Here we are again with another feature in the FORGOTTEN ARTISTS series, where we take a look at some of the Americana musicians who may just have dropped out of people’s memories or who, perhaps, never received the appreciation their contribution to the genre deserved. This time frequent contributor to the series, Clint West, turns his attention to the fine singer-songwriter, Katy Moffatt.
Across a ten-year span from 1988 to 1998, Katy Moffatt released seven solo albums that marked her out as one of the foremost singer-songwriters of the period. However, it was far from a case of overnight success, or indeed success at all. Like so many genuine talents, she was far too individual and independent to translate her critical acclaim into commercial sales. Nevertheless, her music endures to this day, and will be remembered and celebrated long after many of her more successful and commercial contemporaries have been consigned to the dusty racks of charity shop obscurity.
Born in 1950 and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, the young Katherine Moffatt was inspired by The Beatles and the ‘British Invasion’, to take up the guitar. She later switched her attention to folk music, with Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell being particular influences on her. She began performing whilst at university in Santa Fe, attracting local interest before moving on briefly to Austin where she opened for amongst others Jerry Jeff Walker and Willis Alan Ramsey. Another move in 1971, this time to Denver, saw her perform as part of a trio; Flower, Handley and Moffatt. However, it was her solo shows at the city’s iconic Ebbet’s Field venue that led to her being signed by Colombia Records for whom she released two albums. Her 1976 debut ‘Katy’ was produced by Billy Sherill and was followed in 1978 by ‘Kissin’ in the California Sun’. Neither album was a commercial success, but the association with Columbia did raise her profile. She became an in-demand backing singer for both recording and touring and found herself working with Willie Nelson and John Prine as well as touring with Charlie Daniels, Warren Zevon and The Allman Brothers.
It was to be ten years before Katy Moffatt released another album in her own name. However, free from major label control she was able to oversee her own output, create her own sound and truly express herself. The first record that the genuinely independent artist released was 1988’s ‘Walking on the Moon’. A stripped-down sound gave greater focus to Moffatt’s songs and song choices. As well as three compositions of her own, the album features three co-writes with her good friend Tom Russell, including the beautiful title track. There are also three songs written by her older brother, the established songwriter Hugh Moffatt. Katy Moffatt and Tom Russell went on to write over 40 songs together and brother Hugh was also a regular collaborator as his sister’s career developed.
Moffatt’s follow-up release, 1990’s ‘Child Bride’, took her sound in another direction again. An electric, roots-rock album, it was comprised entirely of cover versions. This seemed a strange move for someone who was establishing herself as a songwriter. However, it underlined Moffatt’s talent as an interpreter of songs as well as emphasising her determination to plough her own furrow. It was also a very good record.
Released in 1993 ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ marked a new high point. It was effectively a collaboration with Tom Russell. The pair co-wrote eight of the album’s twelve songs as well as contributing two songs each of their own. Tom Russell also co-produced the album with Moffatt. Following legal action from The Ringling Brothers Circus, the title of the album was changed to ‘The Evangeline Hotel’. The two titles are exactly the same album only with a different title and artwork. The album attracted great reviews for the quality of the songwriting and the sheer beauty of Moffatt’s voice, which never sounded better than it does here.
A 1994 switch to Watermelon Records produced two more excellent albums: ‘Hearts Gone Wild’ (1994) and ‘Midnight Radio’ (1996). Each pleased her dedicated fans but once again failed to produce wider success. A further move to Hightone Records and the 1998 release of the well-received ‘Angel Town’ continued the familiar pattern of great songs making little commercial impact. With her second Hightone release ‘Loose Diamond’ (1999), Moffatt made a final stab at commercial success by producing an ill-judged straight country record. It failed to have the desired effect as well as disappointing many amongst her traditional following. Moffatt followed this with another questionable release ‘Cowboy Girl’ (2001), an album of traditional Western songs. Moffatt’s career seemed to be losing its way and it was seven years before she released ‘Fewer Things’ (2008) and a further eight years before ‘Now and Then’ (2016), a joint album with brother Hugh appeared. Neither album approached the heights of Moffatt’s peak years. Then, in 2017 Katy Moffatt produced her best album for nearly 20 years. ‘Where The Heart Is’ is an eleven-song collection featuring six fresh Moffatt originals, a new co-write with Tom Russell and a contribution from brother Hugh. It was a throwback to her best years and a very welcome return to form. Despite the title of this series, the 2017 release was an impressive reminder that Katy Moffatt has not quite gone away yet.