Her Bluegrass is both Traditional and Personal
By Paul Freeman – San Jose Mercury News (Oct. 20, 2016) and Pop Culture Classics
In untraditional fashion, Kathy Kallick has been helping to keep traditional bluegrass music alive and well.
Kallick, who resides in Oakland, came from Illinois, not Kentucky. And she started out as a folkie. But over the decades, she has established herself as a true bluegrass great.
The title track she wrote for her latest album, “Foxhounds,” is an homage to Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass. Kallick got to know that legend.
“He had a wonderful sense of humor. He was an anachronism. His references were so archaic. He had a joke he told about three people riding in a stagecoach. And the part that was funny was how cramped it was inside a stagecoach. It wasn’t a reference that any of us could understand. But it tickled him and so it made us laugh. So he was kind of living outside of his time.
“He was so curious and open to everything new. He had a great big opinion about things, but he wanted to hear new styles of music. He wanted to meet new people. He wanted to learn blues from a black musician. He wanted to go to a Jewish temple and hear the music that they sang there. He was curious. And he wanted to gain access to the greater world. And I loved that about him. It made him very accessible to me, the Jewish girl from Chicago, living in California. And somehow I could have conversations with this guy, which was really great.”
Kallick had an opportunity to visit Monroe on his farm. The seeds of the “Foxhounds” song were implanted, when Monroe invited his visitors to sit on the porch and listen to the barking of his scampering foxhound puppies.
“I had played with the puppies earlier in the visit,” Kallick recalls. “There were about 15 adorable, tiny wild puppies. And he just went out to the barn and he let all the dogs out. He got up every morning and he walked the complete circumference of his farm and made sure all the fences were solid, so he could let his dogs out to run all around this farm. And he just wanted us to sit and listen to them. And that refers to one of his early songs, called ‘On My Way Back to the Old Home,’ that he actually describes in this song sitting with his dad, listening to the foxhounds.
“And after a while of doing this thing, it took a while for the youngsters to understand – what are we doing here? He went inside and he got his mandolin and he started trying to play along with the sound of those hounds yipping out in the darkness. And just a little way for him to illustrate for all of us how he finds the sounds in his music. He listens to the soundscape of his life and he puts that in his music. It was very inspiring.
“So whatever number of years later, 30 years later, I was thinking about it and thinking about what comfort he derived from that and decided to write a song about it.”
Her upbringing was quite different from Monroe’s. Raised in Evanston, Illinois, outside of Chicago, Kallick absorbed diverse musical influences. Her parents were part of the folk boom. The University of Chicago Folk Festival was an annual outing for the family and they held a lot of music parties at the house, when she was growing up. Her mom was a performing folk singer in the Chicago area and her dad played classical guitar.
Kallick launched as a folk singer, when she was a teenager, inspired by such artists as John Prine and Janis Ian. She moved to California in the mid-70s to attend San Francisco Art Institute and that’s when she got caught up in the bluegrass scene that was happening there.
“It was a very vibrant scene at this one club in San Francisco called Paul’s Saloon. There was bluegrass there every night of the week. I was under 21 and had to sneak in. But I first really fell for the singing of this guy Paul Enright, who was singing with a group called Phantoms of the Opry at the time. And that was my big draw. I loved his singing and I loved the songs he sang. I went to see that band regularly.”
In 1975, she teamed with Laurie Lewis, Barbara Mendelsohn, Dorothy Baxter and Sue Shelasky. “We just got together for fun once a week and then we thought it would be great, if we could work up three songs and go in with an all-woman band and play our three songs at an open mic night… and blow everybody’s minds. And we did that,” Kallick says, laughing.
That evolved into the Good Ol’ Persons, which thrived until 1995 and has occasionally reunited since then. With varying lineups, the group incorporated diverse styles – swing, folk, country and Cajun – into its bluegrass.
While still an all-female band, they were welcomed into the scene. “A few guys were fussy, but in the Bay Area, we were lucky to have a lot of male musicians who were very supportive. Elsewhere in the country, women were really not encouraged to play professionally. But that was not the case here.”
Those were valuable years for Kallick. “I learned everything about being in a band. I had never played in a band. I’d been a solo folk singer. All the dynamics of arranging for a group of people and turning the focus from one person to another, making sure everybody’s featured, the conversation that goes on between the different instruments during a song – it’s a rich and complicated music form. And it’s not just everybody playing their own thing while one person stands there and sings. Everyone is part of the fabric of each song, adding their specific part of the rhythm and then soloing and all the rich and complicated vocal harmonies, which are such a draw for me. I’m still learning all about it,” she says, laughing.
Kallick loves the energy of a group. “I’ve never wanted to go back to being a solo performer. I really enjoy the interaction among the musicians. That’s what really keeps me engaged.”
She now sings lead and plays guitar in the Kathy Kallick Band, whose lineup includes fiddler Annie Staninec, mandolinist Tom Bekeny, Greg Booth on dobro and banjo and Cary Black on acoustic bass. All contribute to the soaring harmonies.
“I’ve been playing music in bands for 40 years and what I really hope for is a personnel that will stay together for years, so that the music can really deepen and we can really invent things. This group has been playing together long enough to really have a comfortable dialogue.”
Kallick lives in Oakland. The rest of the band is scattered through California, Washington, Oregon and Alaska. MP3s allow them to learn new material. When they have time to rehearse in person together, they treasure the occasion.
“You kind of take it for granted, when you’re all in the same town. Now it is very special, so we have to really make the most of our time, when we’ve got the band together, really work on developing new songs or getting the harmonies tighter. We talk, catch up, drink some wine. It’s a celebration for us, every time we get together.”
It’s a celebration for audiences every time they’re treated to one of the Kathy Kallick Band’s rousing performances.
Kallick is married to bluegrass disc jockey Peter Thompson, who can be heard Saturday nights on San Francisco’s KALW. “We met 25 years ago, when he interviewed me at a bluegrass festival,” she says. “It was a good conversation. And three weeks later, he had some more questions. He just kept coming back with more questions, till we realized, “Okay, this is more than an interview,” she says, laughing. “We are pretty interested in having this conversation.”
Audiences are engaged by what Kallick has to say, as well. The band does performs renditions of classics, but primarily focuses on Kallick’s stirring original songs, including those from the “Foxhounds” album, which reached number one on the bluegrass charts.
“Bluegrass is a style of music that has a lot of different musics in it – the origins of Celtic music, the blues, gospel, country. And once I started trying to write my own songs that expressed my experience, it just gave me such a bigger field to explore.
“This was music that was rural, male music, coming from the Southeastern part of the United States. And all the songs were written from those people’s perspectives and from their experiences. I loved the sound of the music and the various rhythms of it and the feel and the energy and the drive. But early on, I wanted to write my own songs that would have subject matter that would be more specific to me.”
So she began writing songs from a woman’s point of view. “I’m writing as a modern woman and an urban woman. So that was a big assignment,” Kallick says, laughing, “to start to speak for women from big cities who were wanting to be part of this music.”
Over the years, Kallick has grown more outspoken about expressing, in song, women’s experiences. The title song from the album “Walkin’ In My Shoes” depicted the story of a woman who stays in a relationship with an abusive man.
“That situation is very puzzling to me and very scary. So I decided to try and investigate by writing a song about it from that woman’s point of view. That song got so much airplay on bluegrass radio, in the Southeastern part of the country. And male DJs really responded to that song. And I’ve never really known if they listened to the lyrics and thought about the content or just liked the hard-driving sound of it. It’s very banjo-driven.
“I wasn’t sure if they just went, ‘Yeah, this is a song about a gal who likes shoes! My wife likes shoes, too!’ I just never knew exactly what it was that got it so much airplay. Maybe they just wanted a fast, hard-driving song,” she laughs. “But it’s always been interesting to me and I’ve been pleased with that song, that it was so well received.”
Sometimes appealing music is an enticement to get listeners to, perhaps even subconsciously, absorb challenging lyrics.
“I definitely think that happens. I definitely think a catchy groove is the way in,” Kallick says with a laugh, “in all kinds of music. If you catch a person with a melody and you get a melody that will stay in people’s heads, that’s accessible, that’s going to grab on pretty quick. Or a lyrical hook, one set of words that really resonates. But the magic of a song is if you have melody and words that go together to stay in people’s ears for a little while after they’ve heard it and make them want to hear it again. That’s very elusive. That’s what any songwriter/composer is trying to come up with.
“But it is fun to try and sneak your little messages into your music. And if you’re subtle, you can say and do a lot of things,” Kallick laughs.
Kallick made sure she knew the genre well before she began trying to write songs of her own.
“I studied the classic bluegrass songs very closely as I was learning bluegrass, because it wasn’t natural for me to be able to sing and play bluegrass. I’d heard it a little bit, growing up, going to these folk festivals. But it wasn’t a style of music that I grew up hearing all the time in my home. My mom sang a variety of things and a lot sources are the same; Carter Family songs, she sang. And those are a source for bluegrass songs, as well.
“But when I first started singing bluegrass, I tried to study Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers, Lester Flatt, Jimmy Martin, Jack Cooke. I tried to listen to these guys very carefully and sang along with them, as best I could. I tried to learn how to sing with bluegrass nuance and inflection and where all the accents go. And I sang along with them until I could sing it in my own voice.
“At the same time, I tried to start writing songs, because, for me, that’s one of the ways I understand music. But it took me years to be able to write a song that really sounded like a bluegrass song, because I had learn about bluegrass and what made bluegrass sound like bluegrass. So it took me about seven years of listening and trying before I wrote what I think is my first bluegrass song.
“And the key was to think about the songs that Bill Monroe wrote, because he’s the first bluegrass singer-songwriter. And he wrote songs very plainly about his own life experience, about his parents, about growing up on a farm, about sitting with his father, listening to the foxhounds.
“But the very first bluegrass song that I wrote was really just about me and what it was like coming from Chicago and being the daughter of divorced parents. And there was no bluegrass song about that. So it was wide open territory. And I kept it really simple and short, four verses, and tried to have it sound like a Bill Monroe song. And that was kind of the key for me to find my way into writing a bluegrass song.
“And Bill Monroe heard me sing that song, because he hired the Good Ol’ Persons to play his festival in Beanblossom, Indiana. And he liked the song. He told me it was a good song and I should sing it every time I played. And I pretty much have. I like to start a show off with it. It reminds me of the torch I’m carrying.
“It’s a great song for me to open with – I know it really well. The band knows it really well. The sound man can have three-and-a-half minutes to get everything dialed in while I’m remembering the first bluegrass song and thinking about it while I’m singing it. Anyone who comes to a show will probably hear that song. That song is called ‘A Broken Tie.’ And it’s my oldest bluegrass song. And in the shows now we’re playing songs from the new album, ‘Foxhounds,’ which is again, my coming back and looking at Bill Monroe and thinking about him and the songs he wrote and how he got there.”
She says her songwriting process unfolds in different ways. “Sometimes a song just comes to me. That’s often what happens. It’ll come in pretty quickly, the whole song, maybe not in five minutes, but maybe in 24 hours I’ll have the whole thing. And sometimes I have something that takes a little longer. I have to put it down and come back to it… especially if I have given myself a kind of assignment – writing a song from a specific point of view or addressing some kind of subject matter, it’s not just coming out of my own experience.”
Kallick has been able to take her music around the world. “I’ve had the opportunity to travel a lot playing music. I’ve had a chance to be somewhat of an ambassador, going to other countries and bringing this American music form. And I’ve made very dear friends all over. I love when I get to see these people again and again, as I travel, people I stayed with back in the 90s or the 80s, on tour, say in Germany, family, that we stayed with, and maybe stayed with them on five tours. And then they come to the United States and they come to bluegrass festivals and I get to hang around with them backstage. They’re lifelong friends – and it’s all because of this music. That’s why we met.”
One tour took Kallick and her band to Slovenia, very shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain. “It was very moving to play music for people who had been listening to bluegrass behind closed doors with a towel stuck under the bottom of the door, so nobody could hear, because it was not okay. It was not okay for them to listen to American music. It was a type of contraband. If they were listening, they had smuggled in some American music.
“So when it became opened and we could go and play in one of those places and they could go and see us live, these people were so moved to meet Americans playing this style of music that they had sought out and listened to secretly, that they had tears in their eyes. It was very moving for them and so, of course, memorable and moving for us, as well.”
In her Good Ol’ Persons days, Kallick wasn’t widely considered a traditional bluegrass artist. But times have changed. The new album, in addition to originals, includes a Monroe classic, “Kentucky Mandolin.”
“When I started doing bluegrass, I was doing some things that were outside of the tradition. For one thing, I was a woman. I was changing the keys of the traditional songs. I was trying to sing them as traditionally as I could, but my voice was higher. So that made all the people that I was playing with have to play songs in a different key from where they were recorded. And then I started writing my own songs and the band I was in – the Good Ol’ Persons – liked to play some Irish music, some country music, maybe a Cajun song, some swing numbers. So were sort of seen as not traditional. Some people even said we weren’t a bluegrass band, because we didn’t have a traditional Scruggs-style banjo player in the band. So people said, you’re not really a bluegrass band, you’re more of a folk-country-string band or something.
“But over the years, bluegrass has opened up so much and every generation that comes in opens it up more. Everybody’s writing their own songs now. Every album that comes out is full of everybody’s original songs. It’s not unusual. And everybody’s looking outside of bluegrass for other sources of music that they can play in their bluegrass band. So it’s very common to see a contemporary bluegrass band covering a 70s rock ’n’ roll song.
“So over the years, the band that I’m in has become the traditional band, the standard-bearer. Now my group is going to play a Stanley Brothers song and it’s going to sound as much like the Stanley Brothers as we can, because it’s what I’ve always tried to do. So the torch is there, for us to keep playing traditional music and respect and admire that tradition and refer to it as much as possible, while also doing this thing that we’ve always been doing – trying to make our own sound, trying to write our own songs, trying to put our own stamp on it.”
Kallick has also recorded songs for children. “That’s been really fun, too, meeting people now in their 20s who grew up listening to my children’s recordings and getting to see how excited they are, as adults, to see me – ‘Do you still sing that song about the smelly feet?’ That’s been really rewarding, too.”
Teaching at music camps, Kallick is optimistic about the future of bluegrass. “There are wonderful young musicians, just on fire, and so full of passion for this music, and just playing their faces off. I mean, young kids. If you go to a bluegrass festival or the International Bluegrass Convention every year, the hallways are filled with kids who are so competent and brilliant and fearless in what they’re doing. It’s a fabulous thing to see. It’s very different from when I started.”
Email Paul Freeman at firstname.lastname@example.org.