As the years go by, the Savannah Folk Festival is moving away from the vintage performers, the goateed “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley” types, and putting the spotlight on deserving singer/songwriters from a more contemporary era.
Last year’s headlining artist was Janis Ian, who rose to prominence in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. For this year’s festival wrap–up concert – it comes at the end of three days of acoustic music at various venues – the Savannah Folk Music Society has enlisted Karla Bonoff, part of the great California gold rush of singer/songwriters from the latter part of the Me Decade.
Bonoff closes out Sunday’s Grayson Stadium concert, traditionally the folk festival’s finale event.
Her big break came in 1976 when Linda Ronstadt, arguably the biggest singer in rock ‘n’ roll at the time, put three of Bonoff’s songs – “If He’s Ever Near,” “Lose Again” and the shimmering, spectral “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me” – on her multi–platinum album Hasten Down the Wind.
Bonoff’s self–titled debut for Columbia Records received rave reviews in Time and Rolling Stone, and she was fast–tracked for stardom, opening cross–country tours for Jackson Browne and James Taylor.
Karla Bonoff, which has never gone out of print, is one of a handful of singer/songwriter albums from the period that holds up just as well today. Bonoff’s voice, with its aching vulnerability and clear, ringing tones, was ladeled like honey over a set of gorgeous confessional songs. Bonoff played piano and guitar, and the production – from Stone Poneys veteran Kenny Edwards, who’d been Bonoff’s best buddy since their high school days – was crystalline.
“I wrote most of that in my 20s,” Bonoff says. “I wrote music first, and lyrics would just come out of me. I don’t really always know where they came from, they just did. It was over a 10–year period between the time I started writing that stuff and actually recording it. And I wrote a lot of bad stuff in between.”
Never a prolific writer, Bonoff – just 26 when the album was released – soon discovered that “keeping up” with stardom was a tricky business.
“I had almost my whole life to prepare that one, and then I had a year and a half to do the second one,” she explains. “That’s how it is a lot of times, those first albums are some of your best work. You get such a long time to prepare.
“Then what happens is the pressures of the whole corporate part of the thing start to kick in. And in hindsight, unfortunately, I wish I’d been more prepared to sort of jump on that fast track. Because there was a lot going on. You have to handle a lot of stuff, a lot of multi–tasking, a lot of touring and writing at the same time, and schmoozing people ... it’s pretty enormous.
“I think I was emotionally not prepared for all that, in terms of really taking the bull by the horns and taking advantage of everything. At times, it was just a little intimidating to me.”
Although she landed a Top 20 hit (“Personally,” which she didn’t write) from her third Columbia album, Wild Heart of the Young, Bonoff all but dropped off the radar.
In the 1990s, she and Edwards re–formed their ‘60s band, Bryndle, which also included folk/pop luminaries Wendy Waldman and Andrew Gold, but that project ran out of gas within a decade. So Bonoff took to the road, playing 40 to 50 shows a year, backed by Edwards and guitarist Nina Gerber.
Edwards died of prostate cancer Aug. 18. Bonoff says she’s still reeling from the loss.
Meanwhile, she and Gerber will play the Savannah show as a duo. “Gradually, we’ll find another person,” Bonoff sighs, “but it’s not something I’m going to do in a hurry.”
Her most recent album, Live, was produced by Edwards and released independently in 2007.
“Right now, when you write songs, it’s kind of gotten back to this grassroots thing where you’re doing it for yourself,” Bonoff says. “And who knows what’s gonna happen out there? The music business is so dead at this point.
“For us, what it gets down to is having CDs to sell at gigs, and who knows where it would get played or anything like that? It’s kind of like the Wild West, in a way. I’m kind of confused about it all.”
Also on Sunday’s bill:
Sam Pacetti. From North Florida, this astonishingly versatile finger–style acoustic guitarist walks confidently in the shoes of the masters – Fahey, Kottke and even Travis. When he was but a youngster, Pacetti was home–schooled in the ways of the strings by the legendary Floridian Gamble Rogers, who took him on as a protégé.
Otis Taylor. An award–winning, Chicago–based acoustic blues singer and songwriter who plays guitar, banjo and mandolin, and whose songs tend to focus on issues (both historical and contemporary) of concern to African Americans. Said Downbeat of his 2008 CD Recapturing the Banjo: “There may not be a better roots album released this year or decade.”
Beverly Smith and Carl Jones. They call what they do “the art of the duet.” It’s old–time Appalachia – she on guitar and fiddle, he on “just about anything with strings.” Their newest recording, Glow, was cut in Athens, and in a farmhouse in Bogart.
Savannah Folk Festival
All events are free
Oct. 8, 7 p.m.: Folkfest in Ellis Square (rain site: Trinity UMC) Performers: The Old Folkers, Cynergy, Chris Desa, Jason Bible, Lauren Lapointe, Amburgey and Hanson
Oct. 9, 9 a.m.: All Day Sacred Harp Sing (First Primitive Baptist Church, Bee Road)
Oct. 9, 2 p.m.: Youth Songwriting Competition (First Presbyterian Church, 520 E. Washington St.)
Oct. 9, 8 p.m.: Old Time Country Dance (Notre Dame Academy Gym)
Oct. 10, 2 p.m.: Concert at Grayson Stadium (Daffin Park, Victory at Bee Rd.) Performers: Karla Bonoff, Sam Pacetti, Otis Taylor, Beverly Smith & Carl Jones