Gaye LeBaron: Remembering Kate Wolf and the Sonoma County sound
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.”