The bluegrass community generally rewards artists with long careers, yet there are a few who have persevered, even had great success, but have yet to receive their due accolades. Case in point: Kathy Kallick. She is highly regarded as a singer, songwriter, and bandleader, and is much loved and appreciated for her humility and humor. But as Kathy releases her 17th (17th!) album, Time, she has yet to garner the rewards she deserves.
Kathy is—and has been for most of her career—a band-oriented performer. Starting with her first band (the Good Ol’ Persons) in the ’70s to the current Kathy Kallick Band, she approaches music as an ensemble player.
The newest band is as tight and talented as any group playing bluegrass today, with long-time musical partner Tom Bekeny on mandolin, Annie Staninec on fiddle, and Greg Booth on resonator guitar and banjo. Dan Booth, who plays bass on Time, recently joined Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen, but has been replaced by bassist, mandolinist, and singer Sharon Gilchrist, formerly of the Peter Rowan & Tony Rice Quartet.
While it’s not quite right to say that Kathy sculpts her compositions to the strengths of the band, she is open to new sounds that bandmembers bring. Annie Staninec’s old-time sensibility is apparent in the song “Bird,” about which Kathy says, “[Annie] loves these quirky, crooked fiddle tunes and I struggle to learn them, so in the process of playing these tunes, I wrote one.”
It’s that openness to the songwriting muse that has enabled Kathy to write and record well over a hundred of her own songs across those 17 albums. But just being open to the muse doesn’t mean you can write songs. What Kathy brings is a profound artistic sensibility, one based on a lifetime of listening to the world around her. She sees beyond the hackneyed phrases and easy lyric choices, to something deeper, more enduring. She works it.
Kathy says, “I have a really aggressive muse, a really active muse who has insisted on giving me new songs at the most inconvenient times over the years, especially during parenting. There’s not a lot of free time then, but the songs have come oftentimes whole cloth, like there’s a radio blaring in my head and the only thing to do is to write it down.”
She is also a fabulous singer and deserves to be considered for major awards for that alone. Her albums always feature strong harmony vocals and arrangements that support the vocals.
Instrumentally, the Kathy Kallick Band is anchored by Kathy’s rhythm guitar and the Monroe-oriented mandolin style of Tom Bekeny, who has been an integral part of Kathy’s sound for the past 16 years. Kathy says, “Tom is so understated and so unheralded, I really feel on this album that he never stopped surprising. Rhythm is essential and he’s a genius at that.”
As the title of her previous album, Between The Hollow And The High-Rise, suggests, Kathy is aware of the apparent contradiction of a girl from the suburbs of Chicago (and who has spent most of her adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area) developing a deep affinity for hillbilly music. For some, this might be an affectation, but for Kathy, as for many players and singers outside the South, the universal quality of the music spoke to her and changed her life.
Born in Hyde Park and raised in Evanston, Ill., Kathy recalls, “My parents, Bruce and Dodi Kallick, were both very musical people. Dad played classical guitar and recorder. My mom was a wonderful piano player and singer, and they both got bit by the folk music bug in the late ’50s.”
Her mother was an influential voice in the Chicago folk music scene of the ’50s and ’60s. Kathy remembers going to the Chicago Folk Festival and her mother learning mountain dulcimer from the legendary old-time musician Frank Proffitt, who also made a dulcimer for her mother that the family still has. Some of the songs Kathy learned from her were recorded in 2002 on an album called My Mother’s Voice on Copper Creek Records.
Kathy first started playing guitar at ten years old by taking lessons from her mother. The first song she learned was “All The Good Times Are Past And Gone,” which Kathy would later teach to her own daughters, Jen and Maddy. And Kathy recalls a gift from her father: “Dad got me a Charlie Byrd record and a Doc Watson record. He said, ‘Your guitar playing will likely go in one of these two directions.’ He said, ‘One of these will really ring for you.’”
Shortly before her mother passed away in 2007, Chicago-based deejay Rich Warren contacted Kathy about finding recordings of her mother singing sometime in the late ’50s or early ’60s at WFMT. Kathy had not heard them before. Coincidentally, in preparing for the new album, Annie Staninec suggested the song “Long Time Travelin’,” which happened to be one of the songs on her mother’s recording. They listened to it and decided to record Kathy’s mother’s version.
Kathy and Annie sing this as a beautiful and haunting duet—as tight a harmony as a Stuart Duncan double-stop—and it’s a reminder that Kathy has had some wonderful duo partners through the years: “I started off singing with my mom, and then my next singing partner was Laurie [Lewis], and then Bethany Raine in the Good Ol’ Persons, and then Amy Stenberg in the Kathy Kallick Band.”
Kathy began playing and singing in high school. “My mom took me to see a Christmas concert at the Old Town School. John Prine got up and sang three songs and it cracked open a whole new world for me. There was somebody just standing there playing guitar and singing really beautiful, moving original songs about stuff he saw in the world.”
After graduation, Kathy attended the Kansas City Art Institute, traveled and waitressed in Europe, and then moved to Iowa where she met old-time fiddler Pearl Sivetts who asked her to accompany him on guitar at fiddle contests—the first time she played flatpicked guitar.
In 1973, Kathy moved to the Bay Area and attended the San Francisco Art Institute. The plan was to become an artist. “I really thought I was going to be a painter for a long time and playing music was just something I was doing. I was in a painting group of mostly women who were wonderful mentors and fabulous painters.”
Once in the Bay Area, she started hanging out at the legendary venue Paul’s Saloon and began meeting other musicians. Though she didn’t think of herself as a musical artist, it was just a matter of time before things came together to put her in a band.
“I was riding in a car with Barbara Mendelsohn, and she asked if I had ever heard of a song, I think it was ‘Bright Morning Stars Arising’ or something and she said, ‘Wow, you’re a good singer.’ She was already getting together with Laurie and some other women.”
The personnel of the Good Ol’ Persons was originally Barbara Mendelsohn on clawhammer banjo, hammered dulcimer, and spoons; Dorothy Baxter on guitar; Sue Shelasky on mandolin; Laurie Lewis on fiddle; and Kathy on bass. Paul Shelasky, the first male member of the band, joined six months later. As Kathy says, “There was precedent, but there certainly weren’t groups of women playing. We started in February  at Paul’s Saloon and the Freight & Salvage. The second time, there was a news crew that came and filmed it. The novelty factor was huge. Five women playing music together without men was different.”
It was also the first time she had played bass. Laurie Lewis showed her the fundamentals and Kathy stayed on bass for the first three years of the group. While Laurie moved on to her own band and career, the two remain good friends and musical partners, recording a duet album in 1991 called Together and now planning a Vern & Ray tribute album to be released in 2013.
Laurie says, “Throughout the nearly forty years that I have known Kathy, she has continually been a source of inspiration for me, through example. She has the ability to mine a seeming mother lode for deeply honest, insightful gems. And her vocal suppleness and tone are to die for. I feel really lucky that I’ve gotten to sing with her for so long.”
It took a while for Kathy to start bringing songs to the group. Once she did, though, the band was encouraging, and Kathy’s songs eventually became one of the reasons for the band’s wider success. “When the GOPs made I Can’t Stand To Ramble, the first album for Kaleidoscope, I had seven of my original songs on there and Tom Diamant, who was owner of the label at that time, was a big supporter of my original material. He wanted to put as many of my songs on that first album as he could. That band was really supportive of me and my songs.”
In 1975, Kathy married bluegrass musician Butch Waller who, along with others such as Pat Enright, were creating a vibrant bluegrass scene in the Bay Area. Kathy began patterning her stage banter from Butch’s, who patterned his on Bill Monroe. The direct, personal influence of Monroe would mark these early years of Kathy’s playing, writing, and performing. As Kathy describes it, “It’s how you start learning to paint in art school. You look at old masters and then try to paint copies of a Matisse painting. It’s the same for me with bluegrass. The closer I could come to anything Bill Monroe did, the better job I was doing.”
In fact, Kathy and Butch would get together with Monroe whenever he played the Bay Area, and they visited Monroe on his farm in Goodlettsville, Tenn.: “Butch and I went to Goodlettsville and stayed with him for a week, walking around his farm with him and riding his horses, which he thought was hilarious—the way I rode a horse.”
Kathy moved from bass to guitar in 1978 after getting her trial-by-fire, as she puts it, by playing guitar with the Frank Wakefield band sporadically over a two-year period. She played guitar and sang on two recordings with Frank. It gave her the confidence to move to guitar with the Good Ol’ Persons.
In 1983, Monroe invited the Good Ol’ Persons to play Bean Blossom. After hearing the band perform Kathy’s song “Broken Tie,” he asked them to perform it every time they played his festival. “He liked that I wrote songs following his model of writing songs about his life, his true songs. It was such a stamp of approval for me.”
Throughout the ’80s, the band continued to record and tour. Kathy was the rhythm guitar player, lead singer, and songwriter for the group, which included major players such as John Reischman and Sally Van Meter, both of whom still consider playing with Kathy a highlight of their careers.
Sally Van Meter recalls, “Kathy has always held a genuine position of musical influence and inspiration for me and for so many California musicians. Everyone has their favorite Kathy Kallick song. Composing in both traditional and modern forms, her songs are real; she has a great sense of fusing past and present. Add to that her strong musicianship, and I will tell you that much of what I lean on today in terms of choosing what to play in the studio or on stage, I learned from all those years working with Kathy; working with a songwriter such as Kathy was one of the luckiest—even best—choices of my musical career.”
While the Good Ol’ Persons was Kathy’s main band during this time, she would occasionally perform duet shows with Laurie and briefly had a band with Keith Little, Nancy Josephson, and Laurie in the late ’70s. After the GOPs broke up in the ’90s, Kathy played in the Little Big Band with Keith Little, John Reischman, and Todd Phillips, and wrote material that was on her first solo album, Matters Of The Heart, released in 1992, followed up by another solo release in 1996, Call Me A Taxi. And Kathy has recorded two children’s music albums, What Do You Dream About in 1990 and Use Your Napkin (Not Your Mom) in 1995.
John Reischman remembers his work with Kathy: “She is an incredibly talented and prolific songwriter, and a wonderful singer. She writes intelligent, poetic lyrics, and her melodies always fit them perfectly whether it be a beautiful ballad or a feisty bluegrass number. I felt incredibly lucky being in the Good Ol’ Persons with her because she is such a great singer, and she had a seemingly endless supply of great original songs. As an instrumentalist it was exciting to be able to solo on her new songs, rather than referencing what had been played on standard bluegrass material.”
In 1991, Kathy met Peter Thompson, a bluegrass deejay and promoter—at the Vancouver Folk Festival where he interviewed her and then managed to come up with more questions as a reason to visit her in the Bay Area. Now married for 19 years, there is no stronger advocate and promoter of Kathy’s music. For over forty years, Peter has presented bluegrass on the radio and after the release of Kathy’s last album put together a delightful and informative interview CD for deejays to play—something more artists should consider doing.
In the past couple of years, Kathy has been active recording, performing, and writing and seems to be entering a highly productive stage of her career. About her current songwriting, Kathy says, “Over the last few years, I have come to see the merit of putting a more critical eye on my songs and letting them take a little longer to get to the state where I think they’re finished. I think I’m a better songwriter for it. I’m a better songwriter right now.”
In 2011, Kathy released a collection of 18 gospel songs recorded between 1982 and 2011, noting, “I think we’re living in hard times. We’re living in a time when people are struggling and sad and scared, and need to have their spirits lifted. I think it’s a bit of healing to hear spiritually uplifting songs and to have a chance to sing along with them.”
Kathy’s 2011 band release, Between The Hollow And The High-Rise (a line that appears in her song “Where Is My Little Cabin Home”) spent considerable time on the folk and bluegrass charts and her new album, Time, deserves to as well. A couple of songs on the new album, in particular, showcase Kathy’s singing and songwriting: “Lulu And Jack,” based on a true story and sung in Carter Family style, and “Fare Thee Well,” which could easily be mistaken for a first-generation bluegrass classic. Kathy’s singing is as powerful and toneful as ever, with that rare combination of control and passion that only the best singers have.
It’s time (one reason why her new album is so well named) for Kathy to be recognized not only for her extraordinary career, but for her ongoing work as a singer, songwriter, and bandleader. Time and time again, she creates memorable songs and leads superb bands that entertain and inspire.
In the next few years, it would be only right and fair that she start to receive the level of recognition that she and her band deserve. But that is not what Kathy herself is about. She’s busy writing songs, playing music, and feeling thankful for everything she has. We are thankful, too, that she considers music and friendship her highest reward, but it’s time the bluegrass community did more to recognize this deserving singer and songwriter who has given us so much.