Folk singer Arlo Guthrie is on vacation someplace where he can’t get phone reception, but, for some reason, he can get e-mail. In this, the age of information, such a vacation begs for speculation. The Perhentian Islands of Malaysia? Nome, Alaska? Amish country, perhaps?
With Guthrie—best known for “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” his 18-minute protest-song-by-way-of-meandering-anecdote—anything is possible. After all, this is the man who claimed in one interview that, as a 13-year-old, he invited Bob Dylan into his house, “mostly because I liked his shoes.” Dylan dropped by that day in 1961 looking for Guthrie’s father, iconic Americana songwriter Woody Guthrie. And it was the elder Guthrie’s musical legacy (including “This Land is Your Land,” “(If You Ain’t got the) Do Re Mi,” and “I Ain’t Got no Home”) that Arlo inherited. He, of course, promptly wrote “The Motorcycle Song.” (“I don’t want a pickle. Just want to ride on my motorsickle,” is the intro. You get the thrust.)
“I never wrote songs for shelf life, for the same reason I don’t eat food with shelf life: It might last but it doesn’t mean it’s good for you,” Guthrie tells Xpress by e-mail. “My legacy may read, ‘You had to be there.’”
Even in regard to history-making moments like Woodstock, Guthrie remains stoic.
“Everything is in the past,” he says, summoning some inner Yoda. “People seem to dwell on the past a lot. That, or they are waiting for something in the future. It may be comforting, but it’s not thrilling. I like thrilling—so I try to live in the moment. I’ve been saying that for decades and will continue to say it.”
So, forget about reminiscences from a colorful hippie past. These days, the folk singer (who plays a two-night stand billed, cheekily, as the Solo Reunion Tour: Together at Last) is busy with multiple projects, including his label, Rising Son Records, and his cultural-exchange foundation, the Guthrie Center (located in the church featured in Alice’s Restaurant). He also works closely with his children: His son, Abe, founded the band Xavier and now plays backup for his father; daughter Sarah Lee is married to singer/songwriter Johnny Irion, with whom she performs; and daughter Cathy plays ukulele in the band Folk Uke with Willie Nelson’s daughter Amy. Guthrie’s third daughter, Annie, manages the family touring schedule and runs the office. In November 2007, the Guthrie clan (along with spouses and grandkids) was photographed by Annie Leibovitz in a Vanity Fair spread in which they were named “First Family of Folk.”
“However it came about, it was freaking great to work with Annie Leibovitz,” Guthrie enthuses, before remarking, “As far as the ‘first family’ stuff, well, I always thought of the Carter Family that way.”
But, the Carters hardly managed the happily ever-after part that seems to underscore Guthrie’s situation. He’s dabbled in television (1994’s Byrds of Paradise was a commercial flop but landed the musician in Hawaii for a season while he played—get this—an aging hippie gardener); written a children’s book (Mooses Come Walking, 1995, illustrated by Alice from … well, you know); and watched his children’s musical careers take root.
“I come from a great family who placed a lot of hope in their kids, [and] I get to do that now,” Guthrie notes. “I hope my kids and grandkids will be happy playing some small part in the evolution of humanity. The business stuff is just fun.”
Twenty-six albums into his career—his most recent release is last year’s live In Times Like These (Rising Son Records)—there must be a serious side to the business, too. After all, even if Guthrie makes it all look like a happy fluke, that in itself is surely greater evidence of his genius.
On his Web site, Arlo.net, the singer posts a revolving “thought for the day,” all very Taoist and humorously deep. “If readers understand that they do not understand what they are reading, then they must possess an understanding which is superior to the meaning which caused that misunderstanding,” he asserts in one. And another, “You can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in.”
So, when he says of his own body of work (and resulting acclaim), “You have to take some things with a grain of salt,” that sentiment seems at least in keeping with Guthrie’s own Jedi mindset. When, 40 years after the release of Alice’s Restaurant, Rolling Stone named it one of “The Essential Albums of 1967,” Guthrie shrugs it off, saying, “That and a few bucks still won’t get you a cup of coffee in some places these days.”
Indeed, years passed when the musician was hard pressed to play that tune, though he admits to getting through it on occasion these days. As for his newest release, Times, its collection of classics (“St. James Infirmary,” “Goodnight Irene”), Guthrie chestnuts (“City of New Orleans”) and new offerings, such as the title track, show the artist to be in fine form. His once-reedy voice has gained some depth with age, and his songs are fleshed out with the backing of the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra. And—in a nod to his fans as well as his longtime touring partner Pete Seeger—he’s included as a bonus track the Elvis classic, “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”
The story with that song goes something along these lines: At a concert in Europe years ago, where most of the audience members weren’t fluent in English, Seeger decided to lead a sing-along. So, he pulled from his arsenal of culture-crossing hits “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” “Over the Rainbow,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Then, a glint in his eye, he turned to Guthrie and said, “Now you play one.”
It was a challenge, and one to which Guthrie rose. As he strummed the opening verse, the “Wise men say only fools rush in” bit, every voice in that crowd joined in. Or so the story goes. But, despite Xpress’ request for the singer’s version, Guthrie prefers to save if for the stage. If you want to hear it from the horse’s mouth, you’ve got to go see the show.
who: Arlo Guthrie’s Solo Reunion Tour: Together At Last
what: Two nights of music by a folk icon
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Thursday, Feb. 14, and Friday, Feb. 15. 8 p.m. ($45; $43/seniors, $40/students, $10/children. www.dwtheatre.com or 257-4530)