“He was a legend in his time / I don’t know the reason why / When he’d sing a song / You know I’d like to cry”, Kate Wolf sang of another singer whose death was a surprise, Gram Parsons. Wolf died in 1986 of leukemia, 10 years after her debut album Back Roads. She too had a voice that could make you cry unexpectedly, but with different qualities — not otherworldly and piercing, more good-hearted and next-door-neighbor-friendly, which made it all the more affecting. She had a generosity in her singing: the ability to convey deep sadness, but also understanding. While a charismatic singer-songwriter, Wolf shared the spotlight with her band, lending her albums, especially the first two, a communal, even party-like atmosphere.
Listening to Back Roads, one of five Kate Wolf reissues from Collectors Choice, you imagine a group of people in a room together at someone’s house, singing and playing old country hoedowns, folk story-ballads, and introspective/solitary music. You imagine that because it’s what you’re hearing; the album was recorded in “the living room” of a house. Guitars and fiddles play. Voices join together in harmony. Stories are told, tributes given to friends who passed away. Wolf and friends sing of nature, community, and the struggles of life. There are sad songs, comforting songs, and old-fashioned tear-jerking drinking songs, like “Tequila and Me” and “It Ain’t in the Wine”. “Riding in the Country” has great harmony vocals, fitting for a tale of riding in an old car through the gorgeous countryside: “Sitting on the front seat / With two friends of mine / Going to the country / Sure makes me feel fine”. Other songs pay tribute to the countryside in a way that locates it as a place where people can do things their own way, take the back roads. “The shortest road ain’t always the best”, she sings. The music overall stays away from our stereotypes of a folk-music jam, mostly because of Wolf’s presence at the center. Nothing about her singing is staid or predictable. She’s never less than riveting.
Wolf’s second album, Lines on the Paper (1977), carries that same feeling and the same mix of styles, yet the songwriting is more refined. Even if the songs overall are not sadder, there is more sadness in her singing voice. The album starts sweet, with a love song and the title track’s tribute to creative souls. But there’s loneliness in these songs, and much longing. “You’re Not Standing Like You Used To” is a remarkable description of seeing sadness in another. The chorus: “You’re not standing like you used to / Your clothes are fitting you looser / And there’s a tired shadow hiding in your eyes / Looking like you could use a friend”. Elsewhere there’s a lonesome-prairie song about the inner workings of the heart, a tender if bittersweet kitchen-friendship memory, a stunning a cappella nature fable, singalongs about broken hearts and yearning for someone else, and a joke song, still with truths in it, about people misconnecting (“Everybody’s Looking for the Same Thing”). Throughout Lines on the Paper there’s sadness, but it’s a hopeful one, not dire. Wolf sings “Sitting in the sunshine / Trying to sing the blues away”, and that’s where it sounds like she’s at.
Safe at Anchor (1979), the third album reissued, begins “Here I stand alone again / Reaching out across the sea / Quietly the sun’s gone down / The sailors seek the harbor”. Again, there’s a continual search for connection, but this time the sound of the album itself is somewhat lonelier, more one of isolation. There’s more reliance on piano and guitar, less backing vocals, less of a community mood. She sounds alone, her voice isolated but rich as ever. There are excellent moody love ballads featuring piano, like “Sweet Love” and “Great Love of My Life”. Here songs are a connecting force among isolated people. In “September Song”, Wolf befriends the ghost of a lonely Canadian frontier wife. “Early Morning Melody” relates her morning comforts to others. “Seashore Mountain Lady” connects the sea to the mountains. Songs are invisible lines between lonely people, across distance, while time marches on. “Things are changing / Even without asking”, she observes at one point.
The live double-album Give Yourself to Love returns Wolf to a clear group setting musically, though for a live album the crowd is remarkably silent. It’s not a raucous evening; there’s more stillness than that. Again the focus is on her voice and the songs. The title track becomes an overarching message of sorts, but as message songs go it isn’t too preachy. “Give yourself to love / If love is what you’re after”, she sings, not that demanding but encouraging. If she’s preaching anything, it’s some form of connection between people. After all, “everyone’s looking for some kind of love”, as she sings on the gambler’s tale “Ballad of Weaverville”. The album is a survey of her career, and varied for that, but it has its own weight as an album. There are pleasant harmonies and playing throughout, while Wolf sings more tales of people and their worries. There are covers (“Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, “Peaceful Easy Feeling”), and protest songs. The a cappella “Agent Orange” is especially striking. That song and “The Hobo” are more observational than overbearing, as protest songs go. They are also more external-looking than most of her songs, though all of her work contains the universal fears and longings of humanity.
Wolf died in 1986. Two years later, The Wind Blows Wild was released. Collecting odds and ends, it works better as an album than expected, perhaps because she asked for it to be released after her death. It has its own tone, while still highlighting her unique talent. “Statues Made of Clay” may be one of her best songs, finding a fascinating way to describe shallowness, the slipperiness of people and things. As always there is loneliness and nature. “Monday in the Mountains” pits the peace of nature against the struggles of isolation. Across The Wind Blows Wild there is kindness and generosity in her focus on the human condition. Think of the collection as one last wish for the well-being of humankind, for the healing of the heart. In the song “Rising of the Moon”, she sings, “And I hope the years are happy / And the winters aren’t too cold / And that life won’t treat you badly / I’d like to see you when you’re old”.