My college years, 1997-2001, were kind of a strange time for me musically. The grunge/modern rock revolution had died and rotted into a nu-metal carcass. I’d grown up and thus grown out of indie rock, but hadn’t quite grown up enough to know how to fully welcome the boy band pop that was then dominating the charts into my world. The rise of emo, which would make me fall back in love with new rock music, was a few years away.
One genre that did grab me during those years was alt-country, which was bubbling under (and soon bubbled over when, in 2000, the release of the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou thrust Americana into the mainstream, which led to a sort of faddish popularity that popularized it in the short term and basically killed it in the long). It was a Usenet group, alt.music.replacements, that turned me on to the Old 97’s, and from there, down the rabbit-hole I went. Whiskeytown, Uncle Tupelo/Wilco/Son Volt, Slobberbone, Matthew Ryan, Bap Kennedy, Jon Dee Graham, I ate it all up. I was way more likely to be found reading a copy of No Depression or, later, Paste, than Rolling Stone or Alternative Press. I even made a point, on my cross-country move in late 2002, to pass through Austin as Austin City Limits festival was happening. (It’s much bigger and more diverse now, but at the time ACL Fest was still primarily about Americana in its various and sundry forms. That said, one of the highlights of the 2002 festival was seeing Luna play one of their final shows alongside a glorious sunset to close out the evening.)
The more I dug into the genre, the further back I went. Between the moon-rocket rise of internet file sharing and the impressively large catalog we had at WBRS (where I DJ’d a show called Southern Rail every Saturday afternoon from 1-3 for over a year) I had the opportunity to listen to everything from Johnny Cash and Hank Williams to Jim & Jesse, John Hammond, Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and more. Great music, and a great education.
And of course, as I climbed through the roots of American roots music, I ran repeatedly into Woody Guthrie. Prior to this, I had primarily known Guthrie as “the guy Bob Dylan was trying to be”, and not being much of a Dylan fan had never really paid him much attention, but the truth is that their songwriting styles could not be further apart. While both were masters of the clever turn of phrase and the biting quip, Woody’s music is so much more direct, sharply honed, rudimentary in the same way early garage rock and early punk were. His lyrics are poetic but they’re a sort of economical poetry, saying much while stating little, almost Hemingway-esque. I particularly adore his Dust Bowl Ballads, which are really just as political as his more overtly-political later work but get there in (what I find to be) more interesting ways.
Woody Guthrie succumbed to Huntington’s Disease (a particularly awful way to go, and one that affected his mind as much as his body, sadly) in 1967. Had he lived, he would be turning 100 today. I wish he were alive now; in a lot of ways, the culture wars of today don’t seem so different from the ones Woody fought during his days, and while I don’t think there’s much question as to what he’d say now I’d still like to hear him saying it. Sadly, it seems that the process of making Woody into an American Icon required remaking his image as something more broadly palatable. They say history is written by the winners, but sometimes it’s just rewritten to make it look like everybody was a winner.
I’m glad to see there’s been some publicity around Woody’s centenary; too often, he feels like a name consigned to history, but his music is readily available today, and while it might take a bit of time and tolerance to open up to the sound quality of early recordings, it’s not at all inaccessible. I enjoy the Mermaid Avenue albums, in which Billy Bragg and Wilco team up to set a trove of unrecorded Guthrie lyrics to new music, but while they’re worth your time they’re no substitute for the real deal. I can’t vouch for the newly-released Woody At 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection box set, but the Asch Recordings series of releases make for a great career survey, though personally I’d start by picking up Dust Bowl Ballads. And if you’re interested in learning more about Guthrie’s life (and you should be, he’s a truly fascinating character, a modern tragic hero) I strongly recommend you pick up a copy of Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life, it’s one of the best musician bios I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot of them.
100 years after his birth, Woody Guthrie’s music is still out there, essentially hiding in plain sight. I’m glad I found it.