The song project

Tradition of folk music celebrated with KZFR’s songwriting competition

From Blind Lemon Jefferson to Woody Gutherie to Joni Mitchell to today—the singer/songwriters tell the story of America.

From Blind Lemon Jefferson to Woody Gutherie to Joni Mitchell to today—the singer/songwriters tell the story of America.

High in the Sierras a man responds to an elderly widow’s distress call. A dog and a horse strike up a friendship on a farm northeast of Sacramento. A Mendocino woman is inspired by an Eskimo zombie love story, and a globetrotting Kiwi ponders the fate of sea mammals in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

These four seemingly unrelated events have a surprising commonality: each sparked a song, and the four songs they inspired are among the seven finalists in KZFR Community Radio’s Celebration of the Song contest, a kind of American Idol for the Northern California folk scene.

A panel of judges evaluated nearly 90 entries from across the North State, and the finalists will perform Tuesday, June 22, at the Sierra Nevada Big Room. Their performances will be judged by another panel and the Big Room audience, and the winner will receive studio time at Electric Canyon Studios, an appearance at the California WorldFest and a $500 Music Connection gift certificate.

“It’s about a horse, but I was trying to write a song about a dog,” says Lincoln’s Will Morebeck about his entry, “Let That Filly Run.”

“I live on a farm and we have a border collie that follows around the neighbor’s horses. I asked my son if he could take care of the dog, then I came home one day and he’d bought a horse for the dog. It was a thoroughbred filly, and she was running all over the place.

“That same day I was watching the Breeder’s Cup and a filly named Zenyatta won, so I sort of put the two things together.”

Morebeck says he’s been writing songs for a while but doesn’t consider himself prolific. “Filly” took about a year: “I don’t write a lot of songs. I write a few and take a long time to work on them.

Patrice Webb was inspired to write her entry, “Photograph,” by a conversation with her husband. “He is a firefighter; he works on an ambulance. He responded to a call of a woman who had lost her husband of 60 years. She had a bunch of photographs in the window, and he was talking about how they depicted their lives.”

Webb always plays solo and considers her music a blend of country, swing, blues and bluegrass. She writes a lot of songs, many inspired by talking to people, others by her surroundings in Georgetown. “They’ll start with a conversation, or a lot of them come from my life up here in the Sierras. I live in a really pretty place.”

Angela Rose Heimann, of Caspar, describes her submission “Skeleton Woman” as “pretty much straight-up folk,” noting that most of her songs have a little more twang.

“‘Skeleton Woman’ is based on an Inuit folk tale of the same name. I first came across the story through Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ telling in her lovely book The Women Who Run With the Wolves.

“It’s the story of a woman whose skeleton is dredged up from the bottom of the ocean by the hook of a lonesome fisherman. It’s about accepting both the appealing and appalling parts of love.”

Heimann is no stranger to contests, having once placed in the annual Woody Guthrie competition and been a finalist in the South Florida Folk Festival contest.

This is Chico-by-way-of-New Zealand entrant Adam Walter’s first contest. In fact, “The Manatee Song” is one of only a handful of songs he’s written.

“I’ve always had a love for the music, picked and strummed a bit, always been quick to put a few lyrics together and make a silly ditty spontaneously, but I never really wrote a song or did anything serious with it. That said, I’ve always thought maybe someday I’d be at a place in my life I could kind of do something with music.”

That place seems to be Chico: after years of traveling, a stint in Sri Lanka with Doctors Without Borders and a several-month-long American road trip in search of a home, he and his wife landed here.

“When I got to Chico I wrote a song and I thought, ‘That’s kinda good.’ My wife encouraged me to sing and play it, someone she works with entered this contest, and he said I should record it and enter and I thought, why not give it a shot?

“Then this ridiculous oil spill was going on down in the gulf, and in the great tradition of environmental protest songs, I wrote another song. I recorded that, shot down to the studio and said, ‘Hey, I wanna change my song, I have a new one for you, it’s topical!’ So I swapped the songs and made the cut. Now I got a gig at The Big Room!”

The other finalists, all hailing from Chico, are Dan Casamajor’s “No Such Thing,” Chris Schadt’s “Breath and Believe” and an untitled entry from John Paul Gutierrez.