The Guthrie Family Rides Again Tour is coming to Asheville. And it's not just the Guthrie grownups that will be taking the stage. Legendary folk-music icon Arlo Guthrie will be joined by his seven grandchildren, ages 2 through 18. While Arlo acknowledges that the littlest ones aren't on stage for the entire show "because they would fall asleep," they do join him and his four adult children — Sarah Lee, Abe, Annie and Cathy — for at least one song. "Basically, what we're working on at the moment is seeing how long they can stand up," he jokes.
For one of the youngest grandchildren, Olivia, 7, touring is nothing new. She's been on the road with her mom and dad, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion (who's also on the family tour), since she was just 5-weeks-old; her 2-year-old sister, Sophia, is following in her footsteps. As a result, Olivia's "really road savvy and good at performing and singing," Sarah Lee says, which is why she plays a major role on the duo's latest critically acclaimed release, Go Waggaloo.
"Smithsonian Folkways called and asked us if we would consider making a [family] album that wouldn't want to make people jump out of their mini vans. And we totally got that," Sarah Lee says.
The album is composed of traditional folk numbers as well as new tunes, including three songs with lyrics by her grandfather, Woody Guthrie, that had never before been put to music. "When I got the lyrics home," Sarah Lee remembers, "and I was able to open them up in my own heart space, I could feel Woody with me, looking at this song he'd written over 50 years ago. It was a beautiful moment."
Before she and her husband recorded the album, they sat down with Olivia and asked her, as well as her classmates, to get ready to sing and help write additional lyrics. The track "If Mama Had Four Hands" was born from Olivia's imagination: She dreamed up all of the different things her mother could do with some extra digits — like "changing a diaper while she's tuning her guitar."
Olivia was pleased with the outcome of the song since it's a "bit of a rocker." She's currently still excited by her Christmas gift: an electric guitar. But, for Sarah Lee, the title track is her favorite. Curious as to what on earth "waggaloo" means? You're not alone. Smithsonian Folkways held a contest late last year asking listeners for their ideas, which Sarah Lee says included everything from "freedom" to "love." While the word didn't really have meaning to the family during recording, it's since come to life thanks to the album's cover art, a figure drawing by Woody Guthrie. "I call him Waggaloo. It's sort of this mischievous character, maybe a lot like Woody or like I'd like to be sometimes."
In addition to creating Go Waggaloo with her family and friends in 2009, Sarah Lee and Johnny Irion worked on their much-anticipated second studio album together, Bright Examples, which will be released later this year. The two made the record with Vetiver, a group from San Francisco that Sara Lee cites as an influential band in a "new psychedelic folk" movement, of which she's happy to be a part; she includes singer/songwriter Devendra Barnhart in the movement, too. However, she acknowledges that eight years ago it would have been hard for her to admit she was a folk artist.
Growing up, "the music I was really exposed to was my brother's rock band," Sarah Lee says, adding, "Later, I got into punk rock. I didn't really play music or picture myself as a folk singer." But that all changed when at 18 she met her now-husband Johnny Irion while living in Los Angeles. Together, they dove back into her family's records, and she sat down and listened to a Woody Guthrie album for the first time. "As I grew up, I definitely got more and more of a sense of who my father and grandfather were and what they meant. It kind of dawns on you as you're ready for it."
Recently, Sarah Lee met Mike Ness, of So Cal punk band Social Distortion fame, and Henry Rollins — her "heroes" as a teenager — and she was surprised to hear they had long been fans of Woody Guthrie. "I thought, oh my gosh, this really has come full circle. I wish I had known that when I was 14!"
Since her aunt Nora opened the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York about 15 years ago, contemporary artists have been more and more interested in Woody Guthrie's work and in setting his unpublished lyrics to new music. Perhaps the most well-known example is the 1998 album Mermaid Avenue by British singer Billy Bragg and the American rock band Wilco.
The Guthrie family is happy to have these artists work with the lyrics and keep the family legacy alive. As a "thank you," you can expect to hear tributes to Billy Bragg and Wilco, as well as Janis Ian, Eliza Gilkyson, and The Klezmatics, during the family's concert in Asheville.
Sarah Lee now owns her roots, and she's thrilled to be on the road playing folk songs with her entire family, calling it a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." To up-and-coming musicians, she reminds that playing with loved ones is what really matters. "Keep playing your ass off and trying to write good songs. And if it sinks through the cracks and you're just playing with your family and friends, that's awesome."
[Asheville resident Maggie Cramer is a freelance writer and editor.]
who: Arlo, Abe, Cathy, Annie, Sarah Lee and Johnny
what: Arlo Guthrie — Guthrie Family Rides Again Tour
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Wednesday and Thursday, March 3 and 4 (8 p.m. $50/$48/$45/$12. www.dwtheatre.com)