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Music Review: Kate Wolf – Back Roads

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Sadly, I was not fortunate enough to have seen Kate Wolf perform in concert. I was in a different place, at a different time, and, up until now, her music has largely passed me by.

However, there seems to be one thing that holds the people who did see her, together. Kate was a performer whose songs were so touching that she somehow managed to connect to each member of the audience in a powerful and memorable way. It was as if she was singing personally for each and every one of them.

Now, twenty-three years after her tragically early death at the age of 44 from leukemia, five of her albums have been lovingly re-released by Collectors Music Choice.

Last week Blogcritics own David Bowling reviewed the last in the set, The Wind Blows Wild, a posthumous collection of studio recordings alongside live performances. It is the first in the series, Back Roads, originally released in 1976 on Kate’s own Owl Records label, that I now turn to.

Kate’s life, which began in San Francisco in 1942, is detailed on her official website. It is a fascinating read. For example, in 1971 she amicably left her husband and children for Sonoma County to finally pursue her musical calling. For six months she lived in her ’57 Chevy and in the evenings would perform at local bars.

Many of these early songs are included on Back Roads. Despite the obvious indications on the album few, especially perhaps Kate herself, would have realized what those songs would lead to. Subsequently her name is often quoted as being hugely influential among songwriters and her memory is celebrated every year since 1996 at the Kate Wolf Memorial Festival.

This has attracted many well known folk artists such as Donovan, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Arlo Guthrie, Richard Thompson, and Mary Chapin Carpenter, amongst many others.

It was George Schroder, who wrote the beautifully haunting "Redtail Hawk" which appears on Back Roads, who told her “anyone can write a song. Just sit down and sing your conversations”. Clearly, he knew that Kate had a lot of observations to share on life, love, and many other experiences and emotions.

Performing steadily grew in importance to her and she formed her first band The Wildwood Flower alongside future husband Don Coffin. Back Roads is strongly representative of the songs that were part of her life at that time. Eight original compositions, all of which provide early signs of her gifted song writing style, are included alongside four ‘cover’ songs by artists she felt ‘should be recorded’.

Opening with the wonderful “Lately”, Kate then takes us through the sad story of “Emma Rose” before going up-tempo on “Sitting On The Porch”. Further original compositions follow including the sadly prophetic “Goodbye Babe”, “Tequila & Me” where she duets with husband Don, the rousing “Riding In The Country”, the gentle reflection of “Oklahoma Going Home”, and the crushingly beautiful title track itself.

In acknowledgment of George Schroder’s inspiration she includes her memorable interpretation of his composition “The Redtail Hawk”. She followed this the next year with Lines On The Paper. This was the album, also re-released, that saw her begin to gain wider recognition. This brought her back to the Bay Area to perform and in 1977 she embarked on her first national tour.

By 1979 she had parted company with husband Don and this brought an end to The Wildwood Flower. Her first ‘real’ studio album arrived with Safe At Anchor which is also part of the re-release series.

A double live album Give Yourself To Love is also included, and was also recently reviewed on Blogcritics by David Bowling. It acts as a timely reminder of the intimacy of her live performances. At times you can literally hear the proverbial pin drop as the audience listens intently to every word. She opens with the title track which is perhaps her best remembered song.

"I live for a sense of a feeling of purposefulness in this world, you know, 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”, Kate is quoted as saying on her website.

In many ways this proved tragically prophetic. When she succumbed to her illness she left behind a timeless collection of music that remains as touching and strong today as when it first appeared.

Back Roads successfully highlights her remarkable ability to write lyrics that connect to the listener’s own emotions or experiences. Perhaps this is again best explained by Kate herself who said, "sometimes we just can't find the words, but we all have those same feelings. You feel these things, and you don't think it's okay to say them, or you can't quite get the words, and then it comes, and it's just this breaking loose: you have a way to say it."

Lovingly restored and re-packaged, this set will delight not only her many fans but also lovers of quality folk musicianship. Remarkable music from a remarkable lady this is a series that will further elevate Kate Wolf’s music to its rightful position.

Please refer to David Bowling's reviews of The Wind Blows Wild and Give Yourself To Love by following the links above. Also please visit Kate’s website which is lovingly maintained by her family.

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