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The Ballad Of Carolyn Hester

Folk music didn't suddenly disappear -- folkish types such as James Taylor and Joni Mitchell would soon get very big indeed. But like Dylan, they were singer-songwriters, not just interpreters of traditional material -- a distinction that became increasingly important. Eventually Hester would start writing her own songs, but this requirement did not play to her strengths.

In the late '60s and early '70s, she went through a rock phase. She and pianist-record producer David Blume formed a group called the Carolyn Hester Coalition, about whose album the less said the better. "You can only get it on eBay," Hester says.

Carolyn Hester and husband David Blume last week in Cambridge: After the near-glory years, she's back on the road. (Laurie Swope For The Washington Post)

Around the time of Woodstock, she and Blume got married. They moved to California and had two daughters. Eventually Blume gave up the record business and settled into a copy editing job at the Los Angeles Times. Hester put what was left of her career on hold to stay home with the kids.

Talk about your classic story lines.

"You wouldn't advise a young lady to quit anything for 10 years," she says, "but in my case, that was just the way it was going to be, that's all."

She kept her hand in a bit. Every year she'd go back to Texas for the Kerrville Folk Festival, where she took younger singers like Nanci Griffith under her wing. Griffith returned the favor, once she got big herself, by inviting Hester on tours and to recording sessions.

In 1992, she finally made it to Madison Square Garden -- as part of a Bob Dylan 30th anniversary bash.

"I think she's had the best of both worlds," Griffith says of Hester's career-motherhood combination. Hester agrees. But as the girls got older (they've got their own group, the RBIs, with their own debut CD), she was able to work more. There have been some CDs on small labels, with the most recent being a Tom Paxton tribute put out by an English outfit called Road Goes On Forever.

Now, with Almost-Stardom in the rearview mirror and Blume on keyboard -- "as an orchestra, he's very inexpensive," she jokes -- she's back on the road herself.

Club 47 has long since changed its name; it's been Club Passim for years, and it's moved a few blocks from its original Cambridge location. There are no Carolyn Hester CDs for sale in any of five nearby music stores, though you can find plenty of Joan Baez and Judy Collins. There's no Carolyn Hester vinyl, for that matter, though you might think you'd hit a gold mine when you see a sign for a boutique called Hootenanny.

Turns out it's a clothing store with a midwinter sale, and the cacophonic music it's playing is definitely not folk.

Never mind. Here's Carolyn Hester in person, a few weeks from her 68th birthday, white hair gleaming in the Passim spotlights, big smile taking years off her age. Twenty-somethings like Nelly Furtado should look so good 40 years from now.

"If you think I'm trying to make you sing, you're right," Hester tells the 50-odd assembled listeners after she opens with "Pack Up Your Sorrows" -- a Richard Farina tune, as it happens -- then moves on through "Flatlands of Texas" and starts in on "You Never Break Even in Love."

A bit later, there are technical difficulties.

"Is that a mess?" she asks Blume, who's trying to help her out.

"No -- it's not perfect, but it's not a mess," he tells her.

"Story of my life," says the contender who was almost a queen.

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