mendocino,” on her Owl Records label.

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