Women musicians stand strong at Kate Wolf Music Festival
It’s only right that the Kate Wolf Music Festival, running June 27-30 at the Black Oak Ranch in Laytonville, should feature a strong lineup of women songwriters, singers and musicians.
Now in 24th year, the festival began in 1996 to celebrate the memory, music and life of Northern California folksinger and songwriter Kate Wolf, who died in 1986 at age 44 of leukemia, and the celebration has grown into a large-scale event covering a wide range of music, drawing 5,000 fans over four days last year.
Wolf, who settled in Sonoma County in the early ’70s and lived here for roughly a decade, is still fondly remembered locally but her music has influenced other musicians far beyond the county lines. Wolf wrote close to 200 songs and recorded 60. With more than a dozen albums to her credit, she left behind some influential work, including “Love Still Remains,” which later became a Grammy-nominated single for Emmylou Harris.
“She had a big influence for the relatively short amount of time she was with us,” said Terry Garthwaite, who will perform at the Kate Wolf festival with some other members of Joy of Cooking, Garthwaite’s band from the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Austin singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson, also booked to play the festival, sees Wolf as an early pioneer in the ongoing effort by women musicians to make their own way in an industry long-dominated by men.
“It’s interesting to wonder what Kate might be writing today,” Gilkyson said. “She had an emotional component to her music, but you weren’t being hit over the head with the message.”
With nearly 40 acts, the festival has plenty of male stars, including Kris Kristofferson, Los Lobos, Booker T and John Hiatt, but the spirit of Kate Wolf pervades the atmosphere, with a lineup that includes Austin blues star Ruthie Foster, bilingual Los Angeles singer-?songwriter Perla Batalla and Amy Helm, daughter of The Band’s drummer Levon Helm and singer-?songwriter Libby Titus.
The inclusiveness of the lineup alone underscores the intent of Wolf songs like “Give Yourself to Love.”
“That festival really put me on the map,” said Gilkyson, 67, who comes from a well-known musical family. She’s the daughter of songwriter and folk musician Terry Gilkyson and sister of Tony Gilksyon, who played guitar with the L.A. cult band X.
“I started touring late in my career, and the Kate Wolf Music Festival was one of the first to take me on years ago,” Eliza Gilkyson said. “As a woman, it’s very empowering for me. I feel like it’s my tribe. It’s different, in that I can be free and completely myself there.”
Respect for Wolf’s music and for her namesake festival reaches musicians far removed from the folk style she favored. Denise Kaufman, guitarist for the all-woman rock band Ace of Cups, which broke new ground in San Francisco in the late ’60s, came to Wolf’s music in a roundabout way, co-producing “Finding Water,” an album recorded by Daphne Tse in Hawaii in 2014. One of the tracks is perhaps Wolf’s most famous tune, “Give Yourself to Love.”
“We have never played the Kate Wolf festival,” Kaufman said. “It’s really exciting. We’ve really just started getting back to playing out on the road, after releasing a double album last November and recording another one for release next year.”
For Garthwaite, there’s a more personal connection to Kate Wolf. They were neighbors of sorts in the San Geronimo Valley, where Garthwaite still lives, after Wolf and her third husband, Terry Fowler, moved there in the early ’80s. Wolf was previously married to Saul Wolf and Don Coffin, according to the official website devoted to her life and career, which features a biography co-written by her son, Max Wolf.
“Kate’s writing was the main thing,” Garthwaite said. “She was an exquisite songwriter dealing with larger issues. She was an artist unto herself.”
Both Garthwaite and Gilkyson have worked with Wolf’s longtime collaborator, guitarist Nina Gerber.
“I think of Nina Gerber as Kate Wolf’s left hand,” Garthwaite said. Gerber, who is out on tour, won’t be able to perform at the festival this year.
Women have gained ground in the music field since Wolf’s day, Garthwaite said, but there is still work to be done.
“Things have changed but the industry, like the country, has a long way go toward actually accepting that women have something to offer,” she said. “On the road, you’ll hear ‘You’re a pretty good musician, for being a woman.’”
Gender prejudice persists, said Kaufman, 72, of Ace of Cups, and as the decades passed, women musicians have had to deal a second prejudice: age.
“It’s certainly not balanced between men and women in terms of the music scene, but it’s definitely moving in that direction. The issue we’re raising is not only sexism but ageism,” she said. “No one has a problem with men playing, as long as they’re still vertical. We’re not raising that issue onstage but it’s there because of who we are.”
Garthwaite, 80, finds it laughable that experienced women musicians should face any added scrutiny over their age.
“The age thing is ridiculous,” Garthwaite said. “You still can have fun. Last year, I celebrated my 80th birthday and the release of my new CD with a show at the community center in Sebastopol. I think the music keeps you alive. I’m so lucky to be able to do it.”
You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or email@example.com. On Twitter @danarts