Kathy Robertson is the walking personification of the Honky Tonk Angel, a gal who knows her way around a saloon, who isn‘t averse to asking for double shots of Jack Daniel’s, and who belts out country music with authenticity and passion. The Texas-born, California-raised singer has quite a remarkable background, but it‘s in her role as benefactor that Robertson really earns the Angel title: In the last two years she’s assembled dozens of local musicians to contribute to her self-produced To Roy Nichols With Love indie CD compilations (on Cowgirl Records), which have so far raised $7,500 for the legendary stroke-incapacitated guitarist. Volume 2 even featured Roy‘s longtime boss Merle Haggard, an impressive coup that underscores the reach of Robertson’s often-irresistible personality, which also comes in handy on her day job — she‘s a kindergarten teacher.
When Robertson steps up to a microphone, though, it ain’t finger painting and ABCs that come to mind. She‘s unapologetic stone country, a redneck queen who, surprisingly, was first drawn to country music by the drug-fueled solipsisms of Gram Parsons.
”When I was a kid, I liked Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, that whole country-rock thing,“ Robertson says. ”But then I started listening to Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and George Jones. And the first time I went to the Palomino, this was I think ’79, I sang ‘Silver Threads and Golden Needles’ in their talent contest and won a hundred dollars, so I decided I wanted to sing country music!“
Her vocal style, purely traditional and spontaneous, was developed under ideal circumstances — at Bakersfield‘s Rodeway Inn circa 1980 (when the now-defunct lounge was the town’s prestige booking), where she worked for quite a stretch with the great singer-songwriter Red Simpson, the idiosyncratic cat who wrote numerous hits for Buck Owens, went on to score his own No. 1 hit with ”Hello, I‘m a Truck,“ and penned classics like ”Highway Patrol“ and ”Party Girl.“ Barely out of her teens, Robertson was being groomed and educated by one of California’s greatest country talents.
”Red heard me singing with Jack Reeves, a country guy out here in the Inland Empire and a friend of Red‘s, and he decided he wanted me to record a song of his, ’Fairy Tales and Wedding Bells.‘ He sang it to me, and I thought it was beautiful. So then I was working every weekend with Red in Bakersfield for about two and a half years. Worked at the Rodeway Inn, and the Saddle Rack, which was owned by Buddy and Jimmy Mize — there was a VFW hall there we sang at a lot.
“Red never told me how to sing, but he told me what not to sing. I was just a kid, and once I wanted to sing Reba McEntire’s ‘Can’t Even Get the Blues,‘ and Red would say, ’That ain‘t country!’ Because of Red, I know what country music is supposed to sound like, that‘s the most important thing. I know what I want the band to sound like — it has to have a steel a guitar or it’s just not country. But the most important thing Red taught me was ‘Be nice to everybody on your way up, because you’re gonna see ‘em all again on your way down.’”
Sadly, Simpson found out the truth of that statement; over a decade had passed since he‘d had a chart record, and sometimes the whiskey got the better of him. Though he even took Robertson with him on tour in Europe, where she shared a bill with Dave Dudley and Dick Curless, the partnership grew rocky. “I would’ve never left Red, because if I say I‘ll do something, well, I stick with it. But he was a little bitter, and he did get drunk and get mean sometimes, and it was [singer] Bonnie Owens who finally told me, ’You can leave, you don‘t have to put up with this.’” Robertson‘s friendship with Owens is a key alliance that has only deepened over the years, and it allows Robertson an unusual degree of access to the Haggard camp — she’s traveled state to state on the Strangers bus numerous times and occasionally joins Merle and Bonnie onstage to sing harmony.
Having gotten up the nerve to quit Simpson, Robertson returned to the Inland Empire and began hitting the talent shows, and developed a friendship with steel guitarist Doug Livingston, who was (along with Jay Dee Maness) also supplying hot steel to the soundtrack for the TV series The Dukes of Hazzard. His encouragement drove Kathy to book herself around the area‘s clubs as often as possible. She continued working steadily, releasing a series of cassettes and CDs and always jumping into the fray whenever an ailing country elder needed assistance, organizing and performing at benefits for the likes of the late Rose Maddox, the late Bill Woods and even Red Simpson. Her extraordinary skill as a fund-raiser did not escape Bonnie Owens’ notice.
“Bonnie‘s been my friend for 20 years now, she always gives me great advice,” Robertson says. “She told me about ROPE [the Retired Organization of Professional Entertainers] in Nashville — Merle Kilgore runs it, I think — and Bonnie said, ’Why don‘t you start something like that on the West Coast?’ And that‘s what my label, Cowgirl Records, is: I get a lot of musicians involved, everybody donates their time, I don’t pay any of ‘em, and we give all the money to Roy Nichols.”
Only her talent and her self-deprecating sense of humor match Robertson’s generosity: “I only use the best musicians — I‘m always the worst one in the band!”