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OBLIVION LEFT BEHIND : Folk Singer Steve Gillette Is Starting to Get Somewhere

February 25, 1993|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

Steve Gillette recently made this joking assessment of the life that he and his wife, Cindy Mangsen, lead as itinerant folk singers with a tradition-steeped approach that isn't geared for the mainstream:

"It's really not oblivion, but you can see it from here."

Gillette--who traces his career roots back to the Orange County folk clubs of the early '60s--can afford to joke about oblivion. Now based in Vermont, he and Mangsen tool around the country playing in nooks and crannies where traditional folk fans gather, including Shade Tree Stringed Instruments in Laguna Niguel, his regular homecoming concert stop. But his songs have been finding a wider audience in cover versions by such country singers as Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis, Don Williams and Kenny Rogers.

"Unto You This Night," a Christmas song Gillette wrote with one of his collaborators, Tustin-based songwriter Rex Benson, wound up on "Beyond the Season," the Garth Brooks holiday album that has sold more than 2 million copies.

After his formative years in clubs like the Prison of Socrates in Balboa and the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, Gillette moved to New York City and quickly found success toward the end of the '60s folk boom. "Back on the Street Again," a wistful, catchy folk-rock ditty he wrote in the shower, became a Top Forty hit in 1967 for the Sunshine Company, a never-heard-from-again group whose members probably could tell you what oblivion looks like from the inside.

Gillette went on to sign with Vanguard Records and launched a solo career. Another song he had co-written, "Darcy Farrow," became a folk standard, recorded by Ian & Sylvia, John Denver and many others who wanted to wallow for a while in its saga of a fair maiden cut down in her prime and the swain who couldn't bear to live without her.

Gillette returned to Southern California, hoping the hits would keep on coming. But his own recording career stalled (he released three albums on small labels during the '70s), and the commercial hits stopped.

He wound up back in folk singer purgatory, the local club and restaurant circuit, playing amid the clink of beer mugs and the busing of plates and silverware.

In 1984, he was invited to the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, an annual mecca for songwriters (Michelle Shocked's debut album, "The Texas Campfire Tapes," was a performance that somebody surreptitiously taped at Kerrville). There, he discovered that the folk spirit of the '60s hadn't died; it had just gone underground.

"From then on," he recalled during an interview in 1990, "I was resolved to leave the other world (of commercial striving) behind and get out and travel and play, and I've done that ever since."

He married Mangsen, a veteran of the grass-roots folk scene, in 1989. Forming their own record company, Compass Rose Music, they released a beautifully harmonized live album as a duo in 1991.

Recently, they've each issued worthy projects.

Gillette's "The Ways of the World" teams him with a fine acoustic band of Nashville session pros on a series of songs that highlight his characteristic tenderness, his philosophic bent and his flair for the dramatic.

Mangsen's "Songlines" is steeped in Appalachian and British folk traditions and showcases a voice that would have held up well against the top trad-folk competition of the early '60s.

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