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The Musical "Back Roads" of Kate Wolf

Chris Samson
The Argus-Courier
Petaluma, California
March 20, 1976

Is there something special about the music being created by Sonoma County musicians?

Kate Wolf thinks so. "We have something unique up here," she said, "a kind of regional music all our own. We're different-not funky Berkeley or slick Los Angeles. We're Sonoma County."

Whatever is happening out here in the country, Kate seems to be right in the middle of it. As a singer and leader of the group Kate Wolf and the Wildwood Flower, as well as a songwriter, radio personality and folk-festival organizer, she is at the forefront of the area music scene.

Kate and her group are not only one of the most popular performing bands in the area, but they are also perhaps the best example of what the music of Sonoma County is all about. They have built up a wide following with their brand of acoustic folk music, playing frequently at clubs in the area (including the Eggery in Petaluma, where they will perform Easter Sunday).

In the last few months, Kate Wolf and the Wildwood Flower have come into their own, and have begun to draw notice from outside the area. This has been largely on the strength of their recently released first album, "Back Roads," which Kate describes as a chronicle of different people and places in Sonoma County in the last few years.

As the album picks up momentum, so is the group. Kate and the band have agreed to perform at two major out-of-the-area concerts next month. The first will be an April 6 date at the Boarding House in San Francisco with U. Utah Phillips and Rosalie Sorrells, to be followed by an appearance at the San Diego Folk Festival.

There are 12 songs on the "Back Roads" album, eight of them written by Kate and the others by musician friends. All of the songs are related to personal experiences and Kate feels the lyrics give the music the "regional feeling." Lyrics are very important in her songs. Listening to the words, Kate's soothing voice and the acoustic instrumental backing, one can soon understand what this "regional music" is about.

Songs like "Emma Rose," "The Redtail Hawk," "Riding in the Country" and the title song are specifically about this area.

"Emma Rose," according, is about a real Sebastopol woman whose name caught her eye on a roadside mailbox one day. Although she had not met the woman when she wrote the song, she used her name to dramatize the threat of subdividers moving into the apple orchards.

There are many older women like her whose husbands died and who now are having trouble running their farm, making ends meet and contending with the developers moving in, according to Kate. A few months ago, Kate received a phone call from the real Emma Rose, who suggested that they meet. "She turned out to be a delightful 81-year-old lady," Kate said, not too much unlike the one the song was about.. Emma Rose recently came to a promotional party for the album and wound up autographing copies of the record.

"Back Roads" perhaps best sums up the feeling of the album. Kate said she hadn't originally intended for it to be the title song, and wasn't even sure at first if she would include it on the album. But she considers it "one of the most lyrically satisfying" of her songs.

Kate wrote "Back Roads" one day after driving back up Highway 101 to her Santa Rosa home. "I just got tired of driving on the freeway and turned off on Roblar Road and took back roads the rest of the way home," she explained.

The record was recorded during a five-day period in a house on the Sonoma County coastline near Goat Rock. Although it was recorded "live," without re-mixing or overdubbing, the album has a clear, rich, professional sound like any studio record.

Kate gives much of the credit for the successful sound of the record to producer and engineer Dan Dugan, who she said handled his recording equipment like it was another musical instrument.

The musicians themselves, of course, received much praise from Kate. Wildwood Flower, Kate said, is basically a "floating band," with herself, husband Don Coffin and fiddler Paul Ellis forming the nucleus. Also performing on the album were Will Siegel, Pete Wiseman and David West, who co-authored two of the songs.

Kate involved herself with a lot more than just the music in preparing the album. She formed her own music publishing company and record company in setting up the album. "It was a real learning experience," she said. The album is the first release on her label, Owl Records, and she hopes more albums will be forthcoming in future years, from other artists as well as her group.

Kate plays guitar and does most of the singing in the group, while Don alternated on guitar, mandolin, harmonica and sing harmony. Paul plays the violin and mandolin and a bass player, sometimes Wiseman, usually completes their group.

Unlike many professional musicians, Kate and Don, who live in a rambling country house on Santa Rosa's outskirts, differ from many professional musicians in that they have successfully integrated their music with their lifestyle. They feel it is important that they have settled down and found a sense of place from which to grow as musicians.

"I think we're fortunate not to be young and trying to make it as musicians on a commercial, competitive basis," said Kate, who is 33 and has a son and daughter aged 11 and 8. "Don and I have become entrenched in the community as people, not just as musicians."

Indeed, Don (a fourth generation Sonoma County resident who was born and raised in Petaluma) has continued his job as a mailman in Sebastopol despite the growing success of their musical career.

Although they say they have some national aspirations, Kate and Don also point out that their songs are not aimed at a commercial market. That is why they wanted to retain artistic control of their music through their own record company.

The competitiveness and commercialism which pervades most of the music industry is not as apparent in Sonoma County, Kate added. She has noticed "a real sense of community among the musicians here which you don't find in many places." There is a lack of the intense competition found elsewhere and this lack of pressure has a lot to do with the special feel of the music.

"It's a really relaxed sound," she said, "with a naturalism that frustrated people who would want to try and market it.."

Although the first printing of 1,000 copies of "Back Roads" is quickly selling in the area and a second printing is soon due, Kate feels that a record must sell itself and not rely on "hype" or promotion.

Sonoma County residents who enjoy the area and who like the music should not pass up "Back Roads." Kate Wolf sings of a philosophy and a sense of place and time that for many will hit close to home:

"I'll take the back roads home through the open countryside
Letting things slip by in drawn out time
I'll take the long way home on the back roads of this life
Taking time to see what goes by.
Coming and going, there's no dividing line
What you're headed for, someone left behind
And the shortest road ain't always the best
Sometime let a back road take you home."

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