Music Q&A: Folk Singer Judy Collins

November 1 2013, 2:40 PM

“Prolific” barely scratches the surface of Judy Collins’ career. The 74-year-old, Seattle-born singer-songwriter—she moved to Denver when she was nine—became a staple on the local folk scene in 1961 when she released her debut album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow. In the 52 years since, Collins has solidified her icon status, releasing dozens of recordings; penning novels and memoirs; helping to develop the careers of legends such as Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan; landing in the Grammy Hall of Fame; and, in true folk tradition, becoming an activist for environmental causes like the eradication of land mines. Now, she’s being honored with a spot in the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, which will be commemorated with a concert at the Paramount Theatre on November 8 where Collins will perform along with fellow inductees Bob Lind and Chris Daniels. We spoke with Collins about Colorado’s folk legacy, the secrets to career longevity, and the Centennial State’s best skiing.

5280: How did Colorado influence and inspire your creative process?

Judy Collins: First of all, it was very beautiful. The mountains were a real thrill—and still are, always. Also, my father [Chuck Collins] had a radio show, which was broadcast for years in Denver. Maybe this won’t come as a surprise, but it was a very arts-oriented community, even then. All the schools I went to were very strong on the arts. There was a great choir program, there was a great music program, there was writing, and there was theater at East High School, where I went. It was very attuned to the arts, and there was a great deal of support for the arts. I think that had a strong influence on my own creative life.

5280: What are your fondest memories of working and performing in Colorado?

When I started to sing and perform, I immediately got wind of the fact that there was a folklore community, which was led under the direction of Lingo the Drifter, who was a big star in Denver—at least in our world he was. He had a radio show and became friendly with my dad. He always had these wonderful events on Lookout Mountain where we drank homebrews and ate homemade borscht and sang Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger songs. As soon as I started singing, I got hired [to perform] in Boulder, to help turn Michael’s Pub from a pizza joint with a barbershop quartet and accordion players into a folk music club. They never looked back. Once they hired me in 1959, they had to go forward and have plenty of folk music. 

5280: What’s the story behind your song The Blizzard?" It’s about Colorado, right?

The story behind that song is in the song. There’s a little poetic license, but it’s basically the experience of being in a blizzard in Colorado. Many people who live in Colorado have had that experience: getting stuck and having to put on the chains. A lot of the things I sing are influenced by being in Colorado, although you might not know it. I seem to have gotten hooked on Colorado in my songs. It always seems to appear.

5280: You live in New York City now. How often do you return to Colorado? What do you like to do here when you visit?

I come back three or four times a year, for one thing or another: sometimes work, often skiing, hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, visiting family, and singing concerts all over. I grew up skiing at Winter Park and Vail. You basically park somewhere and then wander around town without having to jump into a car.

5280: You’ve been performing since you were 13, and professionally for more than 50 years. What’s the secret to career longevity?

Discipline. Bottom line. You can’t do it unless you have some structure in your life. And you have to be passionate about it, which allows you to put up with some of the crap that you have to put up with and enjoy the highs, as well as get through the lows. It takes a lot of stamina to do that.

5280: What’s left to accomplish?

Maybe get a little house in Colorado sometime.

5280: You’ve been instrumental in scouting out emerging artists over the years, and you founded your own label, Wildflower Records, in 1999. What do you look for in up-and-coming musicians?

If it makes your heart throb, that’s what tells you.

In Person: See Judy Collins at the Paramount Theatre on Friday, November 8, at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $38.

Image courtesy of Wildflower Records