Kate MacLeod’s biblio-folk
Ryan Summerlin October 8, 2013
It’s a beautiful autumn morning in the Heber Valley as I sit typing this week’s column. There’s just a slight bite in the air but, if you were watering horses, it would be quite easy to overdress. Life is good. I spent yesterday with old friends and a new one with an old soul. Both conversation and food were off the comfort menu.
In those lazy moments just before arising this morning, I mapped out a short chronology. First out of the chute, I knew, would be to slip my newly-acquired "Kate MacLeod at Ken Sanders Rare Books" CD into my computer player, which now features access to some vintage, nearly 40-year old, Marantz 3-way speakers.
Then would come coffee and horses and such. But first things first! Although I had missed the live concert recording session down at Ken Sanders bookshop last August, I knew from a glance at the CD’s liner notes that Ms. MacLeod had played a Taylor guitar on the date and that, for me, had even upped the ante.
What’s always grabbed me most about Kate MacLeod’s guitar finger-picking style is the casual intimacy shared between her fingertips and the guitar strings. She will barely touch the instrument and it will ring like a bell. And then there’s her voice and her songwriting. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Kate’s been all over the Utah music map for some time, of course, and I must admit it has dumbfounded many of us among Utah’s musically-active tribe why she hasn’t achieved national recognition and success similar to that of Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith and Patty Griffin. You could even toss Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez into the mix.
Not that she isn’t quite well-known to fellow musicians and songwriters whose art is expressed through the many sub-genres of folk music. An accomplished fiddle player with a style that evolved both traditionally and classically, MacLeod’s music sensibility has long been on the lam from the ordinary.
But it’s not just her extraordinary musicality that shines through on this album. All of the original songs she performs on the record are inspired by books she has read throughout a life spent turning pages. An obvious bibliophile, it makes perfect sense that MacLeod seems so very much at home performing this particular material in the friendly confines of Ken Sanders Rare Books a quite-rare bookshop, as it were.
She puts it this way: "I composed these across a thirty-year span from 1982 to 2012. These songs are different than songs that come solely out of my own thoughts and experience; they are more a digestion of what I’ve gleaned from reading and are also spontaneous responses.
"I think of books as part of our collective consciousness. They are our record of history and also a canvas for the imagination. Whether a book is a great piece of literature or not, each contains some record of humanity serious, comedic, pedestrian or genius."
The song "Riding the White Horse Home" comes from Teresa Jordan’s absorbing 1993 memoir of the same title about coming of age on a Wyoming ranch. MacLeod also includes a song influenced by and titled after William Least Heat-Moon’s "PrairyErth," a book she characterizes as a detailed ode to the prairie. "I remember so clearly beginning this song in my sleep," she recalls.
Following a similar format she borrows another Heat-Moon book title for "Blue Highways," which she introduces on record with: "This book actually inspired a lot of people to get a divorce and go out on the highway." She goes on to explain how, on old maps, the more inviting backcountry two-lanes are marked in blue, hence, blue highways.
Richard Patterson’s "Butch Cassidy: A Biography" became, in MacLeod’s creative songwriting hands, "Butch Cassidy Was Here," a search for the actual Robert Leroy Parker.
Marion Zimmer Bradley’s "The Mists of Avalon," Audrey Niffenegger’s "The Time Traveler’s Wife," Leslie Marmon Silko’s "Ceremony," James Michener’s "Chesapeake," John Bunyan’s "A Pilgrim’s Progress," and other tomes of her time, also receive Kate MacLeod’s carefully and artfully crafted cross-cultural treatment.
When time arrived for me to spend time with the horses, the sounds of her voice and guitar and harmonica lingered. I have a feeling they will remain for a good long spell. How fitting it is that literature and music continue to nurture your humble scribe and portly gray pilgrim as he continues along his own blue highway.
How perfect, also, the union of Kate MacLeod and Ken Sanders Rare Books. In that Ken has long been in the business of "creating chaos out of anarchy for a better tomorrow," everything he touches seems to receive a secular imprimatur.
Or, as Kate puts it: "Art forms are related and the creative process is often carried into new formats of expression as culture is passed from one art form to another."
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.