Since 1975, Kathy Kallick has released 14 albums and recorded over 100 of her original songs, including four “solo” albums for Sugar Hill and Copper Creek Records.
Kathy has won a Grammy and two IBMA Awards for her part on True Life Blues: The Songs Of Bill Monroe and she was recently recognized with a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the California Bluegrass Association.
What originally interested you about songwriting? Why was it something you wanted to do?
I started writing songs as soon as I started learning to play music. When I was 9 or 10, I had a try at writing a minuet when I was first learning to play the piano. It’s always been intriguing to me, and an irrepressible urge.
I started playing guitar when I was 11, and began making up my own tunes as I learned to play chords. I had written a few, and then my dad brought me the brand-new first Janis Ian recording, “Society’s Child.” She was a few years older than me, and I was blown away at the thought of her having written this amazing song, and actually recording it!
I was also a Beatlemaniac, and I loved those songs, and then started learning contemporary folk songs by Joni Mitchell, Tom Rush, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan – all kinds of people. My folks were taking me to folk events, The University Of Chicago Folk Festival and other concerts, where I heard the likes of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, Odetta, the Clancy Brothers, Malvina Reynolds, Muddy Waters, and Bill Monroe. In high school, I flipped for James Taylor and then, of course, Carol King. Also, my mom was a singer and performer of all kinds of roots and folk music and all these sounds percolated around in my brain.
Then I heard local boys John Prine and Steve Goodman. Those guys could really write some songs! Smart, heartfelt, poetic, funny, topical, passionate songs, and I started writing songs in earnest. So earnest! I wanted to be a really good songwriter, and it definitely took a while.
I wanted to capture everything I’d heard, from Hank Williams to Laura Nyro, in one song. My first many songs were very mannered and unreal sounding. I hadn’t found my own voice yet. Still, my friends were nice, and they really liked to hear me sing my songs.
I left a thriving folk scene in Chicago and came to the Bay Area, where I couldn’t find the same songwriting community, but I did land in the heart of traditional bluegrass in California. My first task was trying to learn some bluegrass songs, and even a tiny bit of what that sounded like. I also started learning to play string bass to play in the evolving Good Ol’ Persons, and these things put my songwriting on the back burner for a bit.
The rest of the bluegrass community was pretty traditional, and nobody was writing their own material — except for Rich Wilbur with High Country. Rich had been in the band before I moved to the west coast, and was still in the area when I started playing. I loved his songs on the High Country records, and he was a big inspiration to me. I remember going to visit him in Pt. Richmond and getting a listen to what he was writing in the late ’70s. He was really into reggae and country, and finding a songwriting place between the two – which was not really bluegrass.
Pretty early on I tried to adapt some of the songs I’d written to the band format, but nothing translated. My first songs for the band were really more country songs, or kind of honky-tonk sounding, like (Just Tonight) Pretend You’re Mine. Then I tried to emulate the sound of bluegrass songs and came up with You’re The Song, which was pretty good sounding, but not really from my own voice. It really took me a while to figure out how to satisfy my need to write and sing my own songs, and capture what I loved more and more about the sound of bluegrass.
As a West Coast songwriter who now has a substantial catalog of songs including many in the bluegrass genre, how did you find a unique and original voice in a community that tends to have rather strict ideas of what is — and what isn’t — bluegrass music?
I was interested in writing songs I could sing in a bluegrass context that were from a woman’s point of view, or, at least, accessible to a woman’s voice. I learned stuff that had been sung by other women, like Kitty Wells and Hazel and Alice, but I’m an urban, modern, northern Jewish woman, and that’s pretty far removed from the perspective of most bluegrass!
I was thinking about Bill Monroe’s songs, and how specific they were to his experience. He told his story, quite plainly and personally, and those songs became the universal repertoire of bluegrass singers. So, I took that as the model and tried to write a bluegrass song from my own life, as if Bill Monroe was the daughter of divorced parents from Chicago. Far fetched, but that’s how I located my first bluegrass song, Broken Tie.
My other breakthrough was letting go of writing a fast song. I guess I think a medium up-tempo song might be the heartbeat of bluegrass.
The thing is, the first time Bill Monroe heard Broken Tie, he actually listened and he really loved it. We were playing at his festival in Bean Blossom, Indiana, and he told me it was a “fine bluegrass number,” and said he’d like to hear it in every set. Then he stood out in the audience every time we played and watched to see if I’d sing the song. You bet I did.
After such a vote of confidence from the Father Of Bluegrass music himself, I had my assignment. Write songs from my own point of view, and keep it real, and bluegrass. Not everything I’ve written is bluegrass, by a long shot, but I really know I can write a good bluegrass number.
I remember listening to you play some of your original bluegrass songs (like I Can’t Stand to Ramble) with the Good Ol’ Persons at Paul’s Saloon (San Francisco) in the early 1980s. In the years since, you’ve led other bands and performed with so many other legendary musicians. How has your experience performing with others informed your approach to writing original music?
Oh yeah, I Can’t Stand To Ramble. I love that song and I haven’t sung it in a long time. Maybe I should dust that one off. That’s a good example of my trying to express a point of view that’s more feminine. You know, after all those Don’t Fall In Love With A Rambler-type songs, I thought: some folks like to sit and watch the flowers grow around their front door, and that could be bluegrass too.
All the musicians I’ve played with over the years have had their influence on me, on my singing, playing, and songwriting. I definitely write to the strengths of the folks I’m playing with. So, songs take on a bluesy, swingy, Latin, jazzy, rockin’, country, ballad, or kick-ass feel at different times. If I’m playing in a band with great harmony singers, every song has lots of three part harmony. If I’m in a band with killer soloists, that will effect the layout of a song. If the band has one hot groove, I’ll wind up writing songs that really live in that groove.
Playing in a band with John Reischman for all those years sure colored my songwriting, and we co-wrote and collaborated on some songs, which was great. That ’80s era of the Good Ol’ Persons (with John, Sally, Bethany, Paul, and Kevin) really enabled me to flourish as a songwriter. The band was so supportive and open to ‘most anything. The ten years with the original Kathy Kallick Band (Avram, Tom, and Amy) launched another spate of songwriting, and those folks loved to dig in and work on new stuff.
All along, there have been songs that didn’t fit into the current band sound, or into a bluegrass context, and I’ve often saved those for other situations, like the duet gigs with Nina Gerber. I started bringing odd unfinished bits of songs to Nina, and she could breathe life into them. Pretty soon I started writing with that in mind, leaving room for Nina to embellish and complete songs. There are songs I only play with her that just stay in the dark between times. And then it’s fun to throw a real burner at Nina and see her strut her bluegrass chops!
I’ve loved collaborating and co-writing with Scott Nygaard. He’s got guitar voicings I would never dream of, as well as rhythms and accents and vocabulary that are way out of my realm, so the songs go someplace I could never take them on my own. That’s a big thrill.
More recently I’ve had the honor of playing bass and singing with Mac Martin, a bluegrass pioneer and icon. His phrasing has been elusive for me, and I’ve had to work to sing with him, to match his quicksilver shorthand style of phrasing, which is really loose and conversational and so bluegrass! I just wrote a song that required me to apply that style in order to sing the thing. I was struggling to sing my own song until I realized where the phrasing came from, and had that “Oh yeah!” moment.
Part 2 of my interview with Kathy will be published next week, including her thoughts about what inspires her to keep writing original music and answers the question “What have you learned from your personal journey as a songwriter that might be helpful to others walking their own creative path?”
Continue reading: Kathy Kallick Interview, Part II
Kathy’s CDs can be previewed or purchased here: