20 Questions with Katy Daley is a new, ongoing feature here at Bluegrass Today. The column may be new, but you all know the contributor, Katy Daley, a familiar voice from the Katy Daley Show each weekday morning at WAMU’s Bluegrass Country. As the situation allows, Katy will conduct interviews with bluegrass artists and personalities, bringing her wide knowledge of the music to bear. There won’t always be twenty questions, but you can be sure they’ll be good ones.
KK: It’s true. Northern and southern California bluegrass are different in so many ways. And I am familiar with northern California.
KD: Which part is considered northern California?
KK: Well, the Greater Bay area and above. So, Santa Cruz, San Jose, everything north of that. And in that part of California, there was a great big very traditional fan base starting in the ‘60s. Very Monroe based repertoire. It’s not that everybody didn’t love the Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs but there was a Monroe hard-core fan base in the Bay area. That’s what I was introduced to when I first started thinking about singing and playing bluegrass. Bill Monroe came through San Francisco at least once a year so we had a lot of opportunities to get to see him play and get to talk to him.
KD: Was there plenty of Old Time Music, also?
KK: The Old Time music scene in those early days – ‘70s and ‘80s – was very separate from the bluegrass scene. There was not a lot of friendliness between the two camps. The Old Time people were very, very traditional and thought things had to be played in a certain way. The bluegrass scene was a little more experimental, a little more influenced I think by all the San Francisco-based rock & roll of the ‘60s. That’s one of the theories why all the men in the Bay area were comfortable with women singing and playing bluegrass. Not all of them. I shouldn’t say all of them but most of them because there was a history of women leading rock & roll bands in the ‘60s and that ground had been broken. There were other women in the folk scene at that time, too.
KD: An early musical influence for you – in addition to being your mom …
KK: Yes, I was lucky to grow up with my Mom.
KD: In Chicago?
KK: Yes, in the Chicago area folk scene.
KD: So she was doing folk music?
KK: Yes. She was very involved in the Old Town School of Folk Music. Both my parents got caught up in the folk scare of the ‘60s, both loved folk music, both played guitar. I got to hear a lot of music, got to go see a lot of live music and there were music parties at our house when I was growing up. I could sneak down the stairs and watch a lot of great music, all kinds of folk music. The University of Chicago Folk Festival and Old Town School of Folk Music brought in all kinds of music. My mother strongly believed it was better idea to take me and my brother out to hear live music on a Wednesday night and have us late for school or miss school the next day than to have us miss the music on account of school, which I think was a fairly radical idea.
KD: It was radical. I was going to say forward thinking.
KK: She said, “You’ll always be able to go to school the next day but you will not be able to see such and such,” whatever it was she thought we should go and see and she took us to see a lot of wonderful music.
KD: Now how did you make the move to the San Francisco area?
KK: I moved to San Francisco to go to art school, the San Francisco Art Institute. I had been singing in the folk clubs in Chicago and I could have gone to the Chicago Art Institute but I thought, “No, I’ll be too distracted by the music and I really want to be a painter. I’ll go to San Francisco where I won’t be distracted.” Turns out, where ever you go, there you are. That’s how I got caught up in the bluegrass scene, which was just so vibrant in San Francisco at the time.
KD: And you were playing with?
KK: I started out playing with 4 other women in a group that came to be called The Good Ol’ Persons. That’s where I met Laurie Lewis. She and I started singing together in that group and that group stayed together for almost 3 years with Laurie and then she left to do other things and start her own band and the Good Ol’ Persons carried on. We were only all women for the first 6 months and then Paul Shelasky joined the band, playing fiddle. Ever after I have been in bands with men and women. Not just me with all men and not just an all women band but mixed gender and I really like it that way.
KK: To me, it feels like a family. It feels like a community. If I’m the only woman in an all male band, they can’t help it, but they just turn into a bunch of boys. And if it’s all women, I don’t feel the contrast enough. I just feel like we’re all friends and we have a great time. You know, there are wonderful, wonderful women musicians that I love to play with but I like to have men and women in the band. It feels more like family to me.
KD: Mentioning Laurie Lewis, you and Laurie, just a couple years ago reunited to do an album which was Vern & Ray?
KK: Yes, that was a tribute to Vern Williams and Ray Park, who were the biggest influence on northern California bluegrass. They were two men from Arkansas, who met when they were in California. They had never met in Arkansas but both families moved from Arkansas to California to the central valley, which is kind of between northern and southern California. So they’re influence went in both directions and they influenced the southern California musicians, too. Both Laurie and I had a chance to meet Ray Park and Vern Williams and play music with them. She actually played bass in Vern Williams band for several months. When Vern passed we got together to sing all those songs and cry. That was the beginning of us starting to think about making a tribute to those two guys.
KD: We don’t get to see you on the East Coast often enough. What is the lure that gets you over here occasionally?
KK: It’s hard for us to get hired. And that is the truth of the matter. We want to come and play east of the Rockies. We want to do it but it’s a big country and it’s hard for us to get hired for festivals. It’s expensive and cumbersome to bring the five us of from the West Coast. We can’t just come and play little clubs. We need an anchor gig. We’re really grateful that we got to come to Joe Val and that we got to come to this festival (Delaware Valley Bluegrass). We’ve been talking to Carl Goldstein over the past several years. We played for Friends of Brandywine Old Time Music concert about 5 years ago. So when we could play for this festival and then go out and play the Main Stay in Rock Hall, Maryland last night, that was 2 opportunities for us to play and that’s good enough. That’ll bring us from our far extreme West Coast residences to convene here.
KD: You have someone in Alaska…
KK: Yes, Greg Booth lives in Anchorage, Alaska and then Cary Black and Mary Simkin-Maasscame from Seattle and Tom Bekeny and I came from the Bay Area. (Note: Mary Simkin-Maass was sitting in for Annie Staninec for the Delaware Valley gig.)
KD: You have a brand new website, which looks great.
KD: And a new album..
KK: Yes a new album called Foxhounds. It’s getting good airplay, which we’re so grateful for. We get playlists and some of the people we’ve met and some of the radio stations we know, but then there’s just far afield radio people who are playing Foxhounds. I don’t know what the world would be without radio. It’s such an important lifeline to music. Not just music, to everything. It’s where I learn about everything.
KD: Do you sing like your Mom taught you? You have the warmest voice. It’s warm and welcoming.
KK: Well, thank you. My Mom did tell me some stuff. She told me if you care about the words you’re singing then sing them so people can understand the words. I think that’s been a very important piece of information for me. If I don’t care about the words I’m singing, I generally won’t sing that song.
KD: You mean you won’t “sell it”?
KK: I’m not interested in singing the song if I don’t care about those words. So if I care about those words, I try to sing them so people can understand them. And, I try not to have any affectations other than what I just come along with. My Chicago weird sounding “a” is going to come out when I’m singing. I’m not going to pronounce my vowels the way somebody else might. I always try to sing in my own voice and I try to pitch a song in my range, close to my vocal range so it’s more like I’m telling the story. I can sing high if I’m singing harmony to someone and I can sing lower than I normally do when I sing lead. But I try to sing just where I would talk because that’s how I’m going to tell the story of the song.
So much of what I learned about singing bluegrass in the first place was from listening to Bill Monroe. I was listening to the way he phrased the singing so much, the way he phrased his talking where words would be held out and there would be little spatters of short syllables. I love that and so I’ve tried to keep singing and songwriting in that conversational style.
I’ve had the great good fortune to sing with Mac Martin over the last 10 years or so and I’ve learned so much about singing from Mac Martin, from trying to sing harmony to him and trying to match his very nuanced singing. It’s been a master’s class of singing for me. And it’s all about how you hold out a word and the conversational phrasing of it, too.
KD: I’m so glad to get a chance to see you…
KK: We’re so glad to be here.
KD: We hope you’ll come back more often. And for folks who go out to the West Coast, is there a place where you play a regular gig?
KK: We don’t have a regular gig. We play more on the West Coast than anywhere else, especially in the Bay area. We have 4 gigs coming up in October and they’re all on the website,www.kathykallick.com. It’s a good variety: house concert, small club, bigger concert down in Mountain View for the Redwood Bluegrass Association. (And the Folsom Opry) It’ll be fun for the 4 of us to get together to have 4 nights in a row in different venues. I love this band and I’m so happy that we’re here at Delaware Valley to bring our style of music to these people.
KD: Thank you very much.
KK: Thank you, Katy.