"My love is a river where the white waters pour /
I've hunted and trapped her through the Gates of Ladore. /
She sings through a curtain of cold mountain rain / Where I dug her
bright silver in the high Coeur d'Alene.
She'll never be mine / She'll never be mine / I won all her
treasures so simple and fine / I guess she'll never be mine."
—"She'll Never Be Mine" by Utah Phillips
The trip to the cabin crests the summit of Lucky Peak Dam and soars
through winding passes, past tall, ancient trees that cast long shadows
across the highway. The rutted dirt road, dotted with "No Trespassing"
signs, runs between the mountains on one side and Grimes Creek on the
other. Past copses of deciduous trees and conifers, many of them
planted when the land was purchased nearly 80 years ago, the road opens
onto a large garden among the trees and a two-story log cabin. Living
in that log cabin off Highway 21, way out in Idaho, surrounded by
books, art and music, is 76-year-old folk music icon Rosalie
Sorrels' father built the cabin for her mother, and the two-story
building, the garden out front and Sorrels herself are as much a part
of the landscape as the creek that flows nearby. On a sunny Sunday
morning, in the tiny kitchen-slash-bathroom on the second floor of her
home, the world-renowned musician mixes up a batch of homemade corn
muffins and scrambles eggs with milk for her aging, longtime companion,
His hips are causing him problems and he needs to take medication.
"It's the only way I can get him to take his pain pills," Sorrels says.
As she scoops the eggs into a bowl, the dog heaves himself up off the
floor and ambles over. He hesitates briefly, then shoves his nose in
the pale yellow pile.
"Now where is the baking powder?" Sorrels asks. She looks through a
couple of drawers and cupboards but doesn't find it. Sounding like any
person who's taken care of herself for a long time, she adds, "I don't
mind when someone comes up to help me clean or whatever, but I wish
they'd put stuff back where they found it." Concerned but not deterred,
she pours the muffin batter into a tin and puts it in a shiny, white
oven to bake.
As the muffins cook, Sorrels opens the door so Lenny Bruce can go
outside and then reaches for two coffee cups from a slew of them
hanging from hooks in the ceiling. Many are handmade, souvenirs from
her travels and tours. She explains where this one came from and how
she got that one. She pours rich, dark coffee from a silver and black
coffeemaker and settles in to visit.
"I love being here," she says of her home in the mountains, a
sentiment echoed by the sound of Lenny Bruce barking in the background.
"The more I'm here, the more I love it. And I'm really loving it this
year. This is the first year in three years I'm able to put in a really
Sorrels lives in the mountains because she wants to, not because she
has a point to prove. She doesn't cook over an open fire or eschew
electricity or indoor plumbing. She has a phone; she has a radio; she
has a TV; she has a computer. Sorrels and her surroundings are in some
ways a metaphor for how the rest of the world seems to view Idahoans in
general and, in many ways, how we view ourselves: We're a part of the
modern world but refuse to give up the pioneer spirit that got us here
in the first place.
Sorrels' home holds images and items that define, describe and
divulge a woman whose history is the stuff legends are made of,
including her friendship with Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson described
their first meeting, to the best of his recollection, in the liner
notes for her 1971 album Travelin' Lady: "I forget exactly how I
first met Rosalie Sorrels, but I think it was a night in California
when I almost killed myself on a motorcycle ... I was too full of pain
to sleep, so she made me a pot of tea that was half Wild Turkey, as I
recall, and then she sang for me until I finally passed out around dawn
... Some of Rosalie's songs are so close to the bone that I get nervous
listening to them."
Books, records, CDs, posters, fliers, art, family photos and small
tableaus of Dia de los Muertos figurines fill Sorrels' living room
without crowding it. It's a space in which a visitor could spend days
perusing and uncovering hidden treasures as Sorrels' tells the stories
behind them, but even if a visitor were left alone inside, a respect
for Sorrels would compel them to sit quietly with hands folded and wait
for her return.
Much of the ephemera that surrounds Sorrels is related to her own
musical career, which spans six decades and includes performing before
crowds of thousands. She received her second Grammy nomination last
year for her Strangers in Another Country, an homage to her
friend, Utah Phillips, and received critical accolades for her debut
performance at South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, this
"There were 700 cowboys all jumping around, and then I got on stage
and some guy stood on his chair and yelled, 'Sing somethin' about
Texas, darlin'!' I said, 'Oh, honey, I'm from Idaho and we have a
panhandle, too.' They just cheered and proceeded to show me how sweet
they could be."
Shortly after Father's Day, Sorrels headed to play the Kate Wolf
Festival in Northern California, taking Boise musicians Bill Liles and
Ben Burdick with her.
"I love playing with them," Sorrels says of Liles and Burdick.
"They're so much fun to play with and they're so aware of what I do. I
was a jazz nut before I started singing folk songs. My concert set is
with Ramblin' Jack Elliott, one of the only people I know older than I
am who's still alive," she laughs heartily.
But like the long, rutted dirt road that leads from the highway to
her cabin, the path that led to Sorrels' success was not always a
smooth one. After her divorce in the mid-60s, she packed her five
children into the car and traversed the country as a touring
"NPR did a story on me," says Sorrels. "They did extensive
interviews, talked to a lot of people. I was listening to it on the
radio and they got to my daughter and asked, 'What was it like
traveling around?' and I said [to the radio], 'Don't tell them!'
"She went on, saying, 'Oh, we had a lot of fun. We met a lot of
interesting people and went to a lot of interesting places.' I thought,
'Fun? What fun? I remember when the transmission fell out on the
highway and you were all crying!'"
As she and the children traveled the United States, Sorrels found
that while she enjoyed writing and singing folk music, her passion lay
in collecting it. She became fascinated with the idea that folk music
was its own kind of history.
"You could take a song and trace it back a thousand years," Sorrels
says, the excitement she still feels evident in her voice. "You could
go through the periods it went through, how it came from England to the
United States, went to the southern Appalachians and all these
different places. You could see all the changes it went through and you
could still see it was exactly the same song. And what made people keep
those songs. All of that was amazing. I was obsessed. I drove people
crazy saying, 'Give me your old songs.'"
Sorrels' hunger for collecting music was further fed in the late
'80s when, to celebrate Idaho's Statehood Centennial in 1990, the Idaho
Folk Song Project was born. With a fund from the Idaho Centennial
Commission and a grant from the Idaho Commission on the Arts, the
purpose of the Folk Song Project was, according to the foreword by
Robert McCarl, the ICA's folk arts director at the time, to "begin the
process of collecting and building an archive of folk songs and music
sung and played by the people of Idaho as they went about their daily
lives before and during the course of the last century."
After years of collecting and singing Western folk music, who better
to visit the far reaches of Idaho for the state's history than Sorrels?
The result of her search is the 250-page book Way Out in Idaho.
Sorrels traveled across the state meeting men, women and children, some
who were born here, some who settled here, and some who were brought
here. She looked at their photos, listened to their stories and
collected their songs, unearthing a history as rich and loamy as a
The first lines in the book are her own: "Ever since I was a little
girl, I've believed that the name of my state was taken from a Nez
Perce phrase that meant, 'See how the morning sun is shining on the
"When I have been on a long journey and I return in the morning, I
say those words over and over to myself—calling back my
grandmothers and grandfathers, calling back faces and rooms, places and
times so long gone by. That's what folklore is—the homemade,
hand-wrought stuff of memory—not history, but color—the
blood and breath of then and now."
Sorrels' own life is the stuff of folklore. Her mother ran a
bookstore for 20 years, a primary factor in her life-long love affair
with learning. Her father was a politically active Idaho road engineer.
Sorrels was a part of counter culture before she was even old enough to
understand culture. Throughout her music career—which spans six
decades and more than 30 albums of her own or on which she was a
featured performer—she has kept company with songs and stories of
tragedies and triumphs as well as with performers much like herself who
voice the words of American social-consciousness and collective memory.
Sorrels' contemporaries, peers and friends include social activists and
musicians such as Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping, Sandy
Bull, Pete Seeger, Utah Phillips and Malvina Reynolds and authors such
as Thompson and Studs Terkel, to name but a smattering of the people
who have influenced and been influenced by Sorrels.
As she walks through her garden, pointing out various wildflowers,
she recalled a particularly cogent story about Thompson.
"I thought he was an incredible writer. He had a place close to
Aspen, and I went over and took my kids. [He said to someone], 'Rosalie
Sorrels was over for several days with all those children ... she's not
making any more money than she ever did, but she's still excessively