I never knew what music was “popular” as a kid. My dad wasn’t the type to tune into the pop radio station like my friends’ parents; instead, we listened to NPR or cycled through CDs bought at folk concerts.
Before I could even string full sentences together, my Friday and Saturday nights were spent at music venues across the Sierra Nevadas. I taught my middle school orchestra class the difference between a violin and a fiddle. I wore a tie-dyed shirt with the logo of Banana Slug String Band on it for my sixth grade school picture. These were objectively uncool things to my classmates, but they were cool to me.
Every summer, to top off the previous year of music-going, we would make the six hour trek to a ranch outside of Laytonville, California, to attend the Kate Wolf Music Festival. What started in 1996 as a one-time-only gathering of local musicians in Sebastopol, California, to honor the legendary folk artist Kate Wolf became an annual festival every June that brought together artists from all over the world to play many different genres of music.
“It was important to me that it was called a music festival,” Cloud Moss, founder, and co-producer of the festival, told me in a phone interview earlier this July. “It’s been referred to many times through the years as a folk festival, or folk music festival. I love folk music, but I didn’t want it to be called a folk festival because I didn’t want any particular genre attached to it because I didn’t want anybody to feel they had ownership over what could be there.”
Guided by the credo of the Louis Armstrong quote that says “all music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song,” Moss made it a goal that the Kate Wolf Music Festival would welcome all kinds of music, as long as it added to the strong community established from the festival’s beginning.
“We’ve been fortunate that even with growth we’ve been able to keep that [community] aspect together, which isn’t always true,” Moss said. “Sometimes growth has you losing some very important components that you started with.”
Over the years, the festival has increased in size and scope. In 2001, after five years of being a daytime-only festival held at Caswell Vineyards in Sebastopol, the location moved to Black Oak Ranch along Highway 101 in California’s Mendocino County. Shortly after, the festival went from a three-day to four-day event and became an overnight camping festival. This year’s tickets sold out four months in advance.
I couldn’t go to every festival, but I have made it to seven or eight over the years. Long stretches of time would pass between each festival I attended thanks to school commitments or summer camp or teenage angst, but when I would return, it felt like no time had passed. The festival’s idyllic location and consistent organization meant many of the same vendors and performers would return every year, creating a sense of familiarity not often found at other events.
“I’ve always tried to have an approach to the various festivals, concerts, and events that I have put on through the decades to create an atmosphere that is relaxed, casual, and comfortable, and we’ve done that with everybody,” Moss said.
“We do that with our audience. We do that with our workers. We do that with our performers. And it has the appearance of being extremely relaxed and laid back, but there’s a lot of work that goes into that.”
That work included a lot of communication throughout the year between Moss and his co-producers, Bob Barsotti and Danny Scher. Together, they make up Back Roads Productions, the team that organized Kate Wolf Music Festival. During the year leading up to each festival, the three of them went over what is and isn’t working and what can be changed.
“It’s more or less a philosophy of how to put together an event so that when you’re there you don’t look like you’re working as much as you’re just part of the fabric of it and so is everybody else and teaching everybody to be as important a component of it as the next person,” Moss said. “So it’s not a tiered-type of situation. And I’ve found over the years that a lot of performers really like that.”
Even with the number of returning performers, Moss made an effort to invite new artists as well. His goal was that a third of the lineup was musicians who had not been there before so attendees could discover new artists. I’ve discovered many favorites myself from the festival: AJ Lee & Blue Summit, John Craigie, Las Cafeteras, and MaMuse all come to mind.
I was able to make it to this summer’s festival and I’m glad I did, because not only did it mark 25 years of the Kate Wolf Music Festival, but it also marked its final year.
“We felt like it was the right thing to do after a two-year layoff and the 25th anniversary and where we’re at in our own lives, our health and our age and so forth,” Moss said about the decision to end the festival. The 2022 festival was the first to happen in two years because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
There has been conversation about continuing the festival under new organizers, but Moss said no official decisions have yet been made, and he is hesitant to give false illusions or hope about any continuation of the festival. If it were to happen, Back Roads Productions would most likely help transition a new team into this leadership role, according to Moss.
No matter what the future holds, Moss is grateful for the 25 years of connecting with people over music under the wide, starry skies at Black Oak Ranch.
“I appreciate all the years that everybody has contributed in whatever way they’ve contributed to make it happen and hopefully, if not out of this specific event or this ranch, there will be more [events] that become available for people to go to that have the same kind of really good deep feeling and sense of spirit and good music and safety,” Moss said.
While this summer’s festival was bittersweet for many, there was a similar sense of gratitude that the festival was around for as long as it was and created the community that it did. The final song played on the last night was the same song that has been played at the end of every Kate Wolf Music Festival, and to me, puts into words best what the gathering has meant to so many people:
Claire Carlson is a Daily Yonder Reporting Fellow.