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Off the Beaten Tracks: Kate Wolf – a short life

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ONE of the most poignant songs I can think of is Kate Wolf’s The Wind Blows Wild, her reflections on love, life and death. Taped in the hospital room where she was being treated for leukaemia, it was her last recorded work. Soon afterwards she died, aged just 44. Although her life was short her influence was great and, 35 years after her death, she retains an army of dedicated fans. A music festival has been held every year in her honour although next year’s, sadly, will be the last.

Kathryn Louise Allen was born in San Francisco on January 27, 1942. She was a musical child and from the age of four was taught piano by her grandmother. After spells in Oregon and Michigan, the family settled in Berkeley, California, where Kate carried on with the piano in high school but stopped playing at 16 because she was self-conscious about performing before an audience. However, she continued her musical education, listening to country artists such as the Carter Family, Merle Haggard and Lefty Frizzell – as she put it ‘honest songs and honest singers’.

Aged 19, Kate met Saul Wolf, an architecture student, and they married two years later. Son Max was born in 1964 and daughter Hannah in 1967. Encouraged by friends, Kate began to write songs and decided her future lay in music. The marriage ended amicably at the end of the decade and she moved to Sonoma County, where she worked on a newspaper while singing in bars and restaurants in the evenings. After a couple of years she formed a band, the Wildwood Flower, with guitarist and harmonica player Don Coffin, who would become her second husband. Kate hosted and sang on a couple of country music shows on local radio and was offered funding for an album.

Back Roads, released in 1976, begins with a lovely song, Lately, followed by the equally affecting Emma Rose, both of which typify the great warmth of Kate’s voice. These are among eight originals on the LP, including the title track, while one of four cover versions is The Redtail Hawk, written by George Schroder. The album is attributed to Kate Wolf and the Wildwood Flower, as is its successor, 1977’s Lines on the Paper. The latter’s sleeve notes say: ‘Like Back Roads, this record was recorded live in a living room over a period of one week with almost no overdubbing. The band, sound crew and cooks took over the bunkhouse at Chanslor Ranch overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with horses and sheep on the hillsides and pinball machines a five-minute drive away in Bodega Bay.’ Favourite tracks include I Don’t Know WhyYou’re Not Standing Like You Used To and The Trumpet Vine plus the final two, Midnight on the Water and Lay Me Down Easy

After many gigs in California Kate began a national tour including a string of dates in the East organised by her friend Bruce ‘Utah’ Phillips, plus several folk festivals. Among her entourage was guitarist and mandolin player Nina Gerber, who would later recall: ‘I first saw Kate perform in 1975 at a pizza parlour in Sebastopol, California. My brother told me I should hear this woman sing, that she was really good. That was the understatement of the century! Kate’s soulfulness and music really went straight to my heart that evening and has remained there ever since.

‘After hearing Kate for the first time it became crystal clear to me that I had to become a musician, and my number one goal was to be in Kate Wolf’s band. So I began my music career by taking lessons from Don Coffin . . . and in 1977 began touring and recording with Kate.’ It was a musical relationship which would last the rest of the singer’s lifetime.

In 1979 Kate and Don separated, bringing an end to the Wildwood Flower. That same year saw the release of her third album, Safe at Anchor, comprising ten original songs and no cover versions. The first, title track is a gentle beauty, with mandolin, accordion and piano blending perfectly in the background. Track two, Early Morning Melody, could almost be late-Sixties Joni Mitchell. As the sleeve notes by journalist Philip Elwood say: ‘Kate Wolf has a naturally gorgeous voice; a deep, rich, beautifully tuned vocal instrument.’ The record is co-produced by Kate and an old friend, Bill Griffin, who also plays piano. Elwood goes on: ‘Griffin, as you will note from the very first stanzas, has a feeling for Kate’s voice – he treats it with affection, supporting it with original and enhancing instrumental mixes.’

Album number four, Close To You, came out after a two-year gap and was worth the wait. The first track, Across The Great Divide, was voted her third-best song of all time in a poll by Wolf fans. Going one better was Friend of Mine, with words by Kate and music by her, Nina Gerber and bass player Ford James. The title track, thankfully, bears no relation to the song of the same name by the Carpenters. Again, Griffin carries production duties with aplomb, this time in conjunction with another old friend, Tom Diamant.

The next release, in 1983, was a live double, Give Yourself To Love, recorded at concerts in Nevada and California. The title track, written for a friend’s wedding, topped the fans’ favourites chart and became Wolf’s anthem. As for other people’s songs, she sure knew how to pick ’em. For example Jack Tempchin’s Peaceful Easy Feeling, covered by the Eagles, and Sandy Denny’s Who Knows Where The Time Goes? In my view no version could ever approach the world-class Fairport Convention performance on Unhalfbricking, but Kate comes nearer than most.

At this point, exhausted, she decided to take a break from music and spend more time with her third husband Terry Fowler, owner of a food distribution company. ‘The road is wearing me down,’ she said. ‘I feel my health slipping . . . For twelve years I had been moving fast and furious with my career, so I thought it was time to take a sabbatical.’

In late 1985 Kate went back on the road and flew to Texas for a TV performance on Austin City Limits. This was followed by her final studio album, Poet’s Heart, a collection of nine more original songs. Now a little deeper, her voice sounds better than ever. Standouts include the title trackSlender Thread  and In China or a Woman’s Heart (There Are Places No One Knows).  Prophetically, the final song, See Here, She Said,  begins with the line ‘The sun is sinking in the sea’.

In April 1986 Kate was diagnosed with acute leukaemia. She had chemotherapy and after returning home compiled an anthology of her recordings, Gold in California. She had just completed it when her condition worsened and she returned to hospital for a bone marrow transplant. This left her feeling strong and full of hope but complications from the procedure destroyed her immune system. It was while visiting her in hospital that Nina Gerber recorded her singing The Wind Blows Wild, which I mentioned at the beginning.

Kate Wolf died on December 10, 1986. As she contemplated the end, she said: ‘I live for a sense of a feeling of purposefulness in this world, that I could stop my life at any point and feel that my life has been worthwhile; that the people I’ve loved and my children have all reached a point where their lives are now going to come to fruit. And as far as something I live by, it’s to try to be as alive as possible and feel free to make my mistakes and try to be as honest as I can with myself.’

Gold in California was released soon after Kate’s death. The album The Wind Blows Wild came out in 1988 and apart from the title track is a selection of live performances plus a studio version of Give Yourself To Love. The same year saw the release of a CD of the 1985 TV show, An Evening in Austin

Since then there has been a mixture of anthologies, live recordings and previously unreleased material. In 1998 an all-star tribute album of her songs, Treasures Left Behind, included contributions by, among others, Nanci Griffith, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and Utah Phillips.

Two years earlier came the first annual Kate Wolf Music Festival in Sebastopol, California. In 2001 the venue changed to Black Oak Ranch in Laytonville, California. The event continued, attended by many thousands of fans, until the interruption in 2020 and 2021 of Covid. Next year’s, the 25th, will be its finale since its organisers have acknowledged that they are not getting any younger. As always it will end with a rousing chorus of Give Yourself To Love.

Kate’s flame is kept alive by a brilliant website, katewolf.com, run by her family. A great deal of my information comes from there and I am grateful to her son Max for his help and permission to plunder it freely. I sent him a draft copy of this piece and he kindly corrected a few glitches. This is part of his email: ‘Hi Alan, Thanks so much for the wonderful article! It’s very thoughtful and nicely done. I especially appreciated the inclusions of Early Morning Melody, my favorite . . . Thanks again for putting your heart into Kate’s memory! Warm regards, Max.

What a sweet chap! It clearly runs in the family.

The last word comes from Tom Paxton, who said of Kate: ‘There was a humanity in her singing, a generosity of spirit that never failed to move me. With Kate, the message was always, always, love. I never met a warmer-hearted person.’ 

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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