The Boston Globe
|Twelve years after her death at age 44, California songwriter Kate Wolf is a legend in folk and acoustic country music circles.|
When musicians discuss what they admire about Kate Wolf's songs, it is easy to see why the late California songwriter never became rich and famous. They describe her work with words like "calm,'' "still,'' "languid,'' "centered,'' and, above all, "kind.'' These are not words likely to spring to mind while listening to Top 40 radio these days, but they do help explain why, 12 years after her death from cancer at the age of 44, Wolf is a legend in folk and acoustic country music circles. Nanci Griffith has said it was preserving Wolf's legacy, more than any other reason, that inspired her to record her two "Other Voices'' tribute albums.
Although she was a fixture on the West Coast folk scene for years, Wolf was just beginning to receive national attention when she died. Now, 15 highly respected folk and country singers and songwriters, including Griffith, Emmylou Harris, Kathy Mattea, Dave Alvin, Utah Phillips, Lucinda Williams, Peter Rowan, Rosalie Sorrels, Greg Brown, Ferron, and Terry Garthwaite, have recorded a beautiful, hypnotically gentle CD of Wolf's songs called "Treasures Left Behind: Remembering Kate Wolf'' (Red House). It is a hushed classic, filled with quietly soulful performances, warm melodies, and provocative, insightful lyrics.
"Kate Wolf had a real honesty about what she wrote,'' said country star Mattea, who sings a beautifully austere cover of Wolf's anthem, "Give Yourself to Love.'' "My impression is that she was just a person who did what she did; it wasn't about chasing a market or all those other reasons people find to make music these days. Yet her songs are so accessible. There's a real gift to being able to write that simply.''
So much of what made Wolf's songs alluring is evident in "Give Yourself to Love.'' The melody is spacious and welcoming, the words finely carved and heartfelt. But there is a hard edge to the wisdom, too. She does not merely say we must love those close to us, but that love must be a way of life: "Walk these mountains in the rain / Learn to love the wind.'' As in many of Wolf's best songs, the natural world and the interior emotional world become seamless parts of the same landscape.
Some might be surprised to see raw-boned roots-rocker Dave Alvin, of Blasters fame, on this tender anthology. But his version of Wolf's lonesome "These Times We're Living In'' is gritty and dark, highlighting the philosophical toughness that informs even Wolf's most sensitive ballads.
"To me, her songs are similar to Merle Haggard's, in that they seem pretty simple,'' Alvin said. "I don't mean that in any negative way. They were very deceptively written. Some of them can just fly by you, then once you really listen, you find so much in there. What I liked about 'These Times We're Living In' is that it is just brutally honest, and yet it's still a love song. I strive for that when I write; to say things clearly and directly, and yet have a couple different layers underneath. That's a real balancing act, and she did it so well.''
Wolf's songs, however intimate, were always written with clean, graceful melodies others could sing. That helps make this CD such a fluid set, despite the very different artists present. Perhaps as much a factor, however, is the superb production and gorgeously subtle playing of Nina Gerber, Wolf's longtime accompanist and one of the most respected mandolin-guitar players in acoustic music. Both Alvin and Mattea said they signed on as much out of respect for Gerber as for Wolf.
The CD began as an attempt by Gerber to come out from the long shadow Wolf cast over her life. It was hearing her sing at a pizza parlor in Sebastopol, Calif., in 1975 that made Gerber want to be a musician. As she put it, she became nearly a stalker, following Wolf to gigs, taking mandolin lessons from Wolf's husband and accompanist Don Coffin. When that marriage ended, Gerber knew all his parts to Wolf's songs, and became her accompanist from 1978 until her death in 1986.
As Gerber tried to put together a solo record in 1994, Wolf's ghost kept appearing. She thought she should do two of Wolf's songs, since their careers had been so intertwined. She doesn't sing, though, so she mulled over vocalists to invite, and then brooded over what to say about Wolf in the notes.
"At that point, I thought, 'Y'know, I'm making a Kate Wolf album here,' '' she said. "I finally realized this was something I had to do for myself, a real piece of grief work.''
Asked about Wolf's growing legend as a songwriter, she at first begged off, saying it was still hard for her to separate the Wolf she loved so much and worked with so long from the one the public saw. That is in large part, she said, because it is the real Wolf her fans see reflected in her songs.
"I think there's just a simplicity and honesty and soulfulness to Kate's music that's very accessible to everybody,'' said Gerber. "It's all about Kate and her life; but at the same time, it's all about us. There's this commonality she could write with that makes it so easy to relate to her music. She just paid attention to everybody she met and every place she went and wrote from those experiences. She wrote other people's stories and her own. But she would also look at the landscape and be able to write a song about the land she was driving across.''
Often, simply expressing a mood was Wolf's point, the gray pleasures of idling through a cold, rainy day; the deep, quiet joy of a night spent with friends around a kitchen table.
"Love Still Remains,'' which Emmylou Harris sings in a husky moan, starkly evokes the pure, primal ache of still loving someone who is lost to you. Wolf does nothing to dilute the raw essence of loneliness: "It rolls like the tumbleweed out on the open plains / Yes, the love I felt for you still remains.''
"Kate had a difficult life; some terrible things happened to her,'' said folk singer-songwriter Phillips, who was Wolf's close friend since they met at a 1975 folk festival. "But she was able to go back into herself and come out with beautiful songs, filled with compassion and forgiveness and understanding, rather than a persistent whine about how it had gone wrong. I always thought that was miraculous. Even when she was talking about herself, she could do it in such a way that people in every audience would think, 'That's me; that's what I feel.' ''
Phillips sings one of Wolf's most intimate songs, a smartly re-created conversation in which she made collide the chiding phrase "See here, she said'' with tender homilies like "You'd better do the things you dream'' and "Dreams never lie.''
Idaho singer-songwriter Sorrels, a friend of Wolf's since their salad days as aspiring troubadours in the mid-'60s, sings a rivetingly conversational cover of "In China or a Woman's Heart.'' The deceptively plain-spun ballad uses a woman's humble keepsake as metaphor both for a love incompletely answered and the secret emotional life we all harbor inside. Sorrels is battling cancer herself, midway through chemotherapy that is doubly painful since it's preventing her from playing guitar; her prognosis is excellent.
"Kate was an incredibly kind person,'' Sorrels said, "and there was a kind and calm atmosphere about all her songs and the way she delivered them. Her music made people feel safe, I think.
"Her songs are so easy to get next to and remember. When you choose to write about something that's incredibly personal, you have to give up some of that for the people who are listening. You have to know that you can make them part of it; then the song becomes everyone's, instead of your own. She had a real gift for that, and I think it had to do with her curiosity about people and her ability to connect with them. She was very thoughtful. I don't mean that in the sense of buying people presents or whatever; she listened.''
Asked what songwriters can learn from Wolf's work, Alvin said, "Don't lie. If you're the president, you can lie; if you're in the grocery store with a steak shoved down your pants, you can lie. But songs that lie are horrible. Just capture the honesty of the moment; that's what Kate Wolf's songs do.''
Mattea said, "Some songs sound like they have always existed, and someone just found them. 'Give Yourself to Love' feels like that to me; it doesn't sound like somebody made it up. Singing it feels so natural, like a well-worn pair of jeans. I think it is such a rare gift to be able to write in a way that makes other people feel in their lives what it is you are writing about in your own.
"You know, no one gives you a Grammy for the most kind song,'' Mattea continued. "But people do tribute albums to you because you write those kinds of songs. Those are the things that inspire people to want to keep somebody's work alive.''
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