Guthrie Tribute Proves This Land Is Woody's Land

This appeared in The Tennessean - February 7, 2003

A musical tribute show is best when you come away feeling like you've heard songs interpreted and inhabited more than merely performed — assuming the songs are up to the job.

Wednesday night at the Ryman Auditorium that was no problem, as a host of leading national folk and roots music talent took turns and sometimes chances with the sturdy, timeless and poetic music of Woody Guthrie. From a Cajun-tinged "Hard Travellin' " to a Berlin art-house version of a children's song, as well as the more conventional guitar-and-voice offerings, the stunning range of Guthrie's material emerged, as did mini-portraits of each artists' relationships to his inescapable influence.

The presence of some of Guthrie's closest collaborators and family, in the audience and on stage, gave the night a historic cast. Emcee Marty Stuart even banged the drum for Guthrie's induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and by the end of the night, that had an air of inevitability about it.

The evening's only sour note had to do with logistics. At show time, the ticket line stretched down the Ryman's steps and well up the hill on Fourth Avenue South Organizers held the music for an hour, while the Old Crow Medicine Show kept the crowd from getting antsy. After banjoist Alison Brown and then Nashville's young MET Singers offered two radically different interpretations of "This Land Is Your Land" to kick off the show, it never lagged again.

Nashville's James Talley captured Guthrie's easy-going timing and Jimmie Rodgers influence on "Oklahoma Hills" and then the poignant "Deportee" with Beth Nielsen Chapman singing harmony. Janis Ian contributed spellbinding music to a lyric she'd been offered by the Guthrie family from the latter part of his life. The Medicine Show, an astonishingly good band of young guys who love old American music, whipped it up on Howdy Do.

Just before intermission, blues eclectic Corey Harris offered an indispensable Guthrie-penned tribute to his friend and fellow folk icon Leadbelly. Then Tim O'Brien and Peter Rowan collaborated on "Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key," a Billy Bragg tune over Guthrie lyrics and the classic "Hard Travellin' " with accordion master Dirk Powell.

The second half ranged further, with powerful and imaginative offerings from Native American rock trio Blackfire, DJ Logic with bassist Rob Wasserman and the out-there but grooving Wenzel, a Berlin artist and band who are recording Guthrie material. Guy Clark and Nanci Griffith proved sturdy Texas anchors, singing respectively Pretty Boy Floyd and Do Re Mi.

The show reached a late peak with Ramblin' Jack Elliott's loopy personality, storytelling magnetism and song mastery on "Pastures of Plenty" and a delicious talking blues about Guthrie's adventures in the "Merchant Marine." That was followed by Guthrie's charismatic son Arlo, mingling wit with humility that so many had come so far to honor his dad's legacy. A duet with his daughter Sarah Lee on a little-known tune "Dead or Alive" was riveting, and her own take on a risqué Guthrie number injected a sharp new flavor into the evening.

It ended of course with a stand-up, all-hands-on-deck "This Land Is Your Land." There wasn't really much choice about that, and it felt good to add our own voices to the tribute.

By Craig Havighurst

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