BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Kevin Bowe and his band, the Okemah Prophets, performed
in Okemah for the first time at last year's Woody Guthrie
Folk Festival. They lucked out with an indoor cafe show
during the heat of an afternoon, and their Ramblin' Jack
Elliott-meets-the Replacements songs bowled over a crowd of
Guthrie fans, including Guthrie cohort (and last year's
headliner) Pete Seeger. After the Prophets' fiery set,
Seeger even remarked, "That's different, but of course I
Kevin Bowe and his band will be back at the Woody
Guthrie Festival this week -- with a high-profile slot on the
outdoor main stage Saturday night -- and Bowe says he's eager
to return. His road to Okemah from his native Minneapolis
has been a long and winding one (appropriately for an
acolyte of the festival's namesake) and owes its coming
full circle to the magic of the Internet. Last year, one of
the festival organizers entered "Okemah" into an online
search engine just to see what returns would come up;
suddenly he was reading about this Minneapolis-based band
called the Okemah Prophets and led by a widely acclaimed
songwriter (who's written for the likes of Jonny Lang, Leo
Kottke, Peter Case, Chuck Prophet, Delbert McClinton and
more). Two phone calls later, they were booked.
In an interview from his Minnesota home this week, Bowe
retraced his circuitous route from young punk to
Guthrie-influenced songwriter and band leader.
TC: How and when did you discover Woody?
KB: Well, I'm 40 years old. My musical coming of age was
in the '70s. Music had gotten so awful by the late '70s
with the corporatization of rock. I mean, I first listened
to radio as a young teen, when FM was freeform and had no
playlists. You'd hear Led Zeppelin segue into John Prine.
The first record I bought was by Taj Mahal because I'd
heard it on the radio and liked it. By the late '70s it was
all Foreigner and Heart, and I felt very disenfranchised by
the shift. So I started listening to older music. I
discovered country through this weird genealogy: "Exile on
Main Street" (by the Rolling Stones) has pedal steel on it,
and investigating that I found Gram Parson, and through
that discovered the Byrds' "Sweetheart of the Rodeo," and
then you get to Hank Williams Sr. and it's all over. I
probably discovered Woody through Bob Dylan. I mean, I'm a
Jewish guy from Minnesota -- who else am I going to be
listening to, right?
TC: What grabbed you about Woody's music, though?
KB: By the time I discovered Woody Guthrie, I was more
of a songwriter than a band guy. I was focused on writing
more than performing. That's what grabbed me about him. In
the introduction to (Guthrie's novel) "Bound for Glory," Pete
Seeger says that any damn fool can write complicated, but
it takes a genius to write simple. Also, the humor in
Woody's stuff -- that grim humor.
TC: The sense of humor is crucial to understanding
Woody. Someone mentioned to me the other day that the
reason they don't like the film of "Bound for Glory" is that
David Carradine (who played Guthrie) has no sense of
KB: Sure. I mean, it seems to me like Woody Guthrie was
having a great time. He was pissed about certain things,
and rightfully so, but he was all about having a good time
while bringing down the man, you know? ... I was reminded
of Woody a little bit recently when I was watching a
bio-pic of Abbie Hoffman called "Steal This Movie." I rented
it because I have a song in it, which I just found out
about. Anyway, I'd always regarded Hoffman as a bit of a
clown, but this movie's position was that he was into using
humor to bring down the corrupt forces in government. That
reminded me of Woody.
TC: Tell me why you wound up primarily a songwriter
instead of a front man.
KB: When you pick up a guitar at 13, you don't think, "My
goal is to make a living writing songs for people younger
and more talented than me." I've been in moderately
successful bands, but when you hit 30 and the people you
went to high school with are becoming really successful,
you start to evaluate your strengths. I was sitting there
going nowhere, playing in a bar one night, and there was a
producer in the audience named David Z (Prince, Jonny
Lang). He talked to me afterward and said, "Your band is OK,
but your songs are really something. Maybe I could use some
sometime." Our first project together was placing my song
"Riverside" on Jonny Lang's first album. We've worked on a
lot of projects since, and my career now is flying around
to work with different artists, writing songs.
TC: I read somewhere that Paul Westerberg was
instrumental in your turn from performance to writing.
KB: For me, it's all about Bob Dylan and Paul
Westerberg. I don't know if this goes over well at a folk
festival, but punk rock was a huge thing for me.
TC: Of course, it goes over well. The first year of the
festival Billy Bragg was on stage explaining how Woody was
the original punk.
KB: Well, yeah. You're either
someone who gets punk or doesn't, and that's part of my
enjoyment of Woody Guthrie. He was more punk than most
punks. The Replacements -- well, there's never been a better
band, but I don't think Westerberg thinks of himself as a
punk. He happened to be an unnaturally gifted songwriter in
a punkish band.
TC: Your bio makes a point of mentioning your childhood
in Minnesota, how you were half Irish and half Serbian in
the land of Scandinavian settlers. How did that affect your
songwriting, and do you think it was anything like being an
Okie in California?
KB: Oh yeah. Actually, I feel the same way up here that
Woody must have felt in Okemah -- a stranger in a strange
land. We've never fit into the scene up here. When we play
here, we can't get arrested. But when we play in Nashville
or Austin or Okemah, it's a big deal. We refer to Okemah as
TC: And why did you call your Minneapolis band the
KB: In Bound for Glory, Woody describes the town lunatic
and calls him the Okemah prophet. He's this guy in the town
square who babbles and dances. I've spent a lifetime on
stage doing just that. The prophet doesn't think he's
babbling, of course, but the people walking by are going,
"Yeah, right, there's the prophet." It's the story of my
life, playing in bars. That's why it's nice to get to
Okemah where the prophets are now at least listened to.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.