Kate McGarrigle, 1946-2010

Kate McGarrigle, one-half of the famous McGarrigle Sisters, passes away


When the McGarrigle sisters played a concert, they made it sound like they were in your kitchen. They had a way of keeping things super casual.

“Don’t you play banjo on this one?” Anna might say before one song.

“We play this in G, don’t we?” Kate might say on another.

Kate McGarrigle died last Monday in her home in Montreal, with family members by her side, including son Rufus Wainwright and daughter Martha Wainwright.

The scattered quality of their performances infuriated some concert goers, charmed others and, apparently caused Rufus some anxiety of his own. When he recreated Judy Garland’s 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall in 2006, he asked Anna to play piano on his encore. The story goes that she arrived on stage for the performance carrying a banjo, bringing a look of horror to Rufus’s face. She was kidding of course, put down the banjo and dutifully sat down at the piano, laughing – she obviously knew how to do schtick on herself.

The Quebec-born McGarrigle sisters caught their first big break when Linda Ronstadt decided to cover Anna’s composition Heart Like A Wheel, which became the McGarrigles’ signature song. Then Maria Muldaur invited Kate down to play piano on the recording session for Cool River On Her Waitress on the Donut Shop album (Maria had recorded Kate’s Work Song on her previous recording). When Kate was having some difficulty, producer Joe Boyd wondered why someone couldn’t play her own song. Kate allowed that it was Anna who was the writer, which prompted Boyd to invite Anna to play, too. When he heard the two together – they had a vocal blend only sisters can achieve – he offered them a recording contract.

Kate leaves a legacy of 10 albums recorded with Anna – with some material sung in French – as the McGarrigle sisters and collaborations with, among others, The Chieftains, Emmylou Harris and Joan Baez.

She can also take at least some credit for the professional and personal success of her son and daughter. You can hear Kate’s vocal timbre in the tones of Martha’s voice, for example. Many say that the duo of Martha with Anna’s daughter Lily Lanken sounds eerily reminiscent of the McGarrigles.

And Rufus would not be all of who he is – gifted artist, openly gay performer – had Kate not encouraged his uniqueness. He was well on his way to queerness before the age of 10 – flamboyant, larger than life – and she loved every bit of him.

To honour her caregivers at the McGill University Health Centre, she established the Kate McGarrigle Fund, a not-for-profit partner of the the Cedars Cancer Institute and the MUHC Foundation.[rssbreak]

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