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Kate Wolf: "She Owns Herself"

The Hartford Advocate
Jim Rigby
Hartford, Connecticut
September 28, 1977

Western singer Utah Phillips once introduced Kate Wolf to an audience, saying, "I'd like you to meet Kate Wolf. She owns herself."

The off-handed description could hardly be more appropriate for the country/folk singer who recently made an appearance at The Sounding Board in Hartford. Kate is one of the growing number of artists who are producing their own recordings, without the financial and promotional backing and hang-ups of large record companies.

Kate started singing in the late '50s in California coffee houses, but marriage and two children put the brakes on her performing career. It was not until 1971 that she began to seriously work at a music career again, when she put her talents to work for other artists as the producer and host of a live radio show called Uncommon Country, spotlighting small record labels and local artists rarely heard on commercial radio.

Her own career as a performer took a leap in 1976 with the release of first album, Back Roads. Kate chose to retain total control over the album, and released it on her own label, Owl Records. Money to finance the release was raised by fans in Kate's home town of Santa Rosa, Calif.

Such a production is not unusual for a performer like Kate. What makes it unique is that the album sold 8,000 copies in one year and had to be re-issued twice. Although 8,000 albums is peanuts to an industry that relegates records that sell less than 100,000 copies to the cut-out rack, it is a phenomenal sales figure for an artist-produced record with only word-of-mouth promotion behind it.

"The only way an artist can get a fair shake from the industry is to do it yourself first," Kate said following the concert. "You set a track record and then you can deal with the music industry. There's a whole thing with small labels today and it's going to change the music business."

Kate isn't discounting the possibility of signing with a major record company, but indicates that she would be wary of such a contract. "I would get a good lawyer and do it on my terms. I would strive to retain as much control as possible over my music."

Hartford was the last stop for Kate and her husband accompanist Don Coffin on a leisurely three-month East Coast tour. Although relatively well-known in the West, Kate is a newcomer here and the tour held several surprises.

"We had to bring our audience out of the woodwork in California. Here people are hungry for music and appreciative," she said. Don added that "when you go out to California, you have to spend the first year or more just introducing yourself. It's very hard for a performer to make it out there both emotionally and financially."

Both performers were delighted in the warm reception they had received at most stops on the tour. "You sing a line of chorus, and they sing it back at you in five-part harmony," Kate said bemusedly about the Hartford audience.

Kate's repertoire mingles her own compositions with those of country performers from Jimmy Rodgers to Townes Van Zandt.. There is a grace about her performing style, a smoothness that is easy to listen to without relying on the sweetness that many performers in this genre evoke. Her own songs range from the crying-in-the-beer-on-a-Saturday-night "Tequila and Me" to a modern-day unaccompanied Childe ballad called "The Lilac Bush and the Apple Tree." On stage at the Sounding Board, she and Don had fun with the blatantly sexist country hit "I Didn't Know God Made Honky-Tonk Angels," and a reply song recorded by Kitty Wells. Some fast banter between the two singers added to the parody of country-music mores.

The sexist orientation of much of country music doesn't seem to bother Kate. "I think there's a lot of the population that takes comfort from that kind of music," she said, "because that's the situation they live in." Don concurred, "Loretta Lynn and several other country singers have come out with a reaction to that whole mentality, but for a while it just came out of life." Judging from the performance Kate and Don take care to avoid the sexist mentality that pervades so many country repertoires , using it only to satirize the idealized lifestyle portrayed in the music. Don noted, however, that The Sounding Board was the only place on the tour where more people sang along and sang more fervently on the sexist chorus of "Honky Tonk Angels" than on the chorus of the Kitty Wells answer song.

Kate and Don stayed around after the concert to autograph albums and talk to new friends. There's little question that the same word-of-mouth promotion that sold 8,000 albums in California has been quietly started here

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