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Petaluma-raised musician plays on


There’s really no telling where Don Coffin might show up next.

The well-known musician and community advocate might be performing at any number of music venues that showcase folk, bluegrass or traditional music from throughout the world, offering his musical expertise to groups of school children, hosting his own radio show, or playing on the soundtrack of a popular television program. An activist who combines music-making with community involvement, he frequently offers his time to one of the many local causes in need of a skilled carpenter or fine woodworker.

“Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve tried to blend community through music,” said Coffin, a 70-year-old native Petaluman, who along with his former wife, the late Kate Wolf, helped create the memorable acoustic Sonoma County sound of the 1970s. His sense of community developed amid the disillusioning social turmoil of the late 1960s and flourished after teaming up with Wolf.

Now a Lake County resident, Don attended St. Vincent’s school while living with his mother and step-father, Irene and Ed Barone, sister Barbara and brothers Ed and Jeff, on Petaluma’s west side. Musically inclined—his grandfather, Saul Barone, the owner of Barone Electric & Manufacturing Co. was a member of the Petaluma Municipal Band—Coffin was eight years old when he was given his first instrument, a trumpet.

Substantially self-taught, Coffin learned to play the guitar while in high school, using it as a social vehicle to fit in and to impress the girls while he worked as a dishwasher at Shower’s Restaurant. After serving in the U.S. Army, he attended Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State, where he studied geology.

But music was his true passion.

“A lot of the music I love was a push back against its continual change,” noted Coffin. “Music bespeaks a beautiful landscape. People’s feelings and sentimentality don’t change. I became aware that I was so moved by music, I wanted to become a performer.”

He moved to Sebastopol in 1968, where a common sight was the “parade of oddballs coming down the street.” He met Kate Wolf in 1971 when they were both booked at the Stagecoach in Vallejo.

“Kate stirred up people’s emotions. She was so charismatic everyone thought her songs were about them. That’s when I realized how powerful of a person she was,” said Coffin, of their time performing together as a duo, and as Kate Wolf and the Wildwood Flower. “I was a backup to her songwriting talent. My role was to lighten things up by singing a funny song.”

For seven years they did everything together, including a cross-country tour with stops in Kansas City, Chicago, Ontario, New York and Philadelphia, while immersing themselves in community causes and concerts throughout Sonoma County.

“Then the world found out about Kate,” explained Coffin. “They all wanted a part of her and her time. It got to where she wanted to reach a larger audience, which became unbearable to me and distanced me from her. Maybe she knew her time was fleeting. She passed in 1987 at the age of 44. Even though we separated in 1978, we never stopped caring for each other.”

Coffin became knowledgeable in survival skills, which led to the restoration of the house he and Wolf lived in, building his own home, and returning to splendor a 1907-built Victorian in Sebastopol.

His musical career has opened doors never thought possible, with countless tours, concerts and folk festivals in California, Oregon and Washington, and five tours of Europe. Music is and always has been his motivation, with his carpentry skills helping subsidize the times he performs for free at community benefits and fundraisers. Deeply altruistic, he donates many hours playing at assisted living facilities and at the Sonoma Developmental Center. After last year’s devastating wildfires that ravaged Lake County, his presence and soothing music at the Lower Lake respite center provided comfort to many displaced families.

Performing with his band of 20 years, The Hot Frittatas, the versatile Coffin - who plays the guitar, mandolin, fiddle, ukulele and Dobro - helped write 12 new songs and an original soundtrack for a past episode of “The Bachelor.” He’ll be at the Ely Stage Stop & Country Museum in Kelseyville on September 9 for Bluegrass at the Ely, a music and crafts festival and benefit for Lake County Historical Society and Anderson Marsh Interpretive Association. He’ll also be a judge and perform at the National Heirloom Exposition.

Never one to seek the celebrity spotlight, Coffin enjoys his time on stage backing up other musicians. He maintains a full schedule, with no shortage of things to do.

“I’m so busy I don’t want to be any busier,” Coffin said of his focused lifestyle of celebrating and supporting his community. “Just being me is pretty exciting.”

(Harlan Osborne’s column ‘Toolin’ Around Town’ appears every two weeks. Contact him at Harlan@sonic.net)