Bonnie Koloc came to the Windy City with a handful of songs, hope ... and a soprano voice smooth as warm honey.
“I had just gotten into town,” Koloc recalls now. “A friend and I were walking down Wells Street. I walked in to the old Quiet Knight (at 1311 N. Wells),” where owner Richard Harding, whose mountain-man looks belied his ability to spot stars on the rise, welcomed her.
“I later heard Earl (J.J. Pionke) was interested in hiring me,” at the equally iconic Earl of Old Town, a few blocks away. That was in 1968. By the early ’70s, crowds were lining up to hear singer-songwriter Bonnie Koloc, who’d become part of the Chicago folk trinity with John Prine and the late Steve Goodman.
If you were lucky, you were there.
More than three decades and 14 albums later, Koloc’s voice is still clear, still pouring out that warm honey. When she sings the lush “Roll Me on the Water,” her smile says, “You know what I mean,” and her listeners just rock on the waters with her. She shares the hard times, too, with the depth of experience but without bitterness.
“It can be cathartic. ‘Children’s Blues’ was written from my own experiences … but it speaks to the heart and soul of other people.”
“Children’s Blues” is on her 2012 CD “Rediscovered,” all previously recorded songs, but treated a bit differently, instrumentally or vocally.
“Two Black Guitars” tells another painful story, prompted by the death of Koloc’s brother Jim, who loved the Everly Brothers, who played black guitars. “The best work is both personal and universal. That’s the responsibility of the performer, not to lie, to get up there and tell the truth.”
Her music has moved through folk, jazz and blues, and her creativity has blossomed in other media. After returning in 1987 to finish her art degree, Iowa-born Koloc produced “A Bestiary,” a delightful album about 13 farm animals, with songs, poems and linocuts for each one.
She dedicated it to her husband, Robert Wolf, “who pulled me up and planted me back in Iowa. Be that good or bad, I love you just the same.”
Koloc was 44 when they were married. Today she chuckles, “I was mean, I tried to scare him away.”
Now 24 years married, the couple’s home base is in Iowa.
Koloc continues to draw devoted fans for concerts and art shows.
Wolf is also creative, as painter and author; his latest book is the wickedly funny “Grand Tally.” In 1990 the former Chicago Tribune columnist established Free River Press, a non-profit publishing house that encourages people to write about their lives in its writing workshops. Wolf also produces an award-winning weekly radio program, "American Mosaic with Robert Wolf," based on Free River Press stories read by the authors.
Wolf had set aside his painting years before, “but when I saw how much fun Bonnie was having, I started again.”
“He’s so disciplined. Bob’s taught me a lot.”
Wolf responds, “I wish I had her spontaneity.”
Koloc says, “I had an artist tell me, ‘You paint like a truck driver.’ I loved it! I knew what he meant: I attack the work, with a tube of paint. You have to be brave. You learn as much from when you fail as when it works.”
The couple takes the pieces that work to such venues as southwestern Michigan’s annual Art Attack, where in April Wolf showed his landscapes and Bonnie performed her songs and showed her artwork. In between singing dates she is working on a series dealing with balancing the bouncing ball of fame.
Bonnie: “At this time in my life I’m happier than I’ve ever been, and being with Bob…”
Bob: “Yes.” .
“And he’s an artist, too, and having that bond, is really, really important to me. We have a home, we have food, we’re warm.
Bonnie: “I would say to a young person reading this, follow your heart, do what you love to do.”
Bob: “There’s luck, too.
Bonnie: “I think we’re lucky.”
Bob: “I can’t imagine life without you. … This is getting too squeaky-sweet.”
Bonnie laughs, the honeyed voice still flowing freely.