The Curmudgeon: Guthrie’s Legacy Lives On

Music Features

A column questioning the assumptions of popular music

Woody Guthrie was born in Okemah, Okla., on July 14, 1912, and the town, which once spurned the association, now embraces it. The whole state, once made uncomfortable by its reflection in the dust-bowl troubadour’s music, now preens in that mirror. Okemah will even mark Guthrie’s would-have-been 100th birthday with the 15th annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival July 11-15.

It’s been a year of centennial celebrations for the father of alternative-country music (if we define alternative-country as hillbilly music made for non-commercial reasons, Guthrie is the ultimate example). The songs that Billy Bragg and Wilco constructed from Guthrie lyrics for the two Mermaid Avenue albums have now been reissued as a box set with a third disc of previously unreleased tracks (my on-line liner notes for the box set are available here).

Earlier this year My Morning Jacket’s Yim Yames, Son Volt’s Jay Farrar, Centro-matic’s Will Johnson and Varnaline’s Anders Parker teamed up to add music to Guthrie’s leftover lyrics. They released the results as the two-CD set New Multitudes .

On July 10, Smithsonian Folkways Records will release Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection, a three-CD box set containing 57 tracks (both the most familiar and a few previously unreleased) with a 150-page large-format book. Last fall 429 Records released Note Of Hope: New Songs from the Woody Guthrie Archives, more adaptations of old lyrics by Rob Wasserman with Van Dyke Parks, Madeleine Peyroux, Lou Reed, Tom Morello, Michael Franti, Kurt Elling, Ani Difranco, Studs Terkel, Nellie McKay, Chris Whitley, Pete Seeger, Tony Trischka and Jackson Browne.

These are all worthwhile projects, but their stories are being told by other writers. The story that’s not being told, the story I want to tell here, is of the brilliant new music being made in the Guthrie tradition right now by two more Oklahoma natives: John Fullbright and Ray Wylie Hubbard.

This pair of Okies has released two of the best albums of 2012, not by imitating Guthrie but by grabbing one aspect of the centennial man’s talent and spinning off from it a new kind of Oklahoma music. Guthrie wrote a lot of different kinds of lyrics, but one of his specialties was assuming the identity of someone else in song. He could pretend to be a Mexican migrant worker, a female union organizer or an Oregon construction worker, and make you believe you were hearing the character, not the singer.

A very different kind of musician, Randy Newman, does the same thing, and on his debut studio album, From the Ground Up, Fullbright does too. Singing as a middle-aged parent, an old man on the road and an ageless deity, he grafts Newman’s branch onto Guthrie’s trunk to create something unprecedented.

Another aspect of Guthrie’s genius was his use of the blues. While he borrowed a lot of his country music from the Carter Family, his two biggest influences were Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills, two hillbillies drenched in the blues. Hubbard began his career as a charter member of Texas’s outlaw-country movement, but with help from producer Gurf Morlix, he reinvented himself as a bluesman on the 2001 album, Eternal and Lowdown.

On three more albums with Morlix and two subsequent projects co-produced by himself and George Reiff, Hubbard has refined that blues approach until his push-and-pull beats have become as taught and sharp as Oklahoma barbed wire. The second, 2012 project with Reiff, The Grifter’s Hymnal, suggests what Guthrie might have sounded like if he’d leaned even further in that direction.

Despite their differences, these three Oklahomans have certain things in common. They all have a fascination with vernacular language, playing with puns, slang, allusions and juxtapositions. To match that kind of language is a similar kind of music that, no matter what else is added to it, can work with just one voice, one acoustic guitar and one harmonica. Out of that working-class way of talking and playing comes a sympathy for the down-and-out in their battles with the high-and-mighty.

All three have seen Oklahoma as a place to be from rather than a place to be. Guthrie left Okemah for Texas, then California and New York—and pretty much all points in between. Hubbard left Hugo, Oklahoma, for Dallas and Red River, New Mexico, and now lives outside of Austin. Fullbright is still based in Okemah but spends an ever growing percentage of his time in Austin, Nashville and on the road.

But whenever these three have left Oklahoma they’ve taken something with them. The state is often viewed as just a northern extension of Texas, but there are crucial differences. Oklahoma does have the cowboy philosophy and hard-scrabble-farmer ethos of West Texas, but without the Mexican influence of South Texas nor the intellectual bohemia of Austin nor the hedonism of the Gulf Coast.

In their place are a stronger Protestant church and the ubiquitous Indian reservations. Those Baptist preachers and Cherokee elders have exerted a moral claim on ordinary Oklahomans that not even non-denominational songwriters such as Guthrie, Fullbright and Hubbard can ignore. All three have written plenty of songs with firm feelings about right and wrong and much pondering about the meaning of life.

The baby-faced Fullbright, who turned 24 in April just before releasing From the Ground Up, was born in Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah. At the past two Folk Alliance Conferences in Memphis, Fullbright emerged as the most promising new folk singer in years. An even more gifted guitarist and pianist than he is lyricist, Fullbright avoids the same-old-sameness of so many folk songs by composing restless melodies and unexpected chord changes. Because the musical surprises yank the songs out of folk-auto-pilot, they also yank Fullbright out of navel-gazing narcissism.

Fullbright sings a lot in the first-person, but it’s usually obvious that he’s playing a character as his hero Newman does in so many songs. Also like Newman, Fullbright often engages in contentious dialogues with God. Sometimes the young Okie adopts the role of the Supreme Being, as in “Gawd Above,” singing, “There’s one sure way humans can be bested: Give ’em wine and song, fire and lust; when it all goes wrong, I’m the man to trust.” Sometimes Fullbright’s the doubting believer, as on “I Only Pray at Night,” singing, “I’ve got an unmarked card; you’ve got the upper hand.”

The Newman influence is most obvious on the songs where Fullbright performs alone on piano; he plays the role of a doting, maybe smothering father on “Song for a Child” and the role of a Guthrie-like wanderer on “Nowhere To Be Found.” The Guthrie influence is more pronounced on “All the Time in the World,” a harmonica-driven funky blues song about a similar wanderer trying to avoid the fate of those whose “lives are useless, useless; they’re trying all the time to fill another man’s shoes.”

On “Jericho,” an organ-driven garage-folk-rock number that reminds one of the Band tracks on The Basement Tapes, the same wanderer goes looking in the desert for a place to land, a place where he can “lay down my traveling shoes and let the vines grow over me.” When he promises that his trumpet will bring down the walls of Jericho, he implies that those walls are as much around each person’s secrets as around the rich man’s gated community. His optimistic vision of those tumbling walls is echoed on “Moving,” a bouncy folk-rocker that declares, “Don’t worry about the bombs that fall, ’cause we’re moving.”

Fullbright makes his most explicit, most Guthriesque attack on America’s class system on “Fat Man,” a song built atop a Newmanish piano theme with lyrics about a rich man who’s “got strings that run all over town. As he pulls on them tightly, he chokes all that grows.” On the folk-rock anthem, “Daydreamer,” Fullbright celebrates all the young men who walk around looking down at the ground, lost in daydreams, because someday—and here the drums quicken and the melody rises—those young men will “dream me a better world and I’ll find a better way.” Fullbright is one such young man, and he has already dreamed a better kind of Oklahoma folk song.

Hubbard, who was born in 1946 in Soper, Oklahoma, has not been a young man in a long time, but his new release, The Grifter’s Hymnal, is the funkiest blues-rock album we’re likely to get this year. That syncopation has dispelled not only the rhythmic lassitude of so much country-folk music but also the laziness of language. Over the past dozen years, Hubbard’s new songs have teemed with images focused in their details and defiant in their attitude. When he sings, “Tear a lying tongue out by its roots; feed it to the mice around the chicken coop,” not only can you picture exactly what he’s describing but you instinctively clamp your teeth shut.

That couplet comes from “Hen House,” a song set on an Oklahoma farm where the fox is in the henhouse and the rooster’s fighting back. Blackbird, the song’s protagonist, is attracted to the wild anarchy of sin, but he can’t give up on religion entirely, so his tattoo reads, “665.9.” He intends to attend to his soul someday, but while the fur and feathers are flying, “salvation’s gonna have to wait.” To understand just how intense the battle between the fox and rooster is, you just have to listen to the tension between Hubbard’s rhythm guitar and the boogie-woogie piano from the Faces’ Ian McLagan.

It’s not that Hubbard thinks God and Satan are irrelevant; he takes them very seriously. But they’re the frame of existence, while he’s in the middle of the picture, “in the mud and scrum of things, moaning, crying, lying … between the devil and God, between the first breath and last.” He’s willing to take advice from Yahweh and Beelzebub, but he’s also taking suggestions from Jack Kerouac, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Arthur Rimbaud and Harry Smith, all of whom are referred to in the song. Brown’s probably the inspiration for Billy Cassis’s greasy slide-guitar work.

“Red Badge of Courage” is an anti-war lament worthy of Guthrie, a slow blues track with Hubbard’s son Lucas on electric lead guitar. “Train Yard” is a stomping blues number about teenage lust consummated on a blanket inside a “gunmetal gray” railroad shed. “Mother Blues” is a long, swampy story-song that begins, “When I was a young man about 21 years old, all I wanted was a stripper girlfriend and a gold-top Les Paul—be careful of the things you wish for; you might get ’em,” and then proceeds to explain in detail how he obtained and came to regret both.

But the album’s highlight is “New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell,” a sequel to Hubbard’s famous 1999 song, “Conversation with the Devil.” Once again Hubbard finds himself in Satan’s Inferno and like an Okie Dante gives us a tour of the premises. This time, though, the guide’s spiel is delivered not in the medieval Italian of 1317 nor in the rambling talking blues of 1999 but in the brisk, bristling blues stomp of 2012. And the angry, aggressive music fits the location weather perfectly.

Hubbard begins by asking why he’s in Hell when he only committed such minor sins: pawning a ’59 Gibson ES 335, using a Ouija board and drawing to an inside straight. He’s not nearly as bad as “all the sonsabitches who ripped off musicians and … the Fox News whores.” It’s not the heat he objects to, but the tackiness. Who wants to spend eternity in a place that looks “like the Beverly Hills Hotel—before you can get a table next to the fire, a sign says, ‘Jacket and tie required’?”

It’s a song full of humor, full of moral outrage, full of tongue-twisting wordplay, full of irreverent pot shots, full of road-house rhythms, full of hillbilly blues, full of everything needed to keep Woody Guthrie’s Oklahoma legacy alive in the 21st century.

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