California Report: Kathy Kallick on songwriting and the Kathy Kallick Band 

Kathy Kallick has won a Grammy, two IBMA Awards, and is a recipient of a Lifetime Membership from the California Bluegrass Association. She co-founded the internationally acclaimed Good Ol’ Persons, and has released twenty-two albums. She’s played with many of the country’s top roots musicians – including her own Kathy Kallick Band: Annie Staninec (fiddle), Greg Booth (reso-guitar, banjo), Tom Bekeny (mandolin), and Cary Black (acoustic bass).

This is the second of a two part interview with Kathy on Bluegrass Today. The first can be read here.

You started writing songs at a very young age. How did you start writing bluegrass songs?

One of the ways I learn and assimilate music is to make up my own songs. I started writing my own angsty, teenager versions of folk-pop songs in middle school. My girlfriends were my fan club!  When I started playing with the Good Ol’ Persons I tried to mash a few of my songs into a form that might work, but they never fit. I wrote three songs for the first album, but it wasn’t until I wrote A Broken Tie that I cracked the code. It took me five or six years of listening and learning bluegrass to write a bluegrass song. The form is elusive and not as simple as it sounds. 

I was very motivated to come up with songs that had a voice, a perspective, that I could relate to and identify with. Traditional bluegrass is so informed by men’s experience, even when telling a woman’s story. So, I started with telling my story in the plain and simple language of Bill Monroe and John Prine. 

After a bit of time, a few dozen songs, and such good response from the band and the audiences, I grew to be comfortable with expanding the vocabulary, using unlikely language and telling stories that weren’t necessarily mine but told in my voice.

Some of your songs have a political message. How do you stay true to that voice while often playing to traditional audiences?

I enjoy the challenge of subtly injecting controversial subject matter into traditional sounding songs, taking a chance on tweaking the traditional listener into thinking of something in a new way. Call Me A Taxi was inspired by Del McCoury, having seen a fabulous concert that night and with my head so full of all those sounds. I like to imagine Del singing that song, but it’s such a woman’s story. A woman is leaving fast to get away from a bad, cheating guy, telling him, “You keep the house and car, you can keep the cat.” When a woman leaves in that way it’s bold and courageous. She’s fleeing because she has to, whereas a man splitting on a marriage without looking back is just that—the husband who split. There are hundreds of those stories, but it’s harder for women to leave for so many reasons. 

When I’m writing a song, I often fall into a kind of spell, where the song is playing out in front of me, playing in my head like it’s already written. It’s hard to say how and why that experience has occasionally opened up to include another writer, but it happens.

How was it co-writing with others in the band?

John Reischman and I have written songs together and really gotten on a wavelength, found the story together. It’s magic. I’ve also had the chance to write words to somebody else’s melody or to ask another musician to create a melody for my lyrics. I like to do this if the lyric is one that cries out for something outside of the things I would hear. My experience of sending three sets of lyrics to Clive Gregson and then hearing the melodies he created to go along with the words was mind-blowing! And then I had to learn to sing these unfamiliar sounding songs, which was great fun.

It’s great that you’re still very active writing.

The last few years really put my songwriting on the hot seat. My mind was so preoccupied with what was going on in the world, and in our country, that I couldn’t tune that out to write happy love songs. There was just too much sorrow and anger and fear. So I wrote a set of the most ardent, subtle, sneaky, protest songs I could come up with. Those songs are so subtle, nobody even noticed they were protest songs! They just flew by. 

That’s okay with me. I don’t have to change the world with a song, but I can’t, at this time in my life, ignore the world either. Once the bright light gets shone on the dark things, they’re out there, and there’s no stuffing all that stuff back in the box or under the rug. Hey, music and art are meant to do that, to lift us up, fill our hearts, and make us wonder. 

My newest song is about 25 chickens, inspired by my kid’s experience of raising chickens with the other folks in her group house. Oh, and it’s also about environmental disaster. It’s silly, old timey for Annie’s fiddle, and it might make people laugh. It’s written to entertain and give the band something fun to play as we find our ways back into the world at large. 

Tell us about how you came to be a bandleader?

After the Good Ol’ Persons dispersed, as Sally moved to Colorado and John to Vancouver, BC, I put together a local band to play local gigs. John, Todd Phillips, Keith Little, and I had a group for about three years, the Little Big Band, but they all lived away from California and I needed a group to play more locally. I asked Tom Bekeny, who’d filled in with the Persons while John played with Tony Rice, and Amy Stenberg and Avram Siegel, who I’d often jammed with and really enjoyed their singing. 

I’d just made my second solo album, Call Me A Taxi, for Sugar Hill and we started out learning that repertoire to play album release events. Every time we’d get together, I’d have some suggestions for band names. They kept saying we should call it the Kathy Kallick Band. I was really uncomfortable with that idea, as I’d always been in a band with an ensemble name and persona. I didn’t fancy myself as a bandleader. But finally they told me they wanted to be in the Kathy Kallick Band, and if I didn’t like it they’d look for another guitar player. Ha!

That foursome really developed its own identity, with each of the players bringing their own tastes and talents, but I learned how to be the “leader” as best I could. I wrote a ton of new songs for that group, which played together for ten years, made two albums, and toured all over North America, as well as twice in England and Europe.

What was next for the KKB?

The next version of the Kathy Kallick Band came together in 2009 when Tom Bekeny and I met Dan Booth and he introduced us to his dad, Greg Booth. They came for a visit from Anchorage, Alaska and wound up playing a weekend of gigs with us. Dan also encouraged us to try out Annie Staninec, who Tom and I had seen playing at festivals when she was a teenager. That first time she got together with us, I asked her if she’d ever heard Call Me A Taxi and she said, “Yeah,” and kicked it off just like Stuart Duncan’s kickoff on the album. Then she continued to blow our minds with everything she played. Just on fire! I later came to learn that when Annie was ten years old Call Me A Taxi was her favorite album and she listened to it on the way to and from school in the car. That really cracked me up.

After making two albums together, Dan moved away and we asked Cary Black to join the band, which has been our lineup for the last eight years. We’ve made another couple of CDs and this grouping is highly satisfying and inspiring for all of us. Each of the players are stellar, with their own voices on their instruments, and everybody loves to sing and participate in arranging. Greg’s got a longtime background in country music, Tom plays with his jazz ensemble (and High Country), and Annie’s equally adept playing old time, cajun, Django styles, and, lately, Irish music. All these influences are part of our sound. And Cary’s played too many styles of music to even name, and his chops are legendary. No, really. When Laurie and I toured with our Vern & Ray album, Cary was the perfect bass player to join us, and he fit right into that old style bluegrass groove.

I’m Not Your Honey Baby Now – Kathy Kallick Band

This lineup has been pretty stable. Does that surprise you?

Am I surprised by the longevity of this band? Well, each of the bands I’ve been in long enough to make a recording has lasted at least a decade. I love that. I feel like, if it’s a good fit and everybody gets to put their hearts into it, feel like it represents them, then a band can keep growing, and getting better and deeper.

What’s up next for you and the band?

We’re starting to plan another album, which will be our seventh, but my next immediate project is one I’ve been working on for a while: a second tribute to my mom. Shortly before my mother passed, I was given some beautiful recordings of her singing on Chicago’s WFMT radio in 1966. And then some other live recordings of her have surfaced over the last little while, and I’m excited to share these discoveries. To complete an album with them, I started recording more songs I learned from her, all done live and arranged in the moment with plenty of input from the other musicians, just like on My Mother’s Voice. Many of the songs she’s singing on the recordings are ones I’ve played over the years, and I find it so interesting to hear my original source! I recorded the title song, What Are They Doing In Heaven Today, with Laurie and Suzy Thompson just as we were coming out of the pandemic shutdown. What a glorious first taste of live music that was!

Annie, Cary, Greg, Tom, and I hadn’t seen each other since January 2020, so we were all deliriously happy to recently play together for our re-entry at the Back Room in Berkeley and at the Columbia Gorge Bluegrass Festival in Stevenson, Washington. We have some more dates back in the Bay Area as the year winds up. We’re starting to book festivals and concerts such as the CBA Fathers Day Festival for 2022, and there are some cool things—including recording—on the horizon. We’re ready to jump back in!

Your work with Laurie Lewis, which has been referred to as the West Coast Hazel and Alice, is sublime. Can you talk some about that past and possible future?

Laurie Lewis and I have continued to have a deep musical relationship ever since our formative years in the Good Ol’ Persons. We’ve sung on each other’s solo projects, made two albums together, and had some fabulous tours together. In 1997, we made a wonderful trip to Japan with Sally Van Meter, Lynn Morris, and Markie Sanders. Our album, Together, was the core of that tour, but of course Lynn was the star of the show. I’m incredibly grateful to have played, toured, and recorded with Lynn, one of the most brilliant musicians I’ve ever known.

Laurie is my singing sister, the person I can sing with who is the closest to a family member. We can always fit our voices together and find that blend. When we made our tribute to Vern & Ray, we went back to some of the first songs we loved singing together and tried to capture the raw verve of what we loved about bluegrass. Whether it’s old songs or new ones, we can find each other and grab on. It’s such an important musical relationship.

Tribute to Vern and Ray – Kathy Kallick and Laurie Lewis – Old Kentucky Home

Is there anyone you would like to work with that you haven’t?

It’s interesting to think about the musicians I’ve had the good luck to play with, one way or another. The magic happens when it’s not really planned, but paths just cross, and there’s a connection. The first time I ever sang with Peter Rowan was when we were invited to be on the radio together with Darol Anger, just after Bill Monroe died. We were there to talk about Monroe, and we played and sang some tunes to represent the sound of bluegrass. Of course, Peter had actually played in Monroe’s band, and I don’t think he even knew who I was, but we sang together, and it sounded like bluegrass. I remembered it and asked him to play on my tribute to my mom, My Mother’s Voice. Since then we’ve been at festivals together, and taught together, and it’s always a fine time. But I’d never imagined I would play with him.

Much the same with Mac Martin, a wonderful and influential artist from Pittsburgh. I helped put together a band to accompany him on a couple of tours of the Bay Area and wound up playing bass. That turned into one of the most beautiful opportunities for me to learn about truly sophisticated bluegrass phrasing and guitar playing. Mac is my hero and mentor. Playing with him made me a better musician.

Because I’ve been teaching at music camps for the last many years, I’ve had the good luck to spend a week here and there with some amazing musicians. In this way, I wound up singing with Alice Gerrard on a hot summer afternoon. Because we’d spent a week running to and from our classes, sharing my Cheerios and blueberries, and concentrating on the students, when it came time for a harmony singing workshop, I didn’t have anything left to be nervous about singing with one of my early heroes. It was lovely. I really hope I get to do that again.

Thanks for your many contributions to bluegrass Kathy.

I had fun, thanks a bunch.

Copy editing by Jeanie Poling.

Kathy with the Augusta Bluegrass Women – Banjo Pickin’ Girl

 

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is an avid mandolin picker, singer and songwriter who writes an interview column for the monthly California Bluegrass Association (CBA) members publication featuring California regional and national artists who tour California. He grew up in bluegrass country on the Ohio River right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto Rivers dump into the Ohio. The columns are also featured on the CBA website.