Of all the folk singers from the 1960s, Judy Collins had the most technically polished voice, though you might get some arguments on that from fans of Joan Baez. Collins' renditions of songs like Maid of Constant Sorrow or Amazing Grace had a classical purity that stood out amid a generation of singers who generally favored a more rough and ready style.
Now Collins has a new album out, Paradise, and the remarkable thing about it is how much her voice sounds the same, even at 71 years old.
"Well, it is the same,'' Collins said recently on the phone from her New York apartment. "That's what all the work and all the study does. It gives you some reference point and teaches you what to do.''
Still, most voices show the effects of age, their tone and texture growing darker and heavier, the high notes becoming less bell-like. But as you listen to Collins move easily into the upper register of her crystalline soprano on the new album — in songs such as Kingdom Come, about the 9/11 firefighters — it might as well be 1968 when her album Who Knows Where the Time Goes was a hit.
"The voice is a very intriguing instrument,'' Collins said. "It has the potential not to age. It's the only muscle in the body which, if treated properly, will last until you fall over. That's so you can scream in the forest if a lion is chasing you, no matter how old you are. I think nature has taken care of that for us.''
Collins continues to sing and play guitar in as many as 100 shows a year. She has one tonight at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater, with a pianist, and will perform songs from the new album and her vast catalog.
"I probably work harder now than I ever have in my life, and I love it,'' she said. "If I wasn't passionate about it, I would tell you. But I love the whole thing. I love the travel. I love the singing. I love the audiences.''
Though Collins grew up with strong musical training — her father was a singer, and she studied classical piano, making her debut at 13 to play a Mozart concerto — she didn't exactly take care of her voice in the heady days of peace, love and revolution. She has written candidly about her struggles with alcoholism in several books.
"I was very lucky to get through the '60s, given everything that was going on, including the personal crises,'' she said. "Alcoholism was down there, waving its fist. I was real lucky to get through my own war, let alone the Vietnam War.''
For the care and preservation of her voice, she credits Max Margulis, a voice coach for singers and actors in New York. Margulis, a co-founder of Blue Note Records, worked with Collins for more than 30 years.
"I really mistreated my voice, but I was lucky to have Max,'' said Collins. "On the one hand, I had this illness I couldn't control, and I couldn't stop drinking. On the other hand, I had somebody who was helping me to know what should be going on with the voice.''
Collins, who got sober in 1978, had a wry description of being an alcoholic singer who met with her voice coach two or three times a week. "It was like having a first aid station in your barroom. You know, with oxygen and antibiotics and everything else handy while you're drinking yourself to death.''
Margulis, who died in 1996, cultivated a deceptively simple approach to singing. "It's all about phrasing and clarity,'' Collins said.
Paradise has been getting a lot of attention because of its high-profile duets by Collins and Baez (Diamonds and Rust) and Stephen Stills (The Last Thing on My Mind). But it also has a typically astute selection of less well-known songs, such as Emilio by Michael Johnson, and Amy Speace's antiwar ballad, Weight of the World.
The album is put out by Wildflowers Records, which Collins started in 2001. In her heyday, she was a mainstay of Elektra Records, with more than 20 albums that ranged from the pure folk of songs like Pretty Polly and Silver Dagger to her Broadway hit with Stephen Sondheim's Send in the Clowns. Elektra was the brainchild of producer Jac Holzman, who assembled a glittering roster of folk musicians (Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Tim Buckley) and rock bands like the Doors, Love, the MC5 and the Stooges.
Collins sings the praises of Holzman, who sold Elektra in 1970, but she has nothing good to say about the recording industry, which lost its way as independent labels were gobbled up by conglomerates through the years. Now the album — the commercial art form that made her a star — is nearly extinct in an age of downloading singles.
"It was their own damn fault,'' she said. "They threw it all away. The new people at the top of the record companies had no loyalty, they had no understanding of the creative process and how long it takes. That's why I started my own label.''
Collins has written a '60s memoir, which will be published next year, but she has largely managed to avoid being pigeonholed as an icon of the era.
"I don't have any nostalgia for the old days,'' she said. "Once in a while, in a weak moment, I think about the sound of the ocean on the way down to Big Sur, but otherwise I'm not nostalgic, really. I'm Irish, but I'm not as nostalgic as I should be.''
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.