The Myriad Musical Styles of Katy Moffatt
By Nat Hentoff, The Wall Street Journal
Years ago, the then unknown pianist Cecil Taylor was sitting in at a jam session with some veteran jazz players. As uncategorizable then as he is now, Taylor, in the middle of a solo, ducked as a large cymbal was hurled at him from across the room. It had been thrown by the famed ex-Basie drummer Jo Jones. He was expressing his acute disdain for this person who was so far outside the mainstream that you couldn't tell what style he'd be in from one chorus to the next.
In nearly all of music, most performers who do not stay within a recognizable style have a long and hard time gaining widespread recognition, if they ever do. The critics, the club and concert bookers, and the record companies generally do not like trying to sell players who can't be neatly packaged. An example is Peter Rowan, a fiery singer and bluegrass player (with Bill Monroe) who later moved into highly imaginative balladry. He never stayed in one groove long enough to become a star.
Katy Moffatt is a singer-composer who refuses to stay within a single genre because she is naturally protean. She has also shown a way to be on the road here and abroad — often with more than 200 dates a year — and develop an audience that seems to have memorized the lyrics on her recordings.
Moffatt, born in Fort Worth, Texas, and now a resident of Los Angeles, when she has the time, was one of the originators of country rock; is skilled at classic country songs of fractured love; has mastered the art of country blues; and can bring alive the twilit spirit of traditional ballads, making them sound autobiographical.
In her new album, "Midnight Radio" (Watermelon Records, Austin, Texas), her own songs, often co-written with Tom Russell, go as far back as when she was a girl "and the Texas moon was shinin' through my window / As I dreamt of all the places I would go / Listening to those voices on the midnight radio."
In one song, "There's a fat man in an overcoat / Singin' as though his heart was broke / . . . On a street where nobody hears." And in another lyric, Sojourner Truth, hearing someone claim that God is not a woman, asks, "Well tell me where'd you get your Christ? / Born of a woman, yeah, God and a woman."
In a song for Dylan Thomas, "Sparrow of Swansea," Katy Moffatt sees "How he sails / O'er the snail-horned churches / O'er the three-legged horses / Through the grey misty mornin's / In the Southwest of Wales" until, downed, in the White Horse Tavern in New York, "He took eighteen straight shots / From a barrel of whiskey."
This unconstrained, red-headed bard first went on the road in 1976 as the opening act for Muddy Waters. "He was a very generous, encouraging man," she recalls. Since then, she has frequently played in Canada and in England, France and Scandinavia. "The culture in countries like Norway," she says, "is not as assaultive as ours. The people are more literary, more literate. They really like lyrics." With Moffatt's music, the lyrics can be heard, and are worth hearing. "The audiences in those countries," Moffatt notes, "are fresher. They're removed from the American machine."
Still, she gets a lot of gigs in the states — playing colleges, folk festivals, and often doing solo dates — Moffatt and her guitar. "She can handle solo engagements because she is a first-rate musician," says Tom Russell, himself a guitarist as well as a composer. "She knows chords. She can play nuanced passing chords interweaving with her melodies. And those melodies are very strong because she's such a strong singer."
So Katy Moffatt makes a living and sees the world. Or much of it. She played a week in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1991, and she's open to any place where listeners are intrigued by music that tells stories and where they're not disturbed by a musician who can't be categorized.
"In the early 1970s," Moffatt told me, "I was with Columbia Records for four years. The A & R people kept admonishing me for having 'too many styles.' But you know, I never felt that criticism from audiences on the road.
"The only thing I've wanted and worked for from the beginning was simply to make a living-playing my music for people who want to hear it. It doesn't matter how big an audience, or where it is. And being able to play all these places makes me truly appreciate my audiences. They're open to music without labels."
In all of her albums and her appearances, Katy Moffatt is indeed a storyteller. Her voice has many shades of meaning as well as memory. She illuminates in natural light the characters and the places in her songs, and even the weather.
In his liner notes to "Midnight Radio," Tom Russell brings Katy Moffatt back to the start: "A red-haired Texas girl goes to sleep at nine, wakes up at midnight in the luminous glow of a clock radio. The music plays low-those Jimmy Webb songs, three-minute short stories; lost highways from Phoenix to Wichita; the world beyond Fort Worth.
"The young dreamer grows up to write and sing short stories of her own.... Folk, Country, Blues, Rock . . . She erases the boundaries."
And her passion — "sometimes considered and sometimes unbridled," she says — is the abiding force in her music: