While the hills still burned, and while her listeners remained on watch for high winds and possible evacuations, Robin Pressman knew exactly which song to open her first show back on the radio since the fires: "I Wish It Would Rain," by Nanci Griffith.
Pressman feels the region's loss as much as anyone. Like many of her listeners, she also lost everything in the Oct. 8 fire, when her house in the Foothills in Santa Rosa burned to the ground overnight.
Pressman has been on the air in Sonoma County for 24 years; she was previously the program director at KRCB in Rohnert Park and the host of "Our Roots are Showing" before coming to KRSH ("The Krush") in Santa Rosa. In the weeks after the fire, Pressman's weekly program on KRSH, "The Sunday Muse," has turned into a communal source of comfort and understanding.
In the studio on a recent morning, it's clear that the solace found in music runs both ways.
"This is Robin Pressman on the Krush, and we're trying to stay upbeat here as we dig ourselves out, and continue, and try to see if life goes on," Pressman announces, between songs. “That song we just heard was Audrey Auld, one of our dear departed favorites, with 'Cryin' the Blues,' which is not what we're going to spend a lot of time doing around here with the music at all. No, no — music is for keeping us up and going."
With that, she plays her next selection, a song about finding one's way out of loss performed by Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell, called "By Way of Sorrow":
You have come by way of sorrow
You have come by way of tears
But you'll reach your destiny
Meant to find you all these years
Pressman's house had been, well, more than a house. It often hosted living room concerts by touring singer-songwriters on the folk circuit, with dozens of people gathered inside to listen. When it burned, Pressman and her husband Peter, along with a roommate, lost all their belongings, including their chickens, a large art collection, and Pressman's massive music library of CDs.
"I really quickly made my peace with the things, my possessions," she says. "We were in that house for nearly 18 years; Peter and I have been together for 31 years. Stuff where you remember when you bought it, or the antique stuff — that part I didn't spend much time dwelling on. It's the art that is really hurting my heart. We really did create that space, where it was meaningful for us to have that art."
The lost artwork includes pieces by friends and family, including her mother’s bronze sculptures, her great grandmother’s needlepoint ducks, and works by her great-grand-uncle, the Poland-born artist Marek Szwarc. Though she's walked up the long driveway to see what little is left, on this day she has yet to sift through the ashes like so many others in the area are doing, searching for any recognizable remains.
“So now I'm thinking, 'I've got nothing... maybe I don't need anything,'" she says. "Maybe I'll just be a nomad for a while."
Pressman does need CDs, however, to play on her radio show, and her collection contained many small-run pressings and CD-Rs by independent folk and acoustic artists that are long out of print. In a microcosm of the community's goodwill in the wake of the fires, replacements have been donated to her from friends, listeners, and well-wishing strangers.
She also received an offer she couldn't pass up: fellow radio host Bill Frater gave her four boxes of CDs once owned by mutual friend Laurie Schaeffer, a listening-room concert promoter whose name is hallowed in Sonoma County music circles. A passionate supporter of folk music, Schaeffer died in 2015, and playing her CDs, for Pressman, becomes an act of one loss repairing another.
"There was a while, after she died, when I would do my show and I would have a new CD, and I couldn't help but think 'What's the point?' Because I knew Laurie would love it, and she wasn't there to hear it."
The phone rings, and it's another regular listener calling with good wishes. "Hi Lynn! Oh, so nice to hear from you... Awww, do you? How fantastic... I remember! That was the first time you called me... 18 years ago? Wow... Yes, we're OK. And you survived? You're still here?... That's good, thank you. OK, gotta go."
Four or five such calls come in over the first hour of Pressman's show, and for a moment, it feels like Santa Rosa is still at its heart a small town. From the stack of donated CDs, she pops in a recording of Kate Wolf at the Great American Music Hall, singing "Everybody's Lookin' for the Same Thing," a song about the notes people leave on the bulletin board outside the hardware store.
“There's a lot of that happening right now," Pressman announces over the airwaves, "I hope you're finding what you need if you were impacted by the fire, and I hope that life is beginning to return to a little bit of normalcy. Happy to be here on the radio on Sunday morning – that's normalcy for me.”
Robin Pressman hosts 'The Sunday Muse' on KRSH-FM from 11am-1pm Sundays. Details here.