BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Ed Goggin is a fairly typical James Joyce fan. All it takes is the slightest prodding and he gushes forth with thoughts, theories and wonders about the late writer's confounding, captivating prose.
"I remember my first reading of Ulysses," the Tulsa singer said in an interview last week, "or my first attempt, anyway, because no one gets it on the first try. I was touring Australia, and my bass player nicked it from the Melbourne library. This would have been 1988. I started getting through it, and I was just mouthing the words as I went, completely humiliated that I could not make sense of it. I thought, 'This is like reading a foreign language written in my own.' "
But, like many brave souls who've tackled the tome, Goggin pressed on, finding something in the words that, despite their sometimes baffling complexity, egged him on instead of shutting him out. "It was such a blow to my ego that it became a kind of holy quest to get through it and understand it," he said. "I hear people say all the time that it's the book everybody knows and no one has read, but people who have read it are almost religious about it. In some ways, it's a kind of secular bible. I mean, it covers the whole breadth of human experience in a single day."
Indeed, Ulysses - all 642 pages of it, in my paperback edition - spans a single day, June 16, 1904, making this Wednesday a centennial of sorts. It's a book that has angered, astonished and thrilled its readers, sometimes within a single page.
Irish censors bristled over its publication in 1922 (the same year Americans first met Mickey Mouse), objecting to its frank descriptions of, er, certain basic bodily functions. Critics continue placing it among lists of civilization's best novels.
The poet William Butler Yeats marveled that it was "an entirely new thing," and writer Martin Amis recently claimed that it "defines the modern novel." Virginia Woolf's reaction, however, was dismissive ("Never did I read such tosh!"), and Tennessee Williams didn't advance its cause much by titling his school term paper "Why Ulysses Is Boring."
Few, however, are ambivalent about it, which is why this Wednesday's centennial is somewhat of a marvel. June 16 has, for decades, been celebrated as Bloomsday, named for the novel's central character, Leopold Bloom, a 38-year-old Jewish advertising salesman in Dublin. This week's celebration in that city will draw thousands - including a few Tulsans - to discuss, debate, natter and nitpick every line of Ulysses.
Why are we still buzzing about this book?
"Because Bloom is an epic hero, and he's just like you and me," Goggin said.
"Because it's so high-brow and so low-brow, at the same time. It's like Jon Stewart (on Comedy Central's 'The Daily Show') - it's really intelligent, but with a poop joke."
A democratizing book
Goggin, who named two of his '90s Tulsa pop bands with allusions to Ulysses (Stephen Hero and Mollys Yes, both disbanded), is onto something with that first part. It's the idea of epic hero as everyman that makes Ulysses a compelling and timeless tale.
"Bloom comes to embody the heroism of the everyman," said Sean Lathan, assistant professor of English at the University of Tulsa. He's also the editor of the James Joyce Quarterly, which has published from TU for 41 years.
"As we follow Bloom around Dublin, his everyday experiences become ripe for heroism," Latham said. "Because of the novel's mythic overlay, Bloom's ordinary actions become heroic. It's not Odysseus setting sail, it's Bloom on the toilet."
Ulysses essentially tracks Bloom and a colorful cast on that fateful Thursday as they wander the Irish capital, basically going about their business. Bloom sells an ad, buys some "sweet lemony soap" and has a pint at Davy Byrne's pub, which still exists on Duke Street in Dublin.
It's the interior monologue, though, where the real action of the novel takes place — the stream-of-consciousness struggle of Bloom suspecting his wife of having an affair (all the while scoping chicks on the beach himself), searching for a son who doesn't exist and wrestling not only his own ego but that of his entire nation. The novel is bookended with its other two major characters: Stephen Dedalus in the beginning, the same protagonist from Joyce's previous novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a self-proclaimed writer who hasn't yet written much; and Bloom's wife, Molly, whose famous soliloquy ends the novel with a ringing affirmation.
Just plain folk — Irish ones, as it turns out.
In one sense, particularly in the book's theme of feeling adrift and longing for homecoming, they're not unlike the Dust Bowl refugees chronicled in the songs by Oklahoma's own Woody Guthrie. In the decade after Ulysses was published, Guthrie was rebelling against Tin Pan Alley's sunny, manufactured representations of Americans by writing "real" people into his popular songs. Joyce, similarly, sought to glorify the common man by telling such a tale within the framework of the great epics. The title's namesake, after all, was the hero of Homer's "Odyssey."
"Most basically and pricelessly, he included the common man, his common actions," Amis said of Joyce in a recent interview at Powells.com. "Bloom on the toilet is an incredible breakthrough for the novel, to be written about so beautifully and delicately. That's why Virginia Woolf said it's the sort of novel you'd expect a costermonger to write. It's hilarious to see the snobbish objection to it, but it is a great democratizing book."
The "snobbish objection" to which Amis refers is a natural defense against Joyce's dense symbolism and complex network of literary allusions. In an oft-repeated quip, Joyce once said he constructed Ulysses with the intention of keeping the professors guessing for decades. He succeeded; Latham is one among many professors who will further the speculation at this week's 19th annual Inter national James Joyce Symposium in Dublin.
But it's not just academics who continue facing Joyce's prose. Most of the fanatics retracing Bloom's route through Dublin this week are people such as Goggin who picked up a copy, gave it a shot and were goaded into Joyce's game.
In fact, it's exactly a connection between highfalutin literary snobs and common folk that Joyce was after.
"Ulysses is both deeply snobbish and critical of snobbery," Latham said.
Latham is one who doesn't use the word "snob," or any of its derivations, lightly. He's written extensively on the subject, including his book Am I a Snob? Modernism and the Novel (Cornell Univ., 2003).
"Snobbery is a willful display of cultural capital, the spending of one's own cultural capital in a public way," he said. "It's Stephen in the library at the beginning of the book, performing his theory of Shakespeare, showing off a certain membership in a particular understanding."
Once a reader solves some of Ulysses' puzzles, it's easy to feel admitted into a select — snobbish — membership. Expressing that exclusivitiy means chuckling at oblique comic references with others or, if you're an artist yourself, alluding to the book in your own work. Such allusions which further the snobbery of Ulysses itself.
These allusions to Ulysses are in-jokes — not critical to the understanding of the new work itself but a self-conscious display of some cultural capital. It's Mel Brooks, for instance, naming one of the main characters in "The Producers" Leo Bloom, a hapless fellow who finds enormous success in an impossible piece of literature, or the Bloom family in Tim Burton's film "Big Fish," a family confused by the reliability of the father's stories. It's art-rocker Kate Bush singing a song based on Molly's soliloquy (her 1989 hit "The Sensual World"), or Goggin naming his band Mollys Yes.
"Things like that testify to the celebrity of the text," Latham said. "It's a kind of empty allusion, but it signifies the book's snobbish appeal.
"Joyce was a ruthless parasite," Latham said. "He borrows from Homer all the way up to his contemporaries, including (Oscar) Wilde. It's the pastiche that makes his writing so resonant.
"But part of the reason you don't see even more reworking of Joyce is that Ulysses is still under copyright, which is defended by a tight-fisted estate. That may be why some of the allusions to the novel are so empty, because to have more you really need to quote directly from the text. . . . The irony is that now artists are trying to do exactly what Joyce did, and the estate won't allow it."
Doing our partGoggin continues his minor tributes to his hero and his epic novel. No longer singing full-time (though Mollys Yes is rehearsing for a reunion performance at a benefit in August), he now produces a television show, "Doc Geiger's Outdoor Adventures," which sometimes, according to the credits, is directed by Buck Mulligan.
Mulligan is the first character we meet in the opening of Ulysses.
"I slip those in all the time," Goggin said. "I think no one will get it, but sometimes they do."
Goggin hadn't thought about making Bloomsday plans until we called.
"I'll do my part," he assured. "I'll have a Guinness mustache."
Latham, meanwhile, will be in Dublin for Bloomsday 100. He will be joined by several TU students.
"I'm a little dubious about going now that I've looked at some of the material," he said. "There's a breakfast scheduled to accommodate 10,000 people."
Reading 'Ulysses'? Get help!
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Thinking of trying to read James Joyce’s Ulysses? It could be the ultimate summer project. And that’s just it — make it a project. Ulysses is a mind-boggling, challenging and immensely rewarding read, but I confess: I never would have made it through the crazy thing myself if I didn’t have some help.
My own assistance came in the form of a class, in which Joyce scholar Michael Seidel began our discussion of Ulysses with this wisdom: “Puzzlement should not stop you. It’s built in for a reason.”
But there are several good companion books and Web sites to help navigate the stream of consciousness, as well as the puns, the symbolism, the allusions, the chronology, the ...:
Ulysses Annotated by Don Gifford (Univ. of Calif., 1989) — The ultimate companion to Ulysses, and significantly larger than most volumes of the novel itself, Gifford’s guide offers line-by-line explanations of the subtext as well as basic explanations of historical and literary references.'
James Joyce’s Dublin: A Topographical Guide to the Dublin of Ulysses by Ian Gunn, Clive Hart and Harald Beck (Thames & Hudson, $45) — A new book published this month offers superb maps and analyses to complement the adventure through Dublin. Understanding the layout of the city really helps.
The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses by Harry Blamires (Routledge, 1996) — A sharp running commentary on the plot, a hip and handy companion to the adventure. This is written expressly with the first-timer in mind.
How to Read Ulysses and Why by Jefferson Hunter (Peter Lang, 2002) — A brief but helpful primer to the novel, Hunter’s book offers a plain and simple explanation of Ulysses' relevance.
Reading Joyce’s Ulysses by Daniel R. Schwarz (St. Martin’s, 1987) — A thorough, albeit conservative, analysis of Ulysses with a comprehensive episode-by-episode reader’s guide.
The Brazen Head: A James Joyce Public House (www.themodernword.com/joycehttp://www.themodernword.com/joyce) — A cheery Web site full of interesting articles and links related to Joyce and Ulysses. Read a Joyce biography, see a list of Joyceinspired films, look at some photographs of the crafty author. Join the Joyce email list to touch base with other Joyceans.
The Internet “Ulysses” (robotwisdom.com/jaj/ulysses ) — Everything you need handy for a thorough reading of Ulysses — notes of different editions, a chapter-by-chapter synopsis with maps, Joyce’s own schema used in structuring the novel, plus a discussion area and thousands of links.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Danny Fallis just doesn't get it.
The new Web site for his band, Tall Tales, recently went online and already fans are contacting him by email to request copies of the old cassettes — "Crime in a Bucket," "Your Analysis" and "Damn Kat."
"Who in the world is looking for 'Your Analysis'?" he wondered aloud recently.
For most has-been college party bands, that momentary curiosity would simply be a funny moment in an otherwise adult day. For Tall Tales, however, it's new encouragement.
They are, indeed, a has-been college party band — four Tulsa natives who were a hit in Norman throughout the early '90s — but they've also reunited and recorded a new CD, "Pot Pie."
"It's absurd," Fallis snorts. "Our great rock 'n' roll reunion? Please. There are no false expectations from this. It's all joking and fun."
Tall Tales was always thus — a smart-aleck foursome that often performed in pajamas and sang quirky, throw-away ditties such as "Sheeps a-Grazin'," "Me So Horny," "Dead Kids on the Block" and "Bruised Banana."
But they were popular, filling Norman clubs such as Rome XC and Mr. Bill's, and by '93 they had several major record labels spinning what would be the band's last recording before breaking up, the CD "69 Minutes."
Fallis remembers how close the band came to the big time.
"When was that? Yeah, Valentine's Day, 1993," he said. "We were supposed to play at Kelly's (a Norman nightclub) with Bunnies of Doom opening.
"Tyson (Meade, leader of the Chainsaw Kittens) and I were driving to the gig from my pre-party, and we couldn't find any parking. We get closer to the club, and I can't get in. I was like, 'What's going on here tonight?'
"I finally got backstage, and we got into our pajamas and animal slippers. We start the show, lead into 'Cousins,' and I look out and see people standing all the way to the back, with more outside trying to get in. I thought, 'This is what we wanted.'
"And a month later, Rob tells us he's going to Russia."
Tall Tales guitarist Rob Reid left the Norman-based band of Tulsa natives for a post-graduate program in Russia and, basically, didn't come back. He wound up in New York, making records as Bob Bob Bob, and spending the next decade trotting the globe as a writer for Lonely Planet travel guides.
Fallis soldiered on with Tall Tales — long enough for two of the band's tracks to land with N.O.T.A., Brother Inferior, Pitbulls on Crack and others on the 1995 Tulsa rock compilation "Rhythm of Damage" — but things, as they do, eventually fell apart. (Greg Dobbs, who replaced Reid, is also part of the reunion effort.)
However, Reid's travel-writing trips brought him through Oklahoma in 2000, and he called Tall Tales drummer Alan Hiserodt in Norman. Hiserodt has remained active in the ever-changing Norman music scene, also drumming now in the pop-rock band Klipspringer.
Bassist Mitch Newlin also was in town, married and still writing the kind of funny-ha-ha (OK, sophomoric) songs for which Tall Tales was briefly famous. (One of Newlin's ditties, "Lost My Penis," was voted "song of the year" in 1999 by the Oklahoma Daily newspaper at the University of Oklahoma.) He was up for a jam with his old bandmates.
Suddenly, Fallis was driving to Norman, and Tall Tales was a band again — writing and recording new songs, no less.
"I hadn't done music in so long," Fallis said during an interview at the end of his shift at a Tulsa advertising agency. "I knew I would revisit it eventually, but I got so busy in my life. Then Rob calls me, wanting me to do this. . . . I was nervous. I hadn't sung in six years. I was trying to sing in the car on the way to Norman, knowing this would be happening. I'd go into these coughing fits.
"We started playing, and we didn't play one old song. We started writing. After an hour it was as if we'd never stopped."
He paused, gazed into his beer. "It's scary to think about what would've happened if we hadn't stopped."
The chemistry was immediate; the recording process, well — it started four years ago.
"I liked the old days when a weekend, a faulty four-track and 58 beers meant a Monday morning EP," Reid said in a recent email from his home in New York City. "It's taken us longer than the (Pink) Floyd to do something built around my hasty, flip, off-handed progressions. I'm not 100 percent comfortable with such a setting. You only get one comeback — not that anyone's waiting for it."
"Pot Pie" finds the band capturing that former, reckless spirit. The song titles give it away: "UFO," "Hi-Def TV," "Liver and Onions," "Psychic Hotline Girls," "(Never Go Outside While There's A) Nuclear War" and more.
And who will seek out this album?
"Well, that one guy who wants 'Your Analysis' — I'll bet he'll buy the new one, too," Fallis said.
Believe it or not, Fallis says the band already has finished half of a "second reunion CD."
"Pot Pie" is now available through the band's Web site, www.talltales.info.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
They've grown up, those Hanson brothers, but they still wiggle and fidget like toddlers.
Stationed in a booth at Brookside's En Fuego restaurant on a July afternoon, the three Hansons talked about their new songs, their upcoming independent albums, their new tour — all while gesturing wildly, rocking back and forth, practically climbing the brick wall behind them.
Taylor, 20, doesn't really sit. He crouches. Like a big cat in a tree, he sits on his heels or keeps one leg bent in front — coiled, cocked, ready to pounce.
Zac — grown now, 17, with short hair — sits on his hands on the edge of the bench, shifting from side to side. Only Isaac, the elder at age 22, occasionally leans back. Two subjects, however, bring him forward with almost spittle-flying intensity: Little Richard and his new iPod portable MP3 player.
And if you understand nothing else about the meteoric musical machine that is Hanson, you must understand that. They're still listening to Little Richard — as crystalline, digitally compressed MP3s.
" 'Rip It Up' by Little Richard still just blows my mind," Isaac says, snapping his head back in an unconscious demonstration of his mind being blown. "The passion ... it's just incredible. And it makes me ask myself: 'Is my record anything like that?' "
Keep that word in mind: passion. The boys uttered it at least two dozen times during a one-hour interview, describing both their own music and that of their 1950s and '60s influences. They're so charged with passion that they can't sit still, and they're so driven to make music that they hardly seem to notice they've lost their label, their manager and numerous producers in the agonizing four-year process that led to their latest recordings.
Of course, you'd be perfectly within your rights to have lost a little — if not all — of your passion for Hanson's music.
In this out-of-sight/out-of-mind culture, the years since "This Time Around" was released in 2000 are like an eternity, particularly when many of the band's younger fans have gone from girls to graduates in that amount of time. Keeping a fresh face before the public hasn't been easy.
Then again, the delays in recording Hanson's new songs haven't caused that much attrition in the fan base. On Saturday, the trio launched a 13-city tour — intimate, acoustic performances in theaters and clubs this time around — and the entire run sold out weeks ago. Ninety percent of each venue was offered in advance exclusively to Hanson fan club members. (The tour does not include a Tulsa date.)
"Our fans are still out there, and they're sticking with us," Taylor says.
The tour is an assurance for those fans that, yes, Hanson is still around and, yes, a new album is on the way. Two, in fact.
"Underneath," Hanson's third proper studio record, is due next spring on the band's own record label, 3CG Records.
Available now, however, is "Underneath Acoustic," a collection of seven unplugged versions of songs from the forthcoming "Underneath," plus one bonus track. This disc is available through the band's Web site (www.hanson.net) and at this month's acoustic shows.
But what took so long to get this music before the fans?
"Patience," Isaac answers.
Not to mention a lot of music industry red tape and stalling.
"When we started this album, we wanted to knock it out really fast. We were excited about the momentum we had, and we were passionate about turning over the new songs," Taylor says.
"We'd just gotten off a successful tour, and we were ready to get it done."
"But anyone who knows anything about the music industry knows it's not only about the music," Isaac adds.
"Things got convoluted."
Hanson originally was signed to Mercury Records in 1997, which released the band's "Middle of Nowhere" album, its hit "MMMBop" single, plus some extracurricular show-me-the-money fare (the "Three Car Garage" retrospective of Hanson's early Tulsa recordings, the "Snowed In" Christmas record).
The sophomore outing was released on Island Def Jam, the conglomerate that gobbled up Mercury in '99, leaving Hanson without the support of the handlers who took them on in the beginning.
The group also lost its longtime manager last year.
"Suddenly everyone we knew at the label was gone, and we had gone from a rich label founded on R&B and Hank Williams to a company that markets rap," Taylor says.
"There wasn't quite an understanding. It was an accident waiting to happen. They didn't know what to do with our music," Isaac says.
"But we did."
So after numerous scrapped recording sessions with several producers, including an aborted coupling with Ric Ocasek, the trio cut its losses in April and negotiated out of its contract with Island Def Jam.
"Underneath" was finished with producer Danny Kortchmar (James Taylor, Neil Young, Don Henley).
"This is the way to do this, right now, by ourselves," Taylor said of his band's new indie venture.
"Artists have the ability to be their own record executive now. There's so much possibility on the Internet. We have the ability to make things happen. Now it's about more direct access to the fans and getting the music out in a more intimate way."
Oldies reborn — with a passion
All of this, though, is business, which the young Hanson brothers discuss with remarkable ease.
It's also the past, which is a place in which these boys do not dwell.
These are young guys living in the moment, spouting all manner of dreamy carpe diem philosophies in their conversation (Taylor: "We're all gonna be gone in a second," "You've got to make it count in this moment," "It's about what's happening now, you know?") and in the new songs.
"Underneath," it seems, is largely about cars and girls.
Which brings us back to those '50s and '60s songs lurking on Isaac's iPod.
Hanson may not dwell in the past, but these guys certainly dig its music.
"I have so much emotion, right here," he says, patting not his heart but his credit-card sized MP3 player from Apple.
"There's enough passion in this little machine right now to blow up this building."
It's from these oldies that Hanson has learned how to write songs. They didn't learn from sensitive singer-songwriters, socially conscious punks or anyone who graced modern rock radio in the '90s.
They learned from the inventors of rock 'n' roll. People with passion.
"We want to be like other people who make you believe it, whatever it is," Zac chimes in.
"When music doesn't feel genuine, it's not enjoyable. Others, when you listen to them, there's this sense of passion to it."
"Look at Norah Jones," Isaac says. "She didn't write that single, but she made you believe it. Aretha Franklin didn't write 'Respect,' but you know she made you believe that."
"She's a goddess," Taylor adds, as if it's an automatic response whenever her name is mentioned.
Isaac's comment is intriguing, too, considering this is a band that spent years making sure we knew they wrote their own material — that they were not a manufactured boy band.
In the last three years, have they decided that it's better to feel good than to look good?
Taylor returns to wrap up the subject more succinctly: "Life is just so f—-in' short, you know? You don't have time to pretend to like stuff that's stupid."
As an example, Taylor cites Hanson's new single, "Penny and Me."
He describes it as a song "about experiencing life in that moment."
It's a song that betrays the band's '50s influences more than most, because it's all about the aforementioned cars — with girls. The chorus:
'Cause Penny and me like to roll the windows down
Turn the radio up, push the pedal to the ground
And Penny and me like to gaze at starry skies
Close our eyes, pretend to fly
It's always Penny and me tonight
Other new songs are equally celebratory and centered in the present.
"Get Up and Go" is an exhortation to "take a walk on the wild side" with "a guy like me."
"Beautiful Eyes" is about gazing into a pair.
"Next Train" opens with the narrator explaining Hanson's basic space-time continuum: "Well, I finally found tomorrow/'Cause I just now found today/And I'm left with all the sorrow/lingering from yesterday."
Even the occasional references to negative forces are nebulous, nondescript; we never hear exactly what is wrong and making it "hard to breathe" in "Underneath," and only "End of the Line" features a character whose future is remotely bleak, who plans to finish her cigarette and "drown this town in kerosene" — for some unexplained reason.
Taylor likes to talk about "Rock and Roll Razorblade," a song that describes the life of a songwriter as nothing short of an addiction.
It's his way of explaining his own passion for this music.
"We've felt that, all of us," he says.
"We've been cut by it. We've been bitten by the bug of rock 'n' roll."
It's a positive outlook and, yes, a passion reminiscent of the boys' oldie idols.
Isaac, in particular, has been revisiting those idols lately. When Hanson broke in '97, many stories in the media mentioned the musical set the boys listened to habitually while growing up: a Time-Life collection of hits from the '50s and '60s.
Then, it was just a biographical anecdote.
Now, it's clear that those tracks were the Hanson fountainhead.
"That whole year, '89 to '90, I spent listening to those records," Isaac recalls.
"They were so familiar to me that I knew the exact amount of space between the songs. I was fascinated by people who could get so wrapped up in their music like that. I bought that old set on CD recently. I just had to hear it again."
The iPod is back in his shirt pocket, forgotten. "One of the things I want to do as an artist," he continues, "is to connect generations.
"People my age don't always know where their music comes from. I want to instill a passion to hear stuff like this, or at least get that passion into my own music.
"It's all about the passion, isn't it?"
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
A couple of months ago, there was another disc like this that turned my head: the Thorns — a supergroup (well, to indie pop fans) comprised of Shawn Mullins, Matthew Sweet and Pete Droge. They got together by happenstance and made a record of acoustic-driven songs loaded with three-part vocalizing. It's a whimsical love letter to the harmony groups that inspired them growing up — America, CSN, the Beach Boys. It's summery, carefree, easy.
The same could be said of the latest Hanson disc, an eight-song acoustic preview of the eagerly awaited third studio outing ("Underneath," due next spring) from the hit Tulsa trio. As much as these brothers are influenced by the spirit of '50s rock 'n' roll, their songwriting on this effort is closer to early '70s soft-rock, especially in this unplugged presentation, recorded live early this summer with a small audience at Tulsa's historic Church Studio. Several of the songs have the same lilt and sensitivity of England Dan & John Ford Coley or, more prominently, Bread (led by another famous Tulsan, David Gates). "Deeper," a powerful and passionate song sung by Isaac, is an example, and the title track, "Underneath," is a remarkably layered and carefully constructed ballad that would prick up Jimmy Webb's ears.
The flip side of this pleasantness is that, even though two-thirds of Hanson is now of legal age, these songwriters are still very, very young. These new songs are not trite, but they are quite light. That is, they breeze on about indistinct emotions and vague promises and lots of seizing the summertime moment. Not a bad thing, by any means — just a warning to the curious that Hanson hasn't exactly started mining much substance.
For instance, this disc sounds like the Indigo Girls' debut not only for its multiple acoustic guitars but because occasionally they throw a lyric at us straight out of a junior-high notebook. Example, from "Love Somebody to Know": "Bubbalicious is what she likes to chew / and Andy Warhol gave her her point of view." Then again, that could be an absolutely ingenious examination of the various definitions of pop. Maybe there are seeds of substance here, after all, but for now, as Taylor sings in "Penny and Me," it's all just a nice ride with the radio up and the windows down.
"Underneath Acoustic" is available only through the band's Web site (cf,fgc www.hanson.netcf,hell ) and at the concerts during this month's acoustic Hanson tour, which begins Saturday. (Alas, the closest the tour gets to Tulsa is Denver on Aug. 24.)
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
The fact that Ron Padgett's latest book was published recently is, well, a nice bonus. When he was writing it, however, Padgett wasn't at all worried about whether or not anyone would get to read it.
That's what they all say, surely, but this non-fiction manuscript by the Tulsa-native poet clearly was a labor of love — real love, familial love, the kind that reminds a man that blood is thicker than ink. Oklahoma Tough is, as its subtitle explains, the intricate story of My Father, King of the Tulsa Bootleggers.
It's also about murder, suicide, betrayal and hard drink, but the core of this book is the story of a son getting to know his father, Wayne Padgett, a good ol' boy who hung out with shady types at Admiral Place and Peoria Avenue and who ran liquor during the dry days in order to feed his family.
It's also about myths, mystique and this unromantic, sometimes hard fact that flies in the face of countless American narratives: Criminals are usually just plain folks.
What Ron Padgett tried to do here was bring his dad down to earth, if for no one's benefit but his own.
"The first draft I finished was 580 pages, and when I finished it, I sat back and looked at it and thought, 'Well, maybe this is publishable, and maybe it isn't,' " Padgett said during a recent interview from his Manhattan apartment. "If editors said 'Nah!' and it never saw the light of day, I was already happy. I'd done what I set out to do, which was to write a book about my father — not to publish one. Having it published, even in the slimmer form, is just icing on the cake."
That doesn't mean, of course, that Oklahoma Tough is a mere vanity project. Instead, it's a probing investigation of a local giant, a hero to some, who — because of laws, not deeds — often went misunderstood.
To unearth the real man underneath the mystique, Ron Padgett — noted poet and translator of French literature — became a journalist for this particular project. Through dozens of interviews with ex-bootleggers, family members, police officers and a few old enemies, plus numerous documents (Wayne's FBI files run to 1,300 pages), he uncovers the sometimes harsh, sometimes hilarious details of his father's life — as well as the distinct mid-20th century Midwestern milieu that made Wayne Padgett's life story possible.
The tale features colorful descriptions of Tulsa life in the '40s and '50s, including some amusing recollections of the Saturday night dances at Cain's Academy, now the Cain's Ballroom, downtown. Family friend Howard Donahue recalled, "Back in the men's room, they had shoeshine boys. We even paid 'em to polish the bottoms, so we could dance a little better, ha ha!"
But the story of the Padgetts also is infused with a darker undercurrent. While the family lived a remarkably normal suburban existence, at least on the surface, the clandestine liquor business kept everyone on edge, to some degree. The lines between right and wrong, good and evil, were not so clear here — in this family, sure, but in the city, the era. Early on, young Ron Padgett was part of the family business, his mother recalling a funny story about the day some cops raided the house, whereupon a grade-school-aged Ron jumped on top of the cases of gin, shouting, "You can't have my daddy's hooch!"
"We never used the word outlaw, you know," Padgett said. "Dad was a bootlegger. Our family didn't think anything was wrong with that from a moral point of view. We knew it was illegal, of course, but since our customers included ministers, policemen and public officials, how bad could it be?"
Padgett's family connections gave him access to information and interviews that another biographer might not have been able to illuminate. Again, this project started as a personal one, not necessarily intended for public consumption.
But getting to know your dad — especially after his death and particularly considering he was an outlaw — was a dicey proposition. Puncturing the veil of secrecy about many of Wayne's exploits was difficult and daunting. Padgett faltered.
"I kept going, though," he said. "My initial reason (for writing the book) was something like I felt when he died, that something incredible had left the earth. I didn't want that to disappear entirely. Later, as I wrote, I began to feel that what I was doing was telling the world that my father was not only the king of the Tulsa bootleggers, but he was a real person. I felt like I'd turned into an elementary school version of myself trying to explain to my classmates that my daddy wasn't really a bad guy. I began as biographer and ended up as child."
The Wayne Padgett described in the book is hardly a mythical outlaw. He's a working stiff; his work was simply outside the law, selling illegal liquor in an era of prohibition. He worked a few jobs above board, mostly selling cars, but he was a restless sort, part Woody Guthrie, part Willie Loman.
Above all, he took care of his family. But that dark side pervaded even this most basic function.
"I say in the book that Wayne made us all feel protected, but that actually had a dark side to it. If you have to feel protected, that means there is a menace, something to be protected from," Padgett said. "We were aware unconsciously of the threats out in the world."
Ron Padgett is himself a character in his own book: Wayne's young son who heads off to Columbia University in the '60s and becomes a respected poet. With Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard and Dick Gallup, they were sometimes referred to as the Tulsa School of Poetry. Wayne was proud, chuckling midway through the book, "Imagine. I have a son who lives in New York and is a poet!"
By the end of the book, Ron Padgett discovered what could have been the ultimate link between father and son. After Wayne's own father died, Wayne himself — the rough-and-tumble bootlegger — wrote a poem.
"But it's embarrassing! It's a terrible poem," Padgett said. "But that's just the crappy editor in my head, making literary value judgments, which is a preposterous thing to do in this case. It's commendable that he felt so strongly, but I thought it so odd that he resorted to doing that. I know of no other instances of him expressing himself like that."
It was, though, a minor revelation for Padgett — one of many in the process of chronicling the life of his own father. Each such eureka brought him closer to the man.
It's an experience Padgett hopes everyone will attempt — publishing be damned.
"The one thing about this book — I hoped that not only would it be interesting and entertaining for someone to read but would start them thinking about their own parents and inspire them to go talk to them. Go to them and talk, sit down and ask them questions about their childhoods and where they grew up. It's amazing the number of people who say to me, 'How did you find out all this stuff?' Well, I did some research and what-not, but mainly I sat down and asked questions or my mother and grandmother and other relatives, all of whom told me all kinds of amazing things simply because I asked."
Meet the Author
What Ron Padgett is a scheduled participant at Nimrod International Journal’s annual Hardman Awards dinner and writing conference. The conference theme is “How We Make and Are Made by History.” Padgett will join award-winning writers and poets at the Saturday workshops, reading from his work and participating in a masterclass on “Making History through Poetry.”
When Oct. 25
Where University of Tulsa
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Rod Bryan keeps the Little Rock faithful alert to his Anthro-Pop record-shop inventory through an online message board. His occasional missives wear his attitude on their e-sleeve.
"Please disregard above adverts," his online "blog" advises at the top of the page, referring to the current strip hawking cell phone minutes.
"Got a bunch of great used '80s vinyl from the Replacements, XTC, Elvis Costello, the Smiths, the dB's," he announced in December. Then he added, "Also good stuff from Arkansas natives Johnny Cash, Jim Dickinson, Ho-Hum, Jason Morphew ... Levon Helm."
Every monthly announcement also mentions the arrival of new records from the Fall. Rod loves the Fall.
There's some self-promotion to this. In fact, Anthro-Pop as a whole exists as an outpost of Rod's personal interests.
Rod and his brother Lenny are foundation members of Little Rock semi-legendary pop band Ho-Hum, the band that's usually playing on the stereo at Anthro-Pop. It's a band that sounds like all of the above listed cornerstone acts playing at once, particularly if some of the records had been warped by the southern Arkansas sun in the back of Lenny's car.
The quartet is comprised of the Bryan brothers — plus relative newcomers Brad Brown and Sam Heard — hulking but otherwise nondescript guys who grew up in Bradley, Ark., a dying town on a forgotten railroad southeast of Texarkana. It's the kind of place where listening to a band like the Minutemen earned frowns from the townsfolk. Selling the same records — and their CD reissues — to a new generation in the capital city is poetic justice. If it trains young ears to like those same sounds that are now muddied and metamorphosized in the aural ambrosia of Ho-Hum, even better.
Ho-Hum, on the other hand, has never gotten a break and probably never will. In the old model of the music business, that would be a cryin' shame. In the classified and categorized, segmented and specialized 21st century, it's just business as usual.
For whatever it's worth, though, Ho-Hum has its core following. They are anxious, underappreciated fans who will lean into your personal space with set jaws and proselytize fiercely about the most exciting, innovative and invigorating band you've never heard. There aren't enough superlatives in their vocabularies, and — for Ho-Hum — there aren't enough such fans.
"We're a word-of-mouth sensation," Rod says. "The place we're playing in Tulsa is, what, 100-capacity?"
Influential despite themselves
Rod hunkers down behind the counter near the door of Anthro-Pop. It's a pretty standard indie record shop — dig the wall covered with 45's — except that most new homes are built with larger walk-in closets.
"It's not quite Championship Vinyl ('High Fidelity')," he says. "There are a bunch of kids that want to hang out here, but there's no room for more than about one or two customers."
He fixes turntables on site for extra cash, and frequently he's so involved in fiddling with his digital sampler that he snarls and discourages incoming foot traffic. Today, his conversation has surly undertones.
"Even moderate success is worse than anonymity," he declares. "That's where I am today. I mean, we're getting good press on the new record, but all that means is that everybody wants a free copy. We never get paid for these records."
The eighth full-length from Ho-Hum, "Near and Dear," was released last fall. Its 11 tracks of typically dense, cleverly arranged, emotive Southern pop have indeed furthered the band's reputation as the best sleeper act south of the Mason-Dixon. This time, review requests came from as far as the New York Press, which touted the music in a rambling review as "extraordinary," "triumphant" and, er, "winsome."
More superlatives, and still the Bryans must work day jobs to pay the bills.
"I make a lot more money playing in a cheesy cover band than I do in Ho-Hum," Rod says, speaking of the Sugar Kings, the pride of central Arkansas wedding receptions and private parties. "Though I'm sick of playing 'Brown-Eyed Girl.' Even Van Morrison hated that song before it was off the charts."
Ho-Hum's street cred, though, is off the charts in Little Rock. At least a half dozen Little Rock bands are currently at work on a Ho-Hum tribute CD. Tulsa favorites the Boondogs are contributing a track, "Funny," from Ho-Hum's 1997 album "Sanduleak."
"I think there's a pretty tight group of artists we've influenced regionally," Rod says. "We've gotten into New York and L.A., too, but kind of what we do tends to speak to people around here. I mean, it might speak to more people around the country if we'd ever have any marketing. Even our major-label record had a very ramshackle marketing effort."
The end is the beginning
OK, there was that one break.
After rising through the Arkansas rock scene in the early '90s, Ho-Hum attracted the attention of Tom Lewis, a scout for John Prine's Oh Boy record label. Shortly after, Lewis wound up at Universal Records. He remembered Ho-Hum and offered them a contract.
The band recorded its national debut, "Local," at the famed Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama. At the production helm were no other than Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley (the Smiths, David Bowie, Bush). Universal helped the band tour the continent. The recipe for success could not have been seasoned any better.
"But it was a disaster," Lenny says. "I hate that record. I've never liked it."
The problem: Langer and Winstanley's production ideas ran contrary to what the Bryan brothers wanted. Under contract for the label, the Bryans had virtually no say in the matter. "Local" was not promoted and wound up in bargain bins by the end of '96.
That was not, however, the end of the story.
In fact, it was the beginning. The very things that made "Local" difficult to produce and promote remain the things that make Ho-Hum so unique. The frustration they experienced with Universal only strengthened their resolve. They continued making records at home in Arkansas, and their records increasingly sounded like Arkansas.
"That was really why 'Local' failed. It's because we wanted to sound like ourselves — like these guys from Bradley," Rod says. "Once we were done, they just wanted us out of the way so the producers could make it sound like New York."
"We could have made the jump to live somewhere else, you know?" Lenny ponders. "But I always admired a band like R.E.M. because they were from Georgia and they stayed there. You think of R.E.M., you think of Athens, Ga. You think of the Replacements, you think of Minneapolis. We wanted those terms: to be successful but stay here."
It's the same sentiment often expressed by the Flaming Lips, the now famous and respected rock trio that has insisted on basing its operations at home in Oklahoma City. Such stubbornness, usually over time, allows a distinct musical personality to form and grow. Eventually, after cultivating itself in relative isolation, the band sounds like the Next Big Thing.
"I mean, I like being a critic's darling," Lenny says. "Our integrity is pretty much intact."
Magic mystery four
The band's cult breakthrough was, undoubtedly, 1999's "Massacre" on HTS Recordings. The melodies swirl. The emotions heave. The arrangements are so organic they practically make your stereo perspire.
"That was the first record that finally sounded like us," Lenny says. "On 'Local' and 'Sanduleak,' we'd have songs that sounded much different, but we wouldn't record them because we thought, 'That's not how we're perceived.' We finally said, 'Let's just do what we want to do,' and that's what became 'Massacre.' "
"Our lives were falling apart," Rod says. "Everything was crumbling around us. We had that record to make, and we . . . well, we explored a bit."
In 2001, Ho-Hum emerged with "Funny Business," an aptly titled short album that came out of left field and astonished many fans. Gone were the melodies and the organics. In their place: massive synthesized and electronically manipulated sounds. Every note Lenny sings on these five tracks is run through a vocoder. It's "Kid B."
"We had gotten sick of things, and I decided to experiment beyond what we could ever reproduce live," Lenny says. "I'd been listening to a lot of Herbie Hancock. Not 'Rockit' Herbie Hancock but '70s Herbie Hancock. And I like Underworld; they use him a lot.
"Basically, that record is me trying to destroy Ho-Hum. But they all ended up playing on it, and it found its own distinct audience."
Ho-Hum survived to make "Near and Dear," a return to form but replete with electronic flourishes picked up from the "Funny Business" exercise and employed with the band's usual care and subtlety.
"It's a record with some timely themes, I think," Rod says. "But then, what I read into the songs is one thing, then I'll read an interview with my brother and find out the song's not at all what I thought it was about. 'Land Ho!,' for instance, I thought was about the environment and ecology, and it turns out Lenny says it's a break-up song. That tribute CD is really helping me figure out our own songs. I heard somebody's version of 'I Love You Like I Love Me' (from 'Massacre') the other day and finally understood the words. Lenny and I have argued about that before. I say, 'You could be praising Hitler or something, and I wanna know what you're saying.'
"He's all right, though. He's just Michael Stipe-ing the words. The magic's in the mystery, anyway."
with Sarah Wagner & the Pop Adelphics
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Where: Unit D, 1238 W. 41st St.
Admission: $3 suggested donation at the door
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
You probably don't know me from Adam, maybe only as a tag-along colleague of John Wooley's. We've talked only a few times, on rare occasions when you let down your veil of eccentricity and granted an interview.
I write this open letter to you, though, because after seeing you launch the show for Joe Cocker on Monday night at the Brady Theater, I wanted to address you directly instead of merely preaching to the asylum choir, as it were. Who knows if we'll ever speak again. This is likely my last concert review for this publication, so I'm feeling rather audacious.
Concerts are not competitions, by any means. That's good, Leon, because Cocker kicked your butt Monday night.
It was a little shocking. Granted, I was in my mother's womb when the two of you were romping across the country as the infamous Mad Dogs and Englishmen, but I've seen you in that concert film stealing Joe's show.
Heck, you stole his very fire.
I've listened to and reported the stories and legends about that event for more than seven years as a pop critic for this newspaper. People speak of you as if you were some kind of shaman — in hushed tones, the awe still palpable after three decades. But it's an awe rooted in that heyday. It's old.
Obviously, so are you. In body, that's one thing, but in spirit — somehow I didn't expect that. I should have: you've been giving this same show for a decade, at least.
Monday night was no different. Maybe a little worse, really. You sat motionless at your keyboard, wheezing through songs you were reading off a teleprompter, never looking at the audience — never even acknowledging us.
You plowed through the set without so much as a breath between songs. When you mashed your last chord Monday night and removed your sunglasses, I saw your eyes for the first time in years. They looked vacant, maybe a little uncomfortable.
Most telling, though, you looked insanely bored.
I actually expected boredom and autopilot from Cocker. I've never been fond of that old hack, but he blew me away. He had the sell-out crowd on its feet for an hour-and-a-half.
He's three years younger than you, but Monday night it looked like 20. His trademark spasmodic arms were wringing out some hot soul, and — during his smooth, reggae take on "Summer in the City" — he convulsed his entire body to make incredible wails come out.
Did you see the women dancing as he sang "You Can Leave Your Hat On"? No, I guess you didn't. You'd left the theater before his set started.
I wish you had seen it — not to ogle the chicks but to watch Cocker in action. He should be a washed-up has-been by now, but he was a master Monday night.
Maybe he needs Viagra at his age, but he hasn't forgotten what his blue-eyed soul is all about. It's about sex, and he can still conjure it.
What's your music about these days, Leon? Is it just down to the bottom line? Are you touring simply because you have to pay the rent? Your show reeks of that motive.
There's no showmanship. There's no entertainment. There's absolutely zero passion. All you had up there Monday night was a bunch of fine songs smothered by synthesized instruments, polyester arrangements and desperate, break-neck speed.
This sub-Best Western lounge act may work for you. Fine. You're obviously able to book plenty of shows, and you've got your record label humming. But if Cocker wasn't on the bill Monday night, we'd have gone home restless, feeling cheated.
You were once one of the greatest showmen in rock 'n' roll. I don't mean to crack the whip and insist on the same level of energy and psychosis; I just somehow expected greater maturity in your act instead of this much self-parody.
For whatever it's worth — they don't call this "two cents" for nothing — I, the young upstart with virtually no on-stage experience, offer these suggestions for your future endeavors:
1. Go unplugged
Get rid of that silly synthesizer you cling to. The synchronized synth-piano effect you played so frequently Monday night is tinny, harsh, awful.
If you must have the teleprompter screen, those can be rigged to sit anywhere, such as the music stand on a piano. You're a techie, you know this.
The Brady Theater has a beautiful grand piano in the house. I'd pay good money to see you play an actual piano again. I think it would do you good, if I might be so bold. Piano keys kick back in a way keyboards don't, and it looks like you could use a little reaction from your music, a little challenge. Plus, all that synthesized noise has no dynamics.
Every song you played, from the jaunty "Tight Rope" to the exquisite ballad "A Song for You," came at us with the exact same hammering force and volume. There was no loud and soft, no give and take, none of your trademark subtleties. Also, lose those synth-drum pads. Better yet: bring back Teddy Jack.
2. Get up, stand up
We've all heard about your legendary (or mythical) shyness. Is that why you never move? Is that why the only time we hear you speak is to introduce the band?
All that beautiful, long white hair — and it just lays there. I don't expect it to fly like it used to when you were running around the stage in 1970, but I hardly think it's a lot to ask that you move around a little.
Turning your neck to the left would be a start. Look at us. Here's a biggie: smile. The Brady was filled to the brim Monday night with people who shelled out hard-earned bucks — amid both the Christmas shopping season and a bad economy — to see you. Sure, they want to hear the songs, but your presence is also part of the bargain.
If you want to make your career strictly about songwriting and steer clear of the stage, more power to you; you're one of the best writers around. But if you're going to strike the deal and perform for us, commit to the physical aspect of it. Even Jimmy Webb rocks back and forth and chats a little.
3. Put a spell on us
Speaking of Webb, take a page from his book. Grow a little mystique around yourself. In fact, go away for a while, if you can afford it. You're in league with people like Webb as a songwriter, but you're more than that, really.
I think of you more along the lines of Van Dyke Parks — an arranger, a writer, a maestro. Play on that, and flaunt a little ego. Don't play every venue offered you. Seeing you live should be an event, a rare and precious opportunity.
This was your third show here this year. If you're going to stay in Nashville, work behind the scenes with other artists who will speak of you reverently in their interviews. You are the master of space and time, right?
4. Come home
Actually, don't stay in Nashville. Your kids are grown now, and technology allows us to live anywhere we want and still do business. So move back to Tulsa.
Get away from that den of dumbing-down. Sure, Tulsa's not as classy as Nashville (depends, however, on your definition of class), but it's a nurturing musical community. You'd be welcomed with open arms.
Remember the Tulsa Sound? Everyone here still claims you were one of its founding fathers, that it's a style of bluesy rock that's more about the space between the notes.
Listening to that onslaught of eighth notes unleashed upon us Monday night — a sweet little song like "Hummingbird" whipped up into a suffocating tornado of music — who would still make that claim?
Come back, even for a little while. Dig up your roots. Maybe you could host a monthly jam down at the Cain's Ballroom. Heck, Garth doesn't need a Nashville zip code.
5. Suck it up
The bulk of the people who bought tickets to Monday's show wanted to see you perform, and they wanted to see Cocker perform, but they really wanted to see the two of you perform together.
First time on a bill together in three decades — of course, we all expected it. Surely whatever bad blood that once existed between you would have drained away by now.
Alas, you never showed, and we were left to come in through the bathroom window for Cocker's encore, in which he knocked four numbers outta the park.
At the very least you might have been inspired by the ol' codger, picked up a few tips from his sheer production values. He's got soul, for sure, but you've got spirit. You used to have grace, and you could at least have been gracious. If not for Joe, for your fans. It's all for your fans.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
People still talk about the tour.
Granted, in Tulsa — Leon Russell's recognized home turf — it's the stuff of legend, but across the country it's still one of the best stories in rock 'n' roll. The tale just keeps getting taller. A new band of transplanted locals in Nashville is reportedly even preparing an album tentatively titled "Mad Dogs and Okies."
Musicians still have it on their resumes. Sometimes an artist's bio will come into the Arts desk here, and it will tout — very near the top — that this musician performed on the Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour in 1970. We have to chuckle, because that's not saying much. Hundreds of people wound up on that stage.
Funny thing, though: when they mention the tour, it's always Leon Russell's Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour, never Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour. Leon was the bandleader for Joe's show. Pretty unintentionally, though, Leon stole that show right out from under Joe.
That's pretty much why these two classic rock figures haven't shared another bill since.
Until next week.
For the first time since that infamous circus, Russell and Cocker will share the same stage on the same night. That is, they're each scheduled for individual sets as part of one show. Concert organizers don't know whether they'll actually perform together.
"I suspect that they will, but I don't know," said Mark Lee of 462 Concerts this week. "No one could imagine them not playing together, but they haven't in 30 years."
The Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour was a highlight of Cocker's career and the launch of Russell's.
Cocker had come up through the British pub circuit with the Grease Band. He landed a No. 1 hit in 1968 with a gritty, soulful cover of the Beatles' "A Little Help From My Friends." When he sang that song at Woodstock the following year, his superstardom was assured.
Russell had been struggling through the ranks in America as a session pianist. He was sought-after — working frequently with Phil Spector — but he was still a session player in the wings. His 1967 solo debut LP, "Look Inside the Asylum Choir," was respected by critics but didn't sell. In '69, he hit the road with Delaney and Bonnie.
It was then that the two crossed paths. Cocker, always looking for good material, picked up Russell's "Delta Lady" and recorded it for another hit. When Cocker decided to tour again, he asked Russell to put together a band for him.
That was either his first mistake or his stroke of genius, depending on who you talk to.
Russell didn't hold back in assembling a motley crew for what would become the Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour. One-time Russell girlfriend Rita Coolidge was on board. Delaney and Bonnie joined up. The Rolling Stones' future horn section was there, as well as Derek and the Dominos' future rhythm section. Some shows had up to 45 people on the stage, including a few actual dogs.
It only lasted a couple of months — 48 cities in 56 days — but the tour's effects lasted a lifetime. It was even filmed for a concert movie of the same name. It was the hottest post-Woodtsock ticket around the country, because not only was Cocker in his prime but there was this long-haired Okie up there stealing the show. Russell ran back and forth between piano and guitar, leading the band with his hair flying. Russell was so manic and so darned good that people wound up talking about him as much, if not more, than Cocker — and it was Cocker's headlining tour.
After the show inevitably fell apart, Russell's star rose. He showed up on albums by B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan, and the next year was a highlight of George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh. Then he toured with the Stones — all this while living in Tulsa. The record label he founded here, Shelter Records, nurtured the early careers of Tom Petty and Phoebe Snow, as well as locals Dwight Twilley and J.J. Cale.
Cocker didn't fare so well after the tour. His albums and performances suffered from problems with alcohol on and off the stage. He bounced back with another hit, a cover of "You Are So Beautiful," in '75, and then made that kind of romantic ballad the hallmark of the rest of his career. Later, his raspy crooning scored him soundtrack hits such as "Up Where We Belong" (a duet with Jennifer Warnes) from 1982's "An Officer and a Gentleman."
Russell continues churning out his traditional and sometimes country songcraft through his own label, Leon Russell Records. Cocker just released his latest collection, "Respect Yourself," on the Red Ink label.
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey
"Telluride Is Acoustic"
A four-track mini-album recorded live at the Telluride Jazz Festival this year, this limited-edition gem captures a beautiful, rare performance of the Jacob Fred freaks unplugged.
It's only the second time in seven years bassist Reed Mathis has played an upright, and the alien cats he strangles with it on "Son of Jah" make for one madcap psychedelic trip through the borderlands of jazz.
These recordings also feature some crazy stereo panning that makes the world bend a little when listening through headphones. Available through www.jfjo.com.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Brian Haas has been knocked out by his progressive jazz band's new acoustic music.
One performance that was slated for the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey's latest CD, "Telluride Is Acoustic," had to be cut from the record because of an unwanted noise: Haas's head hitting the piano.
"We're doing all these acoustic performances now, right? Well, I'm not used to acoustic pianos. They have this lip that comes down over the keys, and — you know me — I was moving around pretty hard one night at this festival, and I whacked my head so hard on that part of the piano that I blacked out for a second or two," Haas said in a conversation this week. "The audience saw me go back, and I caught myself just before falling over. I actually don't remember much of the show, but there were oxygen tanks and people with ice packs waiting for me when I got off stage. My forehead looked like a Klingon's.
"And then we couldn't use that track on the record because in the middle of it there's this huge (ITAL)thonk!(END ITAL). It sounds like someone whacks the piano with a baseball bat."
The new disc is still hard-hitting. Recorded live at this summer's Telluride Jazz Festival, it spotlights the Tulsa-based, nationally acclaimed jazz group in a rare acoustic mode.
The Jacob Fred trio has gained widespread attention from coast to coast during the last few years for its electric — in every sense of the word — performances. Haas punishes his Fender Rhodes keyboard while Reed Mathis plays his electric bass like Hendrix on guitar. The only truly naturally acoustic performer in the band has been drummer Jason Smart.
But occasionally — such as this weekend's rare evening performance — the guys enjoy unplugging. The results usually highlight the band's traditional roots, roots which are often more difficult to discern amid the screaming electrons.
"It's changed a lot for us," Haas said. "We're now totally accepted in trad jazz circles."
The new acoustic yearnings grew out of the circumstances of the band's latest cross-country swing. Their 2002 Ancient Creatures Tour, the band's first solely headlining swing in several years, landed them in more upscale jazz venues, such as Yoshi's in Oakland. Most of these clubs have quality house pianos, and Haas couldn't resist.
"Whenever we'd pull up to a club and found out they had a nice acoustic grand, my Rhodes didn't even come out of the trailer," Haas said. "We'd sometimes have the clubs provide Reed with an upright bass, or we had friends that would lend them. I just have to do it when it's an option."
It's an option this weekend, for sure. Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame president Chuck Cissel encountered the Jacob Fred phenomenon in August when he met and saw the band at its first Fred Fest concert downtown. Haas continued the conversation at the Hall of Fame on Greenwood Avenue — and he saw the organization's piano.
"He came by to talk about the 2002 Autumn Jazz series, because I wanted them to be a part of it," Cissel said this week. "We have a beautiful 9-foot grand piano, and when Brian saw it and played around on it, he said, 'I've gotta do this.' They're the biggest thing in progressive jazz now, so we definitely wanted that kind of energy to come to the Hall of Fame."
The Jacob Fred boys are taking an extended rest here at home throughout the holidays. They're gigging lightly around the metro area while they woodshed a few new tunes — and on a few new instruments — before tackling a studio recording after Christmas. All six Jacob Fred albums thus far have been live recordings.
The trio will be back in the Northeast this spring. They've got residencies at two clubs throughout the month of April: Tuesday nights at the Middle East in Boston and Wednesday nights at the Mercury Lounge in New York City.
"Telluride Is Acoustic" is a limited edition disc and should be available locally at Starship Records and the midtown Borders Books and Music.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Tea is a lot like wine, really.
There are different varietals, different leaves. Like wine, a cup of tea is full of clues about the country and the climate in which it was grown. Wine-tasting stands on a certain ceremony, and rules also exist for the ideal storage, preparation and brewing of tea.
This means — just as there are starchy, snooty oenophiles — there are tea snobs.
They're a new breed. The availability of tea's numerous varieties and flavors is still a relatively new option for Americans. When most of us think of hot tea, we still think a mug o' Lipton.
But the broader availability of intriguing, mystifying tea types and blends is just as much an opportunity for everyday enjoyment and exploration as it is for the creation of a new class of specialists.
We know tea as a frightfully proper beverage, steeped in Old World repression and sipped delicately by old ladies wearing white gloves. Most teapots are ridiculously dainty. Find me a "tea room" that doesn't have doilies everywhere.
There's so much more than that.
There are bold teas out there. There are brisk ones, too — and they don't come in yellow boxes. Tea can be stimulating, thought-provoking, meal-enhancing, life-saving.
Tea can even rock.
"You can take any rock 'n' roller, and if he's from the U.K., he's drinking tea — pinky out, man," said pop singer Nathan Brant.
To prove that tea has a more rockin' edge to it, take a look at the fellows that joined me for a tea tasting recently: Brant and Davit Souders. Brant is a slick, Tulsa-based pop singer, usually scruffy-chinned and sporting crazy Foster Grant shades. Souders is a kingpin in Tulsa rock 'n' roll, a veteran concert promoter and a singer for the hard rock band DDS. His trademark fashion accessories: an authentic kilt and a doo rag. Myself, I'm the Tulsa World's rock critic. I not only still have all my skinny ties from the '80s, I still wear them.
Other than rock 'n' roll, our common bond is tea.
We're each a bit fanatical about it. Souders brought his own ceramic pot. It got chipped in the ride to my place, and he was visibly upset. I've got a rack of tea tins in my drawer here in the newsroom. I've found that darjeelings go best with jazz. Brant's got a baker's rack at home stacked with tea jars. He dreams of opening his own shop.
If others in the local rock 'n' roll community overheard some of our conversations — gushing over discoveries of new blends or, gulp, scheduling our recent tea party — we'd lose our street cred immediately. We'd never be taken seriously in a rock club again.
But we're just hearty heartland guys who found life after Lipton — and it wasn't a latte.
If anyone borders on being an aforementioned tea snob, it's Brant. His family name is really Barnes, so he's solid British tea stock. During our tasting, he showed Souders and I how it's done — insisting on milk with all the black teas ("whole milk is the best," he said, but keep in mind he's 21 and rail-thin), scolding me for my inexact brewing time, correcting our pronunciations (Ceylon is "salon," not "say-lon"). Like a curt sommelier, his knowledge was impressive and appreciated.
We're all three tea snobs to at least this one degree: We brew only loose-leaf tea. Tea bags have certainly improved in recent years, but for the most part the tea inside them is of vastly inferior quality. It's also ground up so finely that it infuses quickly but with less flavor and often increased bitterness. True tea lovers buy loose leaf.
However, that's not easy to do in Tulsa. The alarming majority of coffee shops and markets, if they sell tea at all, sell bags. It takes some digging — and often some Web crawling — but we found several locally or online that we enjoyed.
We first brewed a pot of Ceylon Lovers, a Ceylon blend from www.teashop.net, and tried it with a little milk. Ceylons are very basic teas, slightly more earthy than your average black tea blend (but not as musty and muddy as a Chinese oolong). This one, however, started our gathering with some raised eyebrows.
"This is so dark and sinister," Nathan said.
"And diabolical," Souders added. His company is Diabolical Productions.
We later tried another purchase from www.teashop.net, an Irish Breakfast blend with a little milk. Irish and English Breakfast blends take well to the milk, largely because they're quite stout. Irish Breakfast is the strongest of all, and this was no exception. It's a hearty tea that would make for a good coffee substitute in the morning (with less caffiene). Souders even pegged a slight liqueur scent and flavor.
Darjeelings are milder, and we sampled a "Gold Tip" variety purchased from the Mecca Coffee Co., 1143 E. 33rd St. in Brookside. It's got a pleasant, faint scent — cinnamon-sprinkled roses — and an equally easy-going flavor. We tasted this without milk, which was wise considering its subtle tones.
We also tried another variety from Mecca: the Lapsang Souchong tea from China. This is an unusual smoke-scented tea that smells like the hickory or mesquite chips used on barbecue grills. This scent had the smoke and the nostalgia of old fire coals. The smoky taste comes through in the cup, too, making this variety, we decided, a perfect choice for autumn evenings on the patio or deck.
"I feel like I'm drinking a steak," Souders said. "But that's a good thing."
We followed Souders' lead here and added sugar to this tea. I had only a dark brown sugar in the house, but that limitation led us to a marvelous discovery. The heavy molasses sweetness of the sugar was a perfect match for this robust tea. This was the only pot that we finished during the tasting.
A gold mine for local tea lovers is the Nam Hi Market at 21st Street and Garnett Road. This Asian grocery features an entire aisle of tea, from traditional Chinese and Japanese green teas to some unique floral varieties. We tried two of the latter and hit both ends of the enjoyment spectrum.
A jasmine tea from the Tea Master brand (in a tall, yellowish bag marked "Tra Bong Lai") was the most fragrant jasmine we'd ever smelled, much more intense than the diluted perspiration served at many Chinese restaurants. The aroma was matched in a strong flavor — strong but still couched in the oily texture of the flower itself. It had a fairly bitter finish that was no doubt magnified by the fact that we were drinking it without food.
Another floral tea from Nam Hi was an impulse purchase and thus a bust: honeysuckle tea. It brewed weakly, like chamomile, but — despite a delicate and sweet beginning — had a harsh flavor that was not unlike licking linoleum.
We got back to basics with an everyday kind of tea called Typhoo, available at Things U.K., 707-A S. Main St. in Broken Arrow. This basic black tea blend was enhanced by milk and also took sugar well.
"This is smooth," Brant said. "It's good all the time. It's a great basic tea."
"This would be a perfect anytime, fall-back tea," Souders said. "This might be my favorite. This would be perfect for that late-day cup that (my girlfriend) and I enjoy, when we just sit around and talk about our day. When we talk."
"That's the whole point of tea time," Brant said, "to just stop and take a minute."
Where to find tea
The three Tulsa-area shops where we found broad selections of loose-leaf tea are Mecca Coffee Co. at 1143 E. 33rd St. in Brookside, the Nam Hi market at 21st Street and Garnett Road, and Things U.K. at 707-A S. Main in Broken Arrow.
Mecca is a great source for all-around varieties of tea. It stocks big jars of black and green teas (a surprising selection of greens) and herbal infusions. Things U.K. also has a wide variety of black teas.
The Nam Hi market has a tea aisle that's the Willy Wonka factory for tea lovers. All kinds of Asian teas can be found, often large quantities at great prices.
Gloria Jean's Gourmet Coffee in Utica Square sells its own company brand of loose-leaf tea in the store. Oddly, they sell loose-leaf tea but serve tea bags. The loose tea comes in 3.5-ounce boxes for about $6.
Some supermarkets also carry canisters of loose tea from The Republic of Tea, a company that's sort of the next step beyond Celestial Seasonings. It's mostly good quality, and they specialize in green blends and herbal infusions. Wild Oats Market at 41st Street and Peoria Avenue has an impressive selection of these.
Restaurants and coffee shops in Tulsa, alas, all seem to serve bags. Some of it's quite good, though. The Gypsy Coffee House, 303 N. Cincinnati Ave. downtown, has a good selection, and the White Lion pub, 6927 S. Canton Ave. (just east of Yale Avenue off of 61st Street) has the very tasty PG Tips black tea bags. The new Starbucks is notable only because it serves the great Tazo teas.
Online may be your best source for the widest variety of teas. Our favorite sources: Tealuxe (www.tealuxe.com), a chain in New York and Boston that's basically a tea-centric version of Starbucks; Stash Tea (www.stashtea.com), an impressive supplier of every kind of tea from all over the world; and the Tea Shop (www.teashop.net), which leans toward good English black teas.
What kinds of tea
Black tea is what we're all used to. It's just the oxidized and dried leaves of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis.
Black tea blends include English Breakfast (Ceylon and Keemun), Irish Breakfast (mostly Assam) and Russian Caravan (usually Keemun with a little Lapsang Souchong). There are flavored varieties, too, such as Earl Grey, which is a black tea blend mixed with the oil of bergamot, an inedible citrus fruit.
Oolong tea is Asian black tea that is not allowed to oxidize as long as other black teas. It is often served in Asian restaurants and is noted for its floral aroma and peachy flavor. The finest oolongs are the Formosa variety, grown in Taiwan.
Green tea is simply tea that is not oxidized at all before drying. Thus, green teas are usually more herbaceous than blacks and oolongs. Green tea is noted for its healthy qualities; it contains loads of antioxidents which are being studied for their cancer-preventing possibilities. There are many different varieties, the most common being Gunpowder from China (strong and earthy) and the most valued being Gyokuro from Japan (rich, also called "Pearl Dew").
White tea is rare but interesting. It is made from the tea plants buds more than its leaves, both of which go through very little processing.
Where chai fits into it all
Chai is not a kind of tea; it is a drink made with tea. Chai — properly, Masala Chai — is a blend of black tea, spices, sugar and milk.
Chai became hip somewhere during the last few years, showing up in bookstores alongside all the lattes. Most commercial chais are sickeningly sweetened with white sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, making the beverage more of a soda than a tea drink. An exception to this is the plain, perfectly satisfying chai served locally at the India Palace and India Gate restaurants.
Chai is delightful when made at home. There are about as many recipes for chai as there are drinkers of it, and they are readily available now.
Here's a recipe from Diana Rosen (Steeped in Tea and other great tea books) for an easy mix that you can prepare early and keep in the refrigerator. It lasts a long time, and the flavor actually intensifies as it rests. The only challenge here is finding unsweetened condensed milk in the grocery store (but sweetened works just fine in a lighter concentration).
1 14-ounce can unsweetened condensed milk (low-fat or nonfat, if desired)
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
Pour the condensed milk into a clean, dry jar or a plastic container with a lid. Add the spices and mix. Cover, or seal with the lid, and place in the fridge.
Then, when you have a craving for chai, simply add 2 to 3 tablespoons of the mixture to a pot of strong black tea. Way easy and way good.
How to brew the perfect cup
First, use fresh, cold water. You want the water to be clean and oxygenated. That means, run the tap for a minute or two before filling your kettle; this flushes out any metals that the water might have absorbed while sitting in the pipe. Filtered water sometimes makes tea taste flat and should be poured back and forth between two glasses a few times to oxygenate it.
While boiling the water in the kettle, warm your teapot by filling or rinsing it with hot water. This will allow the water to maximize its brewing capacity without losing heat to the cold teapot.
Add the tea leaves to the teapot before the kettle boils. When figuring the amount of tea to add, the general rule of thumb is: one teaspoon per person, plus one for the pot. You can tweak that ratio in relation to your preferred strength of tea.
Ideally, add the leaves loose to the pot, then strain the water as it's poured into the cup. You can also use an infuser (clamps and tea balls are readily available), and many pots are sold now with infuser baskets in them.
Add the water to the pot just after it reaches a full, whistling boil.
Allow the tea to infuse for three to five minutes. Different teas call for different infusion times; read the package, but three minutes is average. The longer it infuses, though, the more bitter it can become. Stir or swirl the pot a time or two during infusion.
If you desire milk with your tea, add the milk to the cup before pouring the tea.
Pour the tea and enjoy!
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Ah, George Winston. Just his name is relaxing now.
His "folk piano" records were the first New Age music to find real commercial success, securing a place for the innovative Windham Hill label in the early '80s.
His delicate playing evokes the patient seasons, pastoral landscapes and rollicking psychedelic binges glimpsed through previously unopened doors of perception.
Wait a minute. What was that last one?
Winston has recorded many tributes in his storied career as an instrumental pianist. He's paid homage to the great New Orleans ivory-ticklers that inspired him, namely Professor Longhair and James Booker, and a few years ago he recorded an entire album of Vince Guaraldi's compositions.
But his latest project seems, at first, a bit out of step with what we've come to expect from this soothing player.
The new album is "Night Divides the Day: The Music of the Doors," 13 classic songs by the Doors translated through Winston's nine-foot Steinway.
The project has been so well-received thus far that Winston performed a concert with Doors organist Ray Manzarek on Sept. 26 in New York City.
The album proved to be a challenge for Winston, and in our recent interview he discussed the unique opportunities in listening to the Doors for the music instead of just grooving to Jim Morrison's poetry.
How did you develop the idea for an entire album of Doors songs?
I had been working on a series of solo piano dances, kind of being a piano one-man band. I was checking out everything I wanted to play, R&B and soul and rock, Sam Cooke and Gershwin and the Beatles. I was trying out everything possible, and that was going to be my next record — Volume One of these solo dances.
But I noticed that I had worked up 24 Doors songs, a lot of which were not danceable. I began working more with them, and that became the project. The Doors record got bumped ahead to be the new record.
So it was purely happenstance?
Well, sort of. I have listened to and been inspired by the Doors for 35 years . . . I was a senior in high school in 1967 when I got the Doors' first album, just because someone told me they had an organist.
I'd never heard of them. I put it on, and right away "Break on Through to the Other Side" obliterated everything I had ever heard. I was like, "Whoa! What is that?" I decided I had to get an organ and play in a band one day.
Had you ever thought of recording these songs before?
No. I wasn't even thinking of doing it when this all came about. They're very difficult composers to interpret, and my main temperament is as an interpreter. I mean, with the Doors, the version is the version, you know?
Jose Feliciano did a great version of "Light My Fire," so that was encouraging. It was very difficult to make them my own, though. I definitely put the time in on this one. Out of the 24 I had, these 13 worked together best to make the statement I wanted to make.
And what statement is that?
I like albums to be like one song all the way through. I want the songs to work together in the right order, and these 13 seemed to me to flow together very well the way I had done them. It's great when it all just kind of speaks to you like that.
Was it worth the hard work?
Oh yes, but I'll never do a record this hard again. Most of these songs were organ songs, not piano, originally. Plus, it was all so personal to me. It was like I was writing a novel about them: I wanted to do them justice because I love them. The more time you've lived with something, the more significant it is. And, you know, what else can you do with "Light My Fire"?
Well, it seems that you took the song to New Orleans. That track and "People Are Strange" really heave with a bluesy — almost ragtime — rhythm. Is that because of your New Orleans influences or because they sprang from this dance music project?
Some of the songs translated well into my folk piano, melodic mode, and some of them, like those two, are in an R&B style — my James Booker, New Orleans piano mode. That came out of the dances.
I was working those songs up to be dances, indirect listening. Those two songs are done completely the way James Booker would have played them. His piano language has kind of ingrained itself into me involuntarily.
Professor Longhair was instrumental in your career, so to speak. What was your relationship to him?
I never met him. I'd quit playing in the late '70s, and I heard his 1949 recordings 30 years later, in '79. I thought it was so perfect that I started playing again. He inspired James Booker, too, and that became my way of thinking about the piano.
You grew up in Montana, and I assume those wide-open spaces and changing seasons fueled your seasonal records ("Autumn," "Winter Into Spring," "December") and that open, circular style you call "folk piano." How did that develop?
The folk piano is a style I made up in 1971 as a reaction to stride piano. I wanted to do something simple and melodic, which was opposite of the stride style.
I love to have the piano ring out and to keep it simple. I'm interested more in tone quality than in having a lot of notes. But if it wasn't for the stride, I wouldn't have had anything to react against.
How much Montana is in your music?
The folk piano records are extremely Montana-based. Everything I do, really, has some Montana in it — even the Doors album. The cover photo of the Doors record was taken in Montana, by the way.
The way the four seasons are so distinct and different there influences everything I do, even the R&B. "People Are Strange," for instance, is an autumn song. Everything to me is seen through the seasons — that's the bottom line.
Some people refer to sound or "om" or the creator, but seasons are the driving force to me. The Vince Guaraldi stuff is all about that.
All that Charlie Brown stuff is undeniably linked to certain times of year, not just because the television specials aired around holidays but because the songs were about seasons.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
If it weren't for all that great Aimee Mann music scoring the drawn-out angst of "Magnolia," the director should have used a song by the Frogs for the film's biblical climax.
It wouldn't have been the first time you've unwittingly listened to the band.
Milwaukee's flipped-out Frogs have been a crucial underpinning of most of the alt-rock you've grown to adore during the last decade and a half.
Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder habitually dropped their name in interviews. Both of their bands played the Frogs' wacky gay-power-folk debut "It's Only Right and Natural" on the PA before concerts. Pearl Jam even covered some Frogs songs live and shared a single with them ("Immortality" in '94).
Juliana Hatfield's Blake Babies named an EP after a song on the Frogs' debut ("Rosy Jack World"). The Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan and James Iha regularly joined the Frogs onstage. Kelly Deal played bass for them. Beck sampled the Frogs in his hit single "Where It's At."
We could go on. And on.
Suffice to say: the examples above are artists who have kinky sides to them, and that's the side of everyone that the Frogs embrace.
"Kinky? Kinky? Can you even be kinky anymore?" asked Dennis Flemion, the more frenetic and breathless half of the duo with brother Jimmy. "The culture's gotten so scattered, so numbed, nobody even feels kinky anymore."
This from a band whose debut album is loaded with stark, naked, pro-gay anthems — written by two brothers who probably are not gay themselves. Flemion would not answer "the $64,000 question" during this week's interview.
But on all subjects, the Frogs are, er, unconventional.
Some sample song titles (at least ones that can be printed in a general newspaper): "(Thank God I Died In) The Car Crash," "I Don't Care If You Disrespect Me (Just So You Love Me)," "Raped," "I'm Sad the Goat Just Died Today" and "Which One of You gave My Daughter the Dope?"
They also perform wearing some crazy costumes. First, it was giant bat wings. Then, not surprisingly, frog outfits with protruding stuffed green arms. Lately, it's bunny suits.
That's not to imply that the band is all about humor and weirdness — they have some great straight material, too, so to speak, especially on the newest CD, "Hopscotch Lollipop Sunday Surprise" — but it's the wacky stuff that's gotten them attention.
Flemion, however, assured us that the wildly eclectic and bizarre music — connect the dots from Zappa to Captain Beefheart to the Frogs (and, perhaps, fellow Milwaukeeans the Violent Femmes) to Ween — is not recorded and released simply for the sake of using controversy to gain attention.
"No, no. That would be the easiest and cheapest trick in the book. 'Oh, let's see how controversial we can be!' What would be the point? Do you think Alice Cooper did that?" Flemion said.
"I don't necessarily have to be the thing I create."
And therein lies the heart of the Frogs' oddball genius. They truly deserve the label "art-rock," because they approach rock music as artists — using the medium to explore their human potential for all states of thought and feeling. The things they sing about might not describe who they are, but those things came from within them.
It's a heady concept, one jazz players might understand better than others. It springs from the practice of improvisation. The Flemion brothers often — and sometimes on stage — practice making up songs on the spot. The band's album "My Daughter the Broad" is a compilation of these improvs, and the results are alternately right-on and far-out.
"The songs we make up are often quite controversial and inflammatory," Flemion said. "I could say I'm putting a mirror out there, but that's (nonsense) really, because everybody writes about themselves. Whatever you're writing, it's coming out of you.
"Just last night, I finally figured out the meaning of a song I wrote in '87. It's so twisted, you would never understand it, but I realized in a flash, 'Oh my God, that's what I was writing about.' It's something very sad that I made funny, but it came from me. It ultimately always does.
"You have to let yourself get out of the way for things to come through, too. That stuff I made up was just me opening my mind and letting stuff fly out of me. That's what we do. We try to open ourselves up that way. The stuff that comes out, well, we can't be afraid of it."
The fact that his subconscious ditties shock the conservative and sometimes even the liberal is no surprise to Flemion. Nor is it a threat.
"We have to do that as human beings, don't we?" he said. "There's no sense or irreverence in the culture anymore. When I grew up in the '60s, that's the way it was, that's the way you thought. But look at us now. Aren't you bored with what's out there?"
Unfortunately, commercialism sells only the material that's inoffensive to focus groups. That's made the Frogs infrequent residents of record store shelves — this despite the duo's piles and piles of songs. They're the They Might Be Giants of the counterculture.
"But our records are always delayed," Flemion said. " 'Right Natural' was finished in '87 but didn't come out until '89. 'Racially Yours' finished in '92 and just came out a couple of years ago.
"The latest one ('Hopscotch Lollipop Sunday Surprise') was done in '97 and came out last year. The only ones that came out on time were the compilations, and most of that was dated material, anyway."
The duo has two new records currently in the works. One of them is — ahem — a spiritual album.
"Well, I mean, it's us doing spiritual stuff. One song is called 'Satan,' and it sounds like 'Uncle Ernie' from 'Tommy.' There's a serious one called 'Jesus Is the Answer,' and then there's 'Jesus Is My Buddy' and 'Pact With the Devil Blues.'
"It's stuff that actually is fairly universal in theme so that people might even embrace it. Color me surprised."
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
You've probably never seen the most important member of your favorite band.
She gets most of the band's money. She's instrumental to the band's success. Every member talks the most about her, and if it weren't for her unique contributions, you'd never have seen the band in the first place.
It's the van.
Yes, Roger McGuinn offered some great advice about playing guitar and wearing tight pants in his handbook song "So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star," but he left out the most important bit of advice: buy the best van you can afford.
Playing live music means hauling equipment — drum kits and doo-dads, cabinets and keisters. If you can't get to the crowd, how can they adore you?
It takes a lot of fame and money to afford the tour bus of rock legend, so most bands — even a sizeable majority of household names — travel cramped together with (and sometimes on) their equipment inside a van.
Talk to a musician and the van undoubtedly will come up in conversation. It broke down again. It nearly went off an icy precipice in Utah. While trying to sleep in the fetal position against the window, it induced a terrible cramp.
"The van is a huge investment, probably the most important piece of equipment you can buy," said Jarod Gollihare, singer-drummer for Admiral Twin.
Admiral Twin recently upgraded its ride, bidding farewell to "Old Blue," the lurching, smoking '86 Chevy that's taken this local pop band in loop-de-loops around the country for a decade. Her odometer has rolled twice.
"It was on its absolute last wheel, held together with rubber bands. It gradually lost its heating, then the air-conditioning and the transmission's about to fall out. It was making weird noises, and sometimes it was hard to start. Then it would be hard to get it to stop," Gollihare said. "We've never actually driven it to a coast. We've always flown to the coasts. I think the salt air would just disintegrate it."
The new Twin ride is a used '99 Ford, purchased with money from a flush gig in Michigan. The former owners were dog trainers.
"The dog smell is pretty much gone now, but we left the 'We Raise Golden Retrievers' sticker in the back window," Gollihare said.
"This purchase is the biggest thing that's happened to our band in months."
Admiral Twin wasn't brand specific in its search for wheels. The Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey trio was.
Keyboardist Brian Haas was trapped in Los Angeles over the Christmas holidays waiting for a custom Dodge part to be shipped to a garage — where the band's former van had languished inoperable for 19 days.
"I guess Dodge vans just totally suck," he said at the time.
For a band that plays 221 shows a year from coast to coast, the van is crucial — transport, rehearsal hall and bedroom, all in one. It's got to work.
"We just got a lemon," said bassist Reed Mathis of the thankfully departed Dodge. "Last year, that van forced us to cancel tons of gigs. We missed the whole Dirty Dozen Brass Band tour because it dropped its transmission for the second time and stuck us in a roach motel in Florida, where we laid around watching 'Behind the Music' all day with whores calling the room asking us if wanted dates."
The Odyssey's new Ford has already been on an odyssey — 47,000 miles since February, and no complaints.
The guys also do what they can to make the place feel like home.
"We took the middle two seats out and put down a futon," Mathis said. "We've got kitchen drawers up front, a cooler and a water dispenser. We try to keep at least one plant inside to keep the air clean and the energy positive. We had one spider plant that lasted a year and a half. We were amazed."
"We keep ours pretty clean and standard-looking," said guitarist Mark Haugh of the van hauling his band, Caroline's Spine. "If we don't keep it clean, we'll get in a fight. I can, well, be kind of a slob."
When the members of Caroline's Spine went shopping for their latest van — their fifth in less than a decade — they decided to go all out and get all the features they wanted and needed.
"Until now, it's always been the cheapest van we can find, then we throw 100,000 miles on it and get rid of it," Haugh said. "This one we actually special-ordered. We got a good deal and got exactly what we wanted. We have a matching white trailer, so we look like a government vehicle. That's important so you don't get pulled over."
The band's previous vans included Haugh's old Volkswagen minibus, an "old, beat-up Dodge that never worked," a green Ford and an "old Ford conversion van that was like the Good Times van, the '70s disco vehicle."
The new van has a diesel engine.
"If you close your eyes, it sounds like a bus," Haugh said.
"We got all these features, but somehow we didn't get a CD player. I still haven't figured that out."
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Reed Mathis can't believe his luck, every single time.
When he was playing the cramped stage at Eclipse, back when the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey was seven members, he thought he was on top of the world.
When the band got the chance to tour and open for musical soulmates Medeski, Martin and Wood, he thought it couldn't get any better than this.
When they recorded an album live at New York City's famed Knitting Factory nightclub earlier this year, again he couldn't believe his luck.
Now he's looking ahead to the band's first sponsored jazz festival and a headlining tour across America, and he's just as amazed and thrilled as he's always been.
"I keep feeling so excited, so amazed every time things get better," he said during an interview this week. "We're so blessed."
Things have only gotten better for the Odyssey, whose steady rise through the nation's new jazz ranks culminated this year in the Knitting Factory gigs, the resulting CD, "All Is One" (out just a month and already the third highest seller in the lengthy history of Knitting Factory Records) and a mention in U.S. News and World Report as being the most promising new voice in jazz today.
The Fred boys - bassist Mathis, keyboardist Brian Haas and drummer Jason Smart - played 221 shows in 2001, but they always come home. Tulsa, in fact, means so much to them that they're launching the first (and hopefully annual) Fred Fest this weekend in town.
"This is something we've thought about for a long time, and these musicians - our friends - were totally into doing it, and doing it here," Mathis said. "We're already talking to groups about what we'll do next year."
The band hooked up with jazz pioneer Charlie Hunter after Hunter saw the band play and were wowed.
"Our people got in touch with his people, and we did a tour together," Mathis said.
The relationship lasted through two joint tours and numerous other gigs together. The day George Harrison died, Hunter sought out Jacob Fred and joined them onstage for a meaningful rendition of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."
"Charlie is the real article," Mathis said. "As far as innovative, new jazz is concerned, he's the guy. He brings a different group with him for each tour. That's a thing from the old jazz era. He composes a whole body of music for this one select, hand-picked group of musicians, they have maybe one rehearsal, then they show up for the first gig and just ice it. Next time out, he's got a whole new band."
At this weekend's show, a special guest will be joining Hunter. Hint: old Jacob Fred and new Fuzz fans will dig it.
Shortly after Fred Fest, the Odyssey will depart for another long coast-to-coast tour - this time as the headliner at every show. The gigs are downright toney now, too: Yoshi's in Oakland, the Lizard Lounge in Boston, the Village Underground in New York City, the Blue Note in Las Vegas - the great jazz clubs in every city.
They'll be home at the end of October and plan to spend the holiday season woodshedding on some new instruments - Mathis is going to try and master cello and sitar - as well as composing and rehearsing new material. Then, get this: the Odyssey's going to record its first proper studio record.
Each of the band's half-dozen releases thus far have been live recordings. After Christmas, Jacob Fred has time booked on the TU campus to record a record without an audience.
They also plan to broaden their scope widely.
"We've been listening to the Flaming Lips like they're going out of style," Mathis said. "The new record is such ear candy. Both these last records have just been incredible. It's so lush, the tapestry they paint. I wanna try some of that with Jacob Fred."
In other fawning Jacob Fred news:
Two weeks ago the trio was back at the Knitting Factory in Manhattan, where they played a sold-out show. The performance was filmed by the BET network.
"I grew up watching those shows. That's how I first saw Miles Davis," Mathis said. "I didn't go out and see bands, I got it all through TV. Now some kid from Lincoln, Neb., is going to see me in the same context."
The show should air this fall.
A feature article about Mathis will appear in the September issue of Bass Player magazine.
"That's another dream come true," he said. "You know, I never took lessons. I learned a lot from reading those magazines, so it's cool to be in there now."
Jacob Fred Jazz Festival, featuring the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, the Charlie Hunter Quartet, DJ Jeremy Sole's Musaics, Rewake and And There Stand Empires
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Curly's at the East End, 216 N. Elgin Ave.
Admission: $20 in advance - available at Starship Records, Curly's (www.curlystulsa.com) and Seasick Records (www.seasickrecords.com) - or $23 on Saturday and at the door
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
There's so much to do before leaving home to tour the nation in a rock 'n' roll band.
"I gotta bet batteries, strings, a foot pedal. There's hotel rooms to square away. Orders from the web site have to go out. A magazine wants a photo to go with an interview I just did. And who's gonna feed the turtles?"
This is an exasperated but excited Dwight Twilley. The Tulsa-based rocker hits the road this weekend — after a Saturday night appearance at Uncle Buddy's Roadshow in Claremore — for the first time in 15 years — since touring with Greg Khin.
Not only is he returning to the road — to support last year's CD release, "The Luck" — but he's heading out as the Dwight Twilley Band. The group heads through the Midwest before planning East and West coast legs.
Why is he touring again after all this time? It's business.
"We got roasted on 'The Luck,' " he said this week. "It's the first record on a label I own (Big Oak Recordings), we had a really good record to release, and we get it out there two weeks before 9-11. We'd done lots of prep work for it, but after that we were all just a bunch of zombies. So this tour is us going out to wave the flag and say, 'Hey, remember this record we put out?' "
The slimmed-down Dwight Twilley Band for this jaunt includes original guitarist Bill Pitcock IV, early drummer Jerry Naifeh and longtime bassist (and Nashville Rebel) Dave White.
The origin of the smaller ensemble has its roots in the recording sessions for Twilley's '99 "Tulsa" album.
"We've been doing the big show for so long, with the double drummers and everything, but there was a point during 'Tulsa' when just me and Jerry and Pitcock, no bassist, were goofing around and tracking it, and everyone looked at each other and thought it was pretty cool," he said. "So we thought we'd do the stripped-down thing for the tour — get rid of the bells and whistles and just leave the train."
The band is also rehearsing what Twilley called "the unthinkable" — a cover. He would not, however, tell us what song it is.
"I was thinking about Leon (Russell) doing that Rolling Stones song ('Jumpin' Jack Flash'), how he took a really standard song and really made it a Leon original. We've taken a standard like that and made it totally Twilley. I don't think I want to tell you what it is. I don't think it'll even be that noticeable. It'll probably sound like another Twilley song. Carl Perkins wrote it, as far as I know.
"I once did 'Money.' It's the only cover I ever recorded — the B-side to 'Somebody to Love.' It got massive airplay for a while, back in '79, and we loved playing it in the set because, for a while, people actually threw money onstage during the song. I remember Pitcock playing a solo that he couldn't tear his hands away from, and he was keeping this 20-dollar bill on his shoe. Some people threw checks — and they were good."
Twilley had Top 10 hits in '75 with "I'm on Fire" and '84 with "Girls." He was voted Artist of the Year at the first Spot Music Awards in '99.
This post contains complete reviews of this annual festival ...
Singer-songwriter Steve Young performance opens Woody Guthrie Folk Fest
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
"It is raining right now all over the farmlands around, and I have never seen prettier nor heartier land" . . .
— Woody Guthrie in a letter to Moe Asch, July 8, 1945
OKEMAH — It came as no surprise Wednesday night when Steve Young darkened the skies over this small town and brought rain upon the land.
It happened just as he began playing one of his signature tunes, "Montgomery in the Rain." The song is restive and mournful, laced with memories of Young's youthful binges and nights toasting the great Hank Williams atop his Montgomery grave.
The lyrics resonated in the hearts of the crowd gathered to hear Young kick off this week's Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, the fifth annual celebration of the late Okemah native's folk legacy.
"I don't want to stay here, and I'm just rolling through your town," Young sang, his voice like pure cream shot through a fire hose -- powerful, direct and smooth. "I just came back here to remember the joy and the pain . . . go out to Hank's tombstone and cry me a thunderstorm chain."
That's when the beige stage curtain behind Young began to breathe, then flutter, than flap audibly. A backstage door had been left open, and the cold front plowing across the Okfuskee County fields was pressing its gusts into the historic Crystal Theater, the very place where Guthrie often came as a boy, where as the evening's emcee, scholar Guy Logsdon, pointed out Guthrie first heard the song "Midnight Special" in 1925.
There were flashes of lightning on the backstage brick walls, and a faint rumble of thunder underscored Young's performance.
Guthrie's Okemah tombstone is merely ceremonial. He was cremated and scattered at sea in 1967, but the thunderstorm chain cried just the same. Young looked back only once to acknowledge the commotion before someone got the door closed. He seemed pretty nonplussed. He's likely prone to these kinds of mystical accidents. He's definitely got his mojo working.
In my story about Young last week, I described his music as "darkly Southern." It's not dark as much as it is shadowy, and it's more worldly than Southern.
He played Tex-Mex tunes and Irish jigs, but the phrase worked to hint at Young's Gothic nature. His songs seem haunted, like a crumbling Georgian mansion draped in moss and memories. Songs such as the heaving, churning "Jig" seem conjured from a graveyard, ghostly reminders to live life to its fullest and that "if you want to rock the jig, you gotta play it real."
Most of Young's performances heave and churn. That voice -- better suited to evangelical preaching -- no doubt careens out of his throat with incredible strength and control, frequently pinching off a phrase like a wincing Dylan, and his guitar picking is lightning-fast. His right hand moves all over the strings of his acoustic guitar, ringing every one and filling the hall like an orchestra.
Alternately driving and delicate, I scribbled in my notebook that it reminded me of Windham Hill Records founder Will Ackerman, whose last album, oddly enough, was "Sound of Wind Driven Rain."
Largely unknown as a performer, which, after seeing him, is unfathomable, Young presented an impressive catalog of songs, songs about being "a dreamer and . . . a drifter," songs about Oklahoma ("What a good place to be born"), songs about his southern Appalacian youth.
He delivered a jaw-dropping tribute to Selena, the late Tejano singer, that swelled and hollered like a classic Slim Whitman lament ("She rode out of Corpus Christi into the old Tejano land . . . so they might understand that they had a hidden beauty"), even mentioning Judge Roy Bean, like some mythic tale off of Dylan's "John Wesley Harding."
He also presented two Guthrie songs, neither of which smacked of last-minute preparation in order to justify this particular booking. The precursor to his Selena song was a carefully considered reading of "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)," which he restructured almost like an Elizabethan ballad.
Near the end of his set, he added "Pastures of Plenty," played high on the neck of his guitar in minor keys, singing fully and richly, like Ralph Stanley singing "O Death."
The convictions of that song have never sounded so personal, so real. Even as he worked through a considerable number of songs by other songwriters -- Tom T. Hall, Lloyd Price, John D. Loudermilk -- Young was the master, controlling and often reshaping the songs instead of merely replaying them.
And, after a day of intense, choking heat, we all appreciated the cooling rain that greeted the audiences as we emerged, charged from the performance.
However inadvertent it may have been, it was yet another annual blessing that took the edge off a festival under the sun during a typically scorching July week.
Luke Reed opened the Wednesday night benefit concert (before the intermission, during which, oddly enough, the sound man played Jenny Labow's "everything but you" album).
A native Oklahoman who's been in Tennessee a long time, Reed played original songs weighted with homesickness and pining for these "Oklahoma Hills," with which he closed his set in a jazzy, swinging rendition.
I've been away a long time, and it comes out in my songs," he said between tunes about being a "descendant of the wind" and "missing you and wide open spaces."
Reed is a songwriter, first and foremost. He writes good, solid tunes, but his voice and delivery are unsteady, wavering in a manner that no doubt matters more in Nashville than at a folk festival. He sounds like what Patrick Williams of the Farm Couple probably sounded like decades ago as a novice: not yet smooth, but smart. Funny, too, as he ended his set with a humorous song, reminding us that in spite of all the songs written about horses, spurs, saddles and guns "there wouldn't be no cowboys if it wasn't for the cows."
Guthrie Folk Festival 'matures'
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — At most available opportunities, the organizers of this weekend's Woody Guthrie Folk Festival made announcements from the various stages to recognize the presence of members of the Guthrie family, from relatives of Guthrie's son Roy to the omnipresent firecracker that is Guthrie's sister, Mary Jo Edgmon.
Guthrie's family, however, is not limited to these blood relatives. If the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival has shown the world anything at all, it's that Guthrie's family those who embrace the music he created and the ideals for which he struggled is a vast, diverse crowd of folks. The festival has become an annual family reunion for "Woody's children," the folk singers and fans who relish the old songs and their renewing spirit. This year, the festival's fifth, they came from all corners of the globe six countries and countless musical genres to pay homage and have a major hootenanny.
How do I know it's a family gathering? Because this year everyone seemed to bring their girlfriends. Performers Ellis Paul, Don Conoscenti and Slaid Cleaves brought along wives and significant others for the first time. A few of the crewmen had girls in tow. Some organizers joked that if the spouses were consenting to Okemah in July, that spoke well for the careers of the performers, the stamina of the festival, or both.
But the most significant indications of the festival's family atmosphere are in watching the "children" grow up and in the consistent helping hands and support the artists give one another.
First, this year's festival featured few new acts — at least, none of the headliners were new names to the festival roster. Most have been here throughout the festival's history, and eight of this year's performers were honored with plaques for having participated at all five festivals (Conoscenti, Paul, Bob Childers, Tom Skinner, Joel Rafael, the Red Dirt Rangers, Peter Keane and Jimmy LaFave).
But the lack of new blood did not slow festival attendance as some, including myself, expected it might. In fact, the most interesting new act, Steve Young, drew a paltry crowd for the Wednesday night benefit concert in the Crystal Theater.
No, the clans still came to the festival grounds Thursday night's being the biggest draw yet and, more intriguingly, we got something more from the routine performances. The kids have grown up. The performers we've watched at this festival for up to five years have matured, gained confidence, come into their own.
For instance, Boston's Ellis Paul took the main festival stage Thursday night with, I dare say, a swagger. A kind, gentle, sweet-voiced poet, Paul has been a fairy of the festival for years, fluttering in with tunes spun of tulle and tales of intricate and tortuous(CQ) romance.. This year, with his lengthening hair, he donned a gnarly cowboy hat ("I want to be a Red Dirt Ranger, you see") and strutted onstage with never-before-seen power and assurance. He plowed right into a hard blues wailer, "Rattle My Cage," full of the strength we'd seen in him before but now apparently confident in it, flaunting it a bit, proud. He has come a ways, too. Five years ago, at the first festival, he was a wide-eyed dreamy songwriter still getting his road legs. Today, his songs score Gwenyth Paltrow movies, and Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter, seeks him out to add new music to old Guthrie lyrics.
He played that song Thursday night, too his Guthrie collaboration, "God's Promise," an intricate musing on the double-edged facts of life that Guthrie wrote from his hospital bed in 1955. "It's the coolest thing I've ever done as a human being," Paul said of the posthumous collaboration. "Anyone who knows me knows that this was like me writing a song with Jesus."
Another branch of the family that's grown by leaps and bounds is the Oklahoma- bred Red Dirt Rangers, who rocked and rolled Friday night on the main stage harder than I've ever seen them. Of course, it may have just looked that way the festival crew used the Rangers' set as the opportunity to test drive a new fog machine, so much of their set looked like a Spinal Tap concert but the extended jam with a fret-wanking guitar solo in the title track to the band's new album, "Starin' Down the Sun," was no hallucination.
The bulk of their set concentrated the bulk of their set on Guthrie material, from their song "Steel Rail Blues" ("What would Woody Guthrie say if he were in my shoes?") and the Guthrie-esque "Leave This World a Better Place" to covers of " Cadillac Eight" (a moody number that really broke in the fog machine), the kickin' "Rangers Command" and "California Stars." When they closed with Jimmy LaFave's "Red Dirt Roads at Night," guitarist Ben Han was practically doing Pete Townshend windmills. R-a-w-k, rock.
LaFave joined the Rangers for that song, and therein lies the real other thrill of this festival's familial spirit: the family is pretty incestuous. Most of the artists respect, admire and maybe even adore each other. As a result, they take advantage of these rare opportunities to play together, to jam, to back each other up.
To wit: Don White joined Tom Skinner during his set. Later, Irene Kelly, an old acquaintance of White's from Nashville, asked him to join her during her Thursday night set. ("I guess I'd better go listen to her CD," he chuckled that afternoon.) Darcie Deaville brought the incomparable Mary Reynolds up to help her through Guthrie's "Union Maid," then added Conoscenti (who had just stepped out of his car arriving in Okemah) and Terry "Buffalo" Ware for a swingin' rendition of Guthrie's "New York Town." Conoscenti joined Paul, his old friend, during his set, as did Joel Rafael Band percussionist Jeff Berkley. Berkley and Ware, in fact, played with just about everyone.
Fayetteville bassist Melissa Kirper backed the Farm Couple, knocking out the Brick Street Cafe´ crowd by singing an "O Brother" staple, "I'll Fly Away" and sounding exactly like Gillian Welch. Bob Childers was backed by Skinner, Brandon Jenkins, and two DoubleNotSpyz members, John Williams and David Cooper. Amanda Cunningham joined him for harmony. The Rangers included fiddler Randy Crouch in their lineup and allowed Childers to come up and sing, once more, his classic song about Guthrie, "Woody's Road." The Rangers then joined Kevin Welch for an unrehearsed barreling through the bad-to-the-bone "Kickin' Back in Amsterdam." David R joined George and Linda Barton during their cafe´ set.
Fierce fiddler Wes Gassaway played the whole Wednesday night set with native Okie Luke Reed. Plus, in order to fill the main-stage slot left vacant by Abe Guthrie's band Xavier (an ill guitarist kept them from attending), festival organizer Mike Nave encouraged and helped to assemble the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival All-Star Band, a sprawling and unrehearsed-but-still-tight conglomerate that included Ware, Gassaway, Skinner, Reynolds, Deaville, Conoscenti, Don Morris, Greg Jacobs, Phil Lancaster (from the defunct Still on the Hill), T.Z. Wright. The band cycled through songs by Skinner, Reynolds and Jacobs, including Skinner leading the crowd through Arlo Guthrie's "Last Train to Glory," a rousing ballad about the railway to heaven that perfects Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready." The group had no rehearsal ("We wouldn't dream of it," Ware later joked) and still thrilled the crowd. That's a folk festival for you, and this one is indeed for all of us.
Around, about the festivities
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — Some sights and sounds from a week of concerts, panel discussions and camaraderie at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival:
Interesting acts: Roger Tillison, an old cohort of J.J. Cale (he wrote "One Step Ahead of the Blues" for him) and Leon Russell, showed up Thursday at the Brick Street Cafe´ for a temperate run through some good old songs. Effron White, from Fayetteville, sounds exactly like the singer for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and he wrapped his Brick Street set with the festival's most rousing reading of Guthrie's "Hard Travelin'" rousing because that gravelly voice sounded like it had actually done a lot of hard travelling. The best songwriter at the festival, though, surely must be Slaid Cleaves, whose economy with words creates gut-kicking images and butt-kicking songs. In "Broke Down," his latest Americana hit, he tells of a ruined suitor who tries to pawn the ring he bought for a girl; the next line skips a lot of narrative but lets us know exactly how the deal and his emotions turned out: "Somewhere at the bottom of Lake Ponchatrain there's a love note carved inside a wedding ring." Genius, even without his excellent yodeling.
The mother of all festivals: Mary Jo Edgmon, Guthrie's sister, is always in high demand at the festival. Appearing at panel sessions, pancake breakfasts and book signings throughout the week in Okemah, she brightens the event with her boundless energy and infectious cheer. At a local eatery one night, she stopped at my table to say hello. She was due at her tent near the festival stage 10 minutes earlier. But then a fan stopped her to relay her admiration, and a friend called her over to meet another couple. She made the rounds of the restaurant, leaving half an hour later after another family member, exasperated, cried, "She ain't left yet?"
Like an angel: I've printed it before, I'll print it again Mary Reynolds has the most beautiful voice in the world. A fixture on many stages, her pipes ring like the bells of heaven, from a jaunty run through "Union Maid" with Darcie Deaville to stopping the main-stage show Thursday night as part of the all-star band singing "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You" as a lullaby. Jimmy LaFave even got her onstage to sing "Hobo's Lullaby," her performance of which might as well be the festival's anthem. Sandpaper-throated Bob Childers joked backstage: "She reminds of me of myself before I started smoking."
Doctor's orders: Boston-based Vance Gilbert once again proved to be the funniest and most empowering act at the festival, in no small part because of the a cappella gospel prayer with which he closes his show.
Gilbert steps into the audience and shouts out this old-time holler without a microphone. He wasn't supposed to do that this year, though, under orders from physicians trying to heal his stressed vocal chords. "I'm not going to do it anywhere else, but if they think I'm not going to give my best show at this festival, well, uh-uh, no sir," he said later.
He gets around: One festivalgoer came all the way from Scotland for the event and wore his traditional garb, including kilt, the whole time. But if you really want an idea for the transcendent nature of Guthie's songs, ask performer Bill Chambers from Australia. "I've heard aborigines singing 'This Land Is Your Land' in the heart of the bush," he said.
The late show: Scheduled after-hours shows this year lacked a lot to be desired including attendance. Chicago's Cedarcase proved competent, at best, and Beaver Nelson from Austin, Texas, barely justified the buzz that's followed the band. The best Brick Street set, though, came from Tulsa's own marshallcity, which rocked the basement despite operating under a stern "no Led Zeppelin covers" order. One of their alt-country songs, though, still slipped in a few barks of "It's been a long time since I rock 'n' rolled."
A little ingenuity: Ohio-native, Texas-based singer-songwriter Michael Fracasso is a lone gunman. He holds the stage by himself with just his guitar and .,. where's that bass drum coming from? Ah, it's only Fracasso's foot. He taps a bass drum microphone with his boot for rhythmic support. Similarly, the Farm Couple added a trumpet solo to their closing number, "Ain't Misbehavin'." There's no trumpeter in the duo, but singer-guitarist Patrick Williams huffs out a mean impression of one through his moustache.
Someone didn't get the memo: Arlo Guthrie could not make this year's festival; he's touring with Judy Collins. However, the marquee outside the Okemah Mazzio's still read, "Welcome to Okemah, Arlo."
Documentary in works: An OETA crew was at the festival this year filming interviews to add to an upcoming extended feature on Woody Guthrie on the network's quarterly "Gallery" program. The piece is scheduled for the September episode.
Living history: Joel Rafael's new CD of Guthrie covers, "Woodeye" (officially released this week but available for the first time at the festival), includes the haunting ballad "Don't Kill My Baby and My Son." Guthrie wrote the song about a mob lynching of a black family near Okemah in 1911. Again this year, he and his wife drove some of the backroads in Okfuskee County looking for the site of that horrific vigilante crime. My companion and I did the same, discovering photos of the lynching on display at a small "Old West" museum just west of Okemah off the interstate. The museum also has newspaper clippings about "Pretty Boy" Floyd, the subject of Guthrie's famous eponymous song (one of the clippings attributes two bank robberies on the same afternoon one in Texarkana, one in Kansas City to the famed outlaw, expanding Guthrie's claim that "every crime in Oklahoma was added to his name"), as well as a copy of the McIntosh County Democrat from 1964 reporting on the progress of the Eufaula Dam. Festival regular Greg Jacobs sings a phenomenal song about that dam and the creation of Eufaula Lake, which submerged his family's farm.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
If you don't recognize the name Steve Young, he's got an impressive list of references.
"Steve Young is the second-greatest country music singer behind George Jones. He has no idea how great he is," said Waylon Jennings.
"Steve is in a league with Dylan and Hank Williams, and he sings like an angel." That's from Lucinda Williams.
"For that voice, that guitar and those songs to come together in one person is a wonder," mused the late Townes Van Zandt.
Gram Parsons played on his first album, "Rock, Salt and Nails" on A&M in 1969. Van Dyke Parks plays on his latest, "Primal Young" on Appleseed in 1999.
Young's song "Lonesome, Orn'ry and Mean" became Waylon's signature tune. Hank Williams Jr. covered Young's "Montgomery in the Rain." And, boy, everybody's covered "Seven Bridges Road" -- from Dolly Parton to the Eagles.
But Young -- take a minute to sweep up all those dropped names -- is one of those musician's musicians, a songwriter's songwriter. They know him well even though you might not.
Darkly Southern and musically restive, Young is a visceral poet of the backwaters -- or, as he likes to consider himself, a wandering troubadour in the old tradition. He lives part of the year in the Barrio in Los Angeles, the other part in glitzy Nashville, and he spends every possible moment on the road. His travels fortify his songs with lyrical and musical colloquialisms that makes listeners cock an ear and say, "Hey, that's my turf in that song."
That's what makes him one of the last great folk singers.
We caught up with him this week in Nashville to chat about wanderlust, Greenwich Village and the odd opportunity to play the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival.
You're too good a country singer to be in Nashville. What are you doing there?
It's not my favorite city, but I got rooted here years ago. My son's here. But yeah, I'm too diverse to be in Nashville. That's the problem. I don't consider myself a country singer, either. I'm more in the ancient tradition of the troubadour. I do folk, country and blues with a touch of rock. That pretty much makes it modern-day folk music. I'm fascinated by folk music. For instance, it's fascinating to me that the song "Streets of Laredo" originated in Ireland.
An Irish balladeer pining for the lone pray-ree?
It's originally about a sailor dying of venereal disease. But the same melody and sentiment evolved into a song about a cowboy dying in Laredo. That's folk music -- when it moves like that.
You must be a folk singer then, because you seem to be constantly on the move. Is a restless soul a necessity to be a folk singer?
It's the blessing and the curse, yes. Years ago, I tried to write in Nashville, tried to co-write and see if I could do it. One of these guys asked me one day -- and this just astounded me -- he said, "What's it like to be on the road and travel?" I assumed musicians and writers knew all about that. This guy just stayed in Nashville and wrote. He wasn't a troubadour, he was one of those Nashville craftsmen.
I can't stay put like that. What would I write about? The folk music process involves travel. It involves seeing different things, exchanging ideas, exchanging stories. I have fantasies of settling down and all that, but at this age I realize that's not gonna happen.
How old are you?
I'll be 60 on July 12.
Is your mix of styles endemic to that wandering, or does that spring from growing up in the South?
It's largely a product of growing up in the South. I grew up in the foothills of the Appalachians. The music of the mountains and its Celtic influence fascinated me. I was lucky to hear street singers in Gadsden (Ala.). There was music in church, too, from guitars to some pretty wild gospel. I heard all of that, plus the pop of the day, the standards. I even encountered flamenco guitarist Carlos Montoya when I was a teen, and I was blown away by that. I was open to music period, and I stayed open.
On "Primal Young," you seem to be quite open to folk music from Scotland. What inspired that exploration?
Well, there's that Scottish influence underneath all that music in Appalachia, but in high school, in a literature class, I completely fell in love with the writing of Robert Burns. He collected folk songs, you know. In fact, that's a lot of what he did. I studied that stuff for hours, reading the footnotes, trying the dialect, trying to understand completely what he was saying.
So what brings you to the Woody Guthrie festival?
I've always admired Woody Guthrie. When I was a teenager and starting to play guitar and absorbing music around me, I encountered Sing Out! magazine. I learned all about the New England hierarchy of folk singers, Pete Seeger and all that, and through them I encountered Woody Guthrie. I identified with him and what he had to say. I had grown up with similar people who were very poor and rural, down-to-earth people. My father was part Cherokee, and he was a sharecropper when he was 13 years old. The fact that Woody was willing to speak out against the wealthy powers that be and tell the truth about these kinds of people was very inspiring.
It was unusual. The country people I liked were great musicians, but they didn't have the same attitude. Indirectly they represented these poor as whatever, the common man, but they weren't saying it like Woody was saying it. They didn't want to get too deep into the dark truth of things.
Do you find it as easy as Woody to probe those deep, dark truths?
I live there. It's difficult to get me out of the deep, dark truth. It's healing to me, but I guess the masses see it as depressing.
Did you run into Seeger or any of those Sing Out! folkies when you hit Greenwich Village in the early '60s?
I ran into Phil Ochs, saw Dylan from a distance. I'd never been outside of the South when I moved to New York. New York completely blew my mind. I'd never heard people talk to each other that way unless they wanted to kill each other. It took some time to adjust. I did some auditions, and they said, "Yeah, we'll give you a job, but we're booked for three months." I couldn't wait three months for a job. I was using an apartment loaned to me by Dick Weissman of the Journeymen, so I was there long enough to absorb some things. Then I went back home to digest it all, but the South was harder to live with after New York. The South was never tasteful to me again.
But you mined it for so many great songs. The "Seven Bridges Road" is a real road, right?
It's an old road in the countryside outside of Montgomery. It turns into a dirt road and crosses seven bridges. It became this enchanted place, with moss hanging from ancient oak trees -- a beautiful setting, like something out of Disney. I thought my friends had made up the name, but it's actually the folk name for this road; it's not official. People have just been calling it Seven Bridges Road for over a hundred years.
There's a longing that that song comes out of. A myth has sprung up around it, that it's about going to Hank Williams' grave. That's not entirely true. Sometimes we'd go out Seven Bridges Road, then go back to Hank's grave and sing songs and drink at 3 a.m., which used to you could do. It's just part of the nostalgia for those times and that road. It's such an innocent little song, really. I thought nobody would ever understand it. Shows you how wrong I am.
What: Woody Guthrie Folk Festival benefit concert featuring Steve Young with Luke Reed
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Crystal Theater, on Main Street in Okemah
Admission: $20 plus service charge at the door or through www.okctickets.com
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey
"All Is One: Live in New York City "
(Knitting Factory Records)
Were this the forum for such academic criticism, I could dust off my Music Critic's Dictionary and really lay a few $20 words on you here. An examination of Tulsa's most unique band, the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, needs words like "contrapuntal," "polytonal," "harmolodics" or a host of music theory paradigms. But this isn't the place, nor is that the point of the Odyssey — or any odyssey, for that matter. No, this journey is about the travel, the path, the winds that both propel us homeward and blow us off course. It's about three insanely talented players finding their way in the world and the insane music they make simply by making the journey.
The Fred boys — keyboardist Brian Haas, bassist Reed Mathis and drummer Jason Smart — have certainly traveled. The presentation on "All Is One" is light years ahead of the Odyssey's '96 debut, "Live at the Lincoln Continental" (recorded at the Eclipse with the then seven-member band). What years ago often sounded like a bunch of yahoos banging on pianos and wanking on horns has evolved into a mythic and oxymoronic sound — considered abandon, controlled explosion, ragged grace. Closely networked — like a flock of starlings, turning with each other through the nebulous charts with a mind-boggling synchronicity — the three of them act as some kind of psychic lightning rod, absorbing the hot, high voltage of improvisational plasma and grounding it for us, delivering it in tingles and good vibrations, saving us from the shock. They are mediators, priests, shamans and "All Is One" is their finest interpretation of the cosmos yet.
Recorded live at the prestigious Knitting Factory nightclub in New York City, "All Is One" doesn't give away its setting. Rarely do we hear audience applause, and no one says, "Thank you, New York City!" from the stage. The recording is intensely focused on the instruments, which — despite the sweaty, raucous madness of a typical Fred show — is a blessing.
It allows us to really hear Reed Mathis' bass, which is a treat because Mathis doesn't play his bass very much like a bass. Rather, he tends to play it like Hendrix played his guitar, and sometimes he runs it through the eeriest effects. On "There Is No Method" his instrument sounds like a cat trapped inside a Martin guitar in a culvert -- a mildly funky exploration of the upper register, full of depth and astonishing lyricism — while on "Vernal Equinox" it's a fretless dobro under your pillow. "Lovejoy" showcases Haas' agility in switching between melodica and his Fender Rhodes piano within the same measure, all the while keeping this chugging, churning percussion romp utterly light and frothy. (The tune is named for guest percussionist Chris Lovejoy, from Charlie Hunter's band. Groove Collective percussionist Chris Theberge also is on board here.) Throughout, Smart shows himself to be the best drummer the band has had since the late Sean Layton helped found the band.
When all is said and done, your mind might not be blown — and that's OK. So many past Fred albums have worn their freak too well; "All Is One" approaches you like a guru, calmly, patiently, unafraid of speaking the truth but not preaching to you the entire gospel in one overwhelming homily. This record smooths out those rough edges, offers a spoonful of sugar with the medicine and satisfies the soul.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Sarah Lee Guthrie
"Sarah Lee Guthrie"
(Rising Son Records)
(Rising Son Records)
Pedigrees can be impediments. With so much riding on a
famous family legacy, many genetically enhanced artists
collapse under the weight of the expectations and hype.
Sarah Lee Guthrie, daughter of Arlo and granddaughter of
Woody, and her husband Johnny Irion, grandson of "Oklahoma!"
star Fred Knight and grand-nephew of John Steinbeck,
certainly have sturdy laurels upon which they could
recline. Guthrie's surname alone would be a marquee draw,
even if she stunk.
But she doesn't stink. In fact, she's the most
intriguing new female voice in Americana music since the
discovery of Gillian Welch.
Guthrie's self-titled debut — arriving after years of
performing with her father, including two appearances at
the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah — moseys with an
welcoming gait. Not another Emmylou Harris wanna-be is she,
although this album smiles and moves with the same measured
No, Guthrie is an original talent, coloring outside the
lines of the basic Americana patterns (dig the drunken Kurt
Weill surf music of the instrumental "Tarantula," or the
chuggin' blues of "World Turns in G") and sings strongly
through the jangle and jazzy bluegrass. Her rounded notes
sound like Linda Ronstadt in the '70s, her sustained verses
like Nanci Griffith in the '80s. The Guthrie genes are
gifted ones, no doubt.
Irion's debut is somewhere between Neil Young's "Comes a
Time" and "Old Ways" albums. The song "Think Tank," especially --
it's loping rhythm and mopey whining about "the city of
angels" rings of all that southern California country-rock
from similarly exiled and flighty Southerners, from the
Byrds to the Eagles.
Irion is a better player (esp. the dobro) than a singer --
which, of course, never slowed down Young — but the
skinny-boy swagger of "Unity Lodge" will be satisfying to the
men who can't get into Guthrie's music. Irion's easier to
drink beer to, that's for certain, but Guthrie's the one
destined to be the star, even without the family tree to
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
The first words displayed at the trailhead of "This Land
Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie," the
Smithsonian Institution's traveling exhibit on the
Oklahoman songwriter's life and work, are, "I don't know how
far I'm going to have to go to see my own self or to hear
my own voice."
In Guthrie's life, which ended in 1967 from
complication's of Huntington's disease, that route was a
long one. Guthrie was a virtual vagabond, criss-crossing
the country in search of that voice — an echo of his own, a
metaphor of the American commoner — and transcribing that
voice into thousands of songs, some of which made him
famous. In the exhibit, fortunately, the curious have a
shorter road to travel, simply the length of one small
showroom in which is neatly encapsulated the life of one of
America's greatest artists.
I will call him an artist, too, instead of the more
specific word by which he is usually referred — songwriter.
"This Land Is Your Land" is the physical history of an
artist, a novelist, a painter, a tunesmith and a
philosopher (which has a substantial footing in art,
surely). If this exhibit does nothing else, it broadens our
understanding of Guthrie, not only of his biographical
details and overall social significance but of his creative
mind and the multitudes of outlets he found for his ideas --
In addition to the requisite manuscripts, the exhibit
hall is a riot of scrawls, photos, sketches, artifacts,
drawings and paintings. What's astonishing — and empowering --
is the unity of expression throughout every medium. It's
all the same voice, speaking different languages.
The unifying text in the display is Guthrie's landmark
poem, "Voice," from which those initial lines come from. It's
a poem in which Guthrie explores America's cultural
diversity and lays claim to the unspoken threads tying
together our expression. At the end of the poem, it boils
down to a more nebulous sensory assurance — the "voice" has
become a "feeling." The Smithsonian show, designed by Jim
Simms, re-creates that sense of commonality in all the
blurts of Guthrie's artistic voice.
Even on opening day, visitors voiced their surprise at
the volume of imagery in the show. They had come to see the
works of an old-timey wordsmith — and there are many
examples of his writing — and were confronted with the less
frequently discussed and surprisingly colorful visual
aspect of Guthrie's expression. Watching his visual art
develop as one winds through the snaking canyons of the
display is interesting, too. We start with the simple,
comic cartoon "Boom Town," a pen-and-ink depiction of
rollicking Okemah, the central Oklahoma oil boom town where
Guthrie grew up. Next, we move with Guthrie to Pampa,
Texas, where his first solitary wages were earned as a sign
painter. On display in the exhibit is Guthrie's 1937 oil
portrait of Abraham Lincoln, a simple copy of a picture but
one that already illustrates a distinct style — bold curves
and an overtly geometric understanding of form.
Jump to 1942 — another line drawing, cartoonish, of an
Okie grabbing the rails of a passing truck, entitled "Move."
That same year, though, Guthrie drew "Rounded Up in Tracy,
California," a depiction of Okies fleeing bullish cops in
the misadvertised "garden of Eden." The clear, simple lines
of the police car in the background give way to a more
fluid foreground — a nebulous crowd dominated by one man
silhouetted in the police headlights, the only details
being the buttons and collar of his work shirt and his
white, angelic hands.
From this point on, the crisp lines of Guthrie's
drawings bleed into wider, bolder strokes of ink and paint,
and the forms of his subjects relax into more nebulous,
ghostly figures. "Starvation Disease," undated, features a
face — barely — in muted watercolors and only three lines of
facial features to communicate an oceanic depth of
melancholy. Along one wall is a series of half a dozen
prints from April 1946, each panel a depiction of a woman
from behind in different modes of physical labor. She is
faceless each time, allowing the viewer to more easily
enter the scene and feel her weary but unyielding
"Hootenanny," from the same month, is a virtual stick
figure, a curly-headed guitar player assembled completely
from lines and circles. It looks like the kind of image
that accompanied ancient Oriental calligraphy — few strokes,
but big, sweeping ones — or the work of a more carefree (or
harried) Leroy Neiman. "Figures in Embrace" is a swirl of
only 17 strokes, but they're in there, that couple --
hugging, maybe even dancing.
It's no coincidence that Guthrie's visual art became
more pliable — and more prolific — as he grew older. The
immovable convictions of his younger days and older songs
softened in a broader understanding of the world. More
significantly, the onset of Huntington's disease began
making detail work more difficult. With shaky hands, he
could more easily sweep a fat brush across a large sketch
pad than trace the intricate lines of a wooden Okemah
sidewalk with a fine-pointed pen.
It's also no coincidence that the panel in this
exhibition depicting Guthrie's deteriorated state prior to
entering the hospital in the early '50s returns again to
the words of "Voice." Over an enlarged photo of a bedraggled,
bearded, hollow-eyed Guthrie playing guitar in New York's
Washington Square Park, we read, "And I thought as I saw a
drunken streetwalking man mutter and spit and curse into
the wind out of the cafe's plate glass, that maybe, if I
looked close enough, I might hear some more of my voice." At
this stage, Guthrie was that drunken streetwalking man,
finishing his interminable expedition for that common
sound, that absolute feeling, that universal voice.
It's too bad that a couple of things inhibit our
reception of Guthrie's voice throughout the exhibit. A show
that's designed to be displayed in 3,400 square feet has
been crammed into about 1,300. In several places, the
lighting has all the candlepower of a dashboard, which
makes reading Guthrie's all-important words especially
trying. Noisy humidifiers rage throughout the tour, too,
drowning out many of the speakers broadcasting various
snippets of Guthrie's singing and speaking voice. It's
annoying, but Guthrie's signal still gets through.
The show also features numerous interesting tidbits
beyond the visual aspect focused here: these include his
copy of Omar Khayyam's "Rubaiyat," several of Guthrie's
notebooks and datebooks open to interesting pages, his
shipboard fiddle (which also had carved upon it the slogan
"This Machine Kills Fascists"), a few watermark original song
lyrics, one of his business cards from KFVD in Los Angeles,
his address book (open to Pete Seeger's address and phone
number in Greenwich Village) and the "yes" and "no" cards with
which he communicated in the hospital once his voice was
At the end of the show, we are left with the ultimate
Guthrie send-off. From his bed in the Brooklyn State
Hospital, Guthrie scrawled with a brush the chorus of his
signature tune, "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You." Each
panel advances the line a few words, with a little doodle
in that broad-brush style to accompany it. It's the
convergence of his languages, visual and written
expressions coming together in a more refined voice, a
voice still echoing from the redwood forests to the
The exhibit continues at the Oklahoma Museum of History,
2100 N. Lincoln Boulevard in Oklahoma City, near the state
Capitol. For information, call (405) 522-5248.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
There's been a lot of ink poured around the Tulsa World,
trying to define and describe Red Dirt music, the elusive
mix of country, rock, blues and folk native to Oklahoma and
centered around Stillwater. It's like nailing smoke to a
wall. You can see it, you can smell it, but how do you grab
hold of it?
In all the interviews with musicians classified as Red
Dirt players, a lot of names come up as influences. A lot
of folks hearken back to the Tulsa Sound days of Leon
Russell and J.J. Cale. Some trace their sound back to Merle
Haggard, others tell stories about Garth Brooks' days in
the Stillwater bars. Songwriter Bob Childers is pretty
universally hailed as the genre's godfather.
But one name comes up more than all the others. In a
recent search of the Tulsa World's electronic archives
(stories back to 1989), 176 stories mentioned Red Dirt
music, and 143 of those mentioned Woody Guthrie.
If Red Dirt is the great consolidation of American
music, especially south of the Mason-Dixon, then surely its
crucible can be found in the tangled woods around Guthrie's
old Okemah home site. Guthrie was famous for a certain
slice of his music — frank, topical folk songs — but he wrote
and performed every conceivable genre of music in the
decades he wandered this land with his guitar slung over
his shoulder on a rope.
The comprehensive four-CD, boxed set from Smithsonian
Folkways Records, "The Asch Recordings," covers most of this --
his cowboy music, his Tex-Mex, his kids songs, his blues.
Guthrie respected differences in people and in music.
"The unifying theme in Woody's music is that he wrote
about the land he loved," says Tulsa scholar Guy Logsdon. "He
played the melodies and music that came from the land he
loved, from Oklahoma, one of the most culturally diverse
places in America. Let's also say he modified it. He used
the music he heard as a foundation and built upon it.
"That's what these Red Dirt guys are doing. The Garth
Brookses and Jimmy LaFaves and Tom Skinners and there's a
guy in Bristow named Brett Graham — they use their heritage
as a foundation and build their own sound on top of it. It
just happens to be a very broad foundation," Logsdon said.
LaFave, who grew up in Stillwater but relocated to
Austin to make his career, is considered one of the
principal standard-bearers of the Red Dirt ideal. He cites
Guthrie's influence consistently and has become a pillar of
the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah.
Another expatriate Stillwater son, Bruce Henderson now
in New York City, cites Guthrie among the lathes that
shaped his easy-going, country-rock songwriting. Regional
singer-songwriter Brandon Jenkins said in a '98 interview,
"I've been real involved with Woody Guthrie music lately,
and it got me back to writing music for my own reasons, not
to have a hit."
"It's about finding your identity," Logsdon said. "Often we
search for ourselves and discover we're part of something
greater." "Where is Woody Guthrie in Red Dirt music? In
the truth," said John Cooper of the Red Dirt Rangers this
week. The Rangers are probably the ultimate example of Red
Dirt's nebulous but potent mixture of styles.
"It's in the lyrics, in trying to tell the absolute truth
as you see it. Woody said you can only write what you know
about, and it's true," Cooper said.
The Rangers themselves have struggled throughout their
11-year existence to explain to folks what they do, what
their music is. Someone once called them "Woody Guthrie gone
In '95, Cooper told the Tulsa World, "A lot of people
think we're a country band, which is true, but we do a lot
more than that. It shows in the kinds of gigs we do. We've
done kids shows, bluegrass festivals, rock 'n' roll events,
city festivals, prison shows and private parties."
The broad base of their sound and influences allows them
to be that versatile. But it's that element of truth that
separates them from most style classifications based purely
on musical form. It's almost like Christian music, a
musical category containing every possible style of music
but segregated purely because of its message. Red Dirt
places a higher importance on truth in the lyrics than most
other genres, certainly pure country.
"Like a song on our upcoming record, ‘Leave This World a
Better Place.' I'm serious about that," Cooper said this
week. "I didn't write that just to be catchy. I want people
to hear that and believe as much as I do that that's what
we should do."
That does not imply that Red Dirt music is protest
"It's not necessarily political like Woody got sometimes
and like he's so well-known for being. You can't take the
politics away from Woody, and really from us either, but
we're more about the politics of love, if that's not too
"Our connection to Woody is through that desire to tell
the truth and to lift people up no matter what kind of
stories you're telling them," Cooper said.
"Woody was the voice of all people who struggle," added
Ranger singer Brad Piccolo, "but people struggle in many
different ways, not just political stuff. There has to be
honesty in every area of playing music, because people come
to music for a lot of different reasons."
Even Guthrie himself didn't know what to call his music.
In 1940, a reviewer included a discussion of Guthrie's "Dust
Bowl Ballads" under the heading "Americana." In his scrapbook,
Guthrie scribbled his response: "Americana is a new one on
me, but when these fellers hire out to write a column every
day they ain't no telling what kinds of words they'll fall
back on to make a living."
Guilty as charged.
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
The Woody Guthrie Archives isn't anything fancy, which
is in keeping with the lifestyle of the archives' namesake.
The collection is not under heavy guard, under glass or
even — thanks to Nora Guthrie's efforts — under wraps. The
archives is really just a bunch of filing cabinets in a
cramped, stuffy two-room office in midtown Manhattan, open
for public perusal as long as you make an appointment.
Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter, runs the place, and
she's not too fancy, either. She's about as open and honest
and casual a professional as you can find. Of course, there
again the terminology doesn't do the situation justice.
Nora doesn't run anything at all — she inspires, enthralls,
educates, grounds and delights all visitors and staff
members. A remarkably engaging, uplifting woman, she
oversees the use of Guthrie's backlog of songs, poetry and
prose. Those cabinets are stuffed to overflowing with
pages of Woody's work — some of it intended for public
consumption, a lot of it scribbled down just to get it out
of his ever-bubbling brain. Nora already has guided British
folk-rocker Billy Bragg and American roots band Wilco
through the stacks; the results were the two "Mermaid Avenue"
albums, featuring tuneless, old Woody lyrics with new
music. Many more such projects are in the pipeline.
The exhibition that soon will be showing at the Oklahoma
Historical Society in Oklahoma City, "This Land Is Your
Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie," was culled from
this resource. The show has been touring museums across the
country for more than two years; its Oklahoma stop — in
Guthrie's home state — is likely its last.
Bringing the show here was a challenge, though. I talked
with Nora last week about the exhibit, its challenges, and
why Oklahoma has been so resistant for so long to welcoming
home its most talented native son:
Let me start with my basic question right now: was Woody
With an accent like that — are you kidding?
What's always fascinated me about Woody is that he left
the state as a teenager, yet everything he wrote, said and
sang for the rest of his life was clearly influenced by his
That's always interested me, too. To be honest, I've
always felt like we were his step-family, in a way — that we
were kind of holding onto him until Oklahoma finally takes
Everything he did and fought for had to do with the
basic values he learned in Oklahoma. When I lecture in
Oklahoma, I tell people, "You think he's talking about other
people's rights and other people's problems, but he was
talking about your grandfather" — and I point at them — "and
your aunt and your cousin." These were his people.
"Everything he wrote, especially the early songs, was about
your family." He wasn't that expanded back then. What did he
know from America? All he knew was that someone's
grandmother lost the farm or someone's cousin was done
wrong. Everything he cared about came from his love for
Oklahoma and then became explained and justified by the
rest of his life.
When he finally traveled to other places, he found that
they were having the same problems, so he could become this
spokesperson for America — the people, not the land or the
Why did he return home so rarely?
Well, there were family and political problems that were
a big part of that, but the biggest part was the
Huntington's disease. There was this cosmic understanding
that took place between him and my mother (Marjorie
Guthrie) that she was his caretaker because he couldn't go
He was in exile.
I don't think he ever used that word, but there was
definitely an emotional exile that he felt — and was
bewildered by, to be quite honest. He was always from
Oklahoma and always wrote about it and put it in context.
When he wrote about New York, it was in the context of "look
at me, I'm a big hick, and I'm getting on this crazy
underground train." He always contextualized himself. But he
couldn't go home.
Until now. The annual folk festival in Okemah has
welcomed his spirit home, and perhaps the exhibition will,
It almost didn't happen, though. It was my wish that
this touring show open in Oklahoma two years ago. When I
first put it together, that was the only thought I ever
I was innocent and naive, I'm confessing, but I thought,
"Great, we'll have this show, and it'll open in Oklahoma." I
mean, where else would you open it? This is the place.
If Walt Whitman or any other major American figure had a
major exhibit, wouldn't you think it would be welcomed in
their hometown? Isn't that why Salinas (Calif.) has that
huge thing for Steinbeck? Everyone wants to cheer their
homeboy. But not in Oklahoma, not for a long time, anyway.
So what went wrong?
We had it booked in the Cowboy Hall of Fame (in Oklahoma
City). We were planning things — a big concert, some other
events. It was going to have this kind of reborn feeling,
like he's back and let's finally give birth to Woody in
Oklahoma and say, "Yes, he's from here."
A couple of months before it was supposed to open, we
got a call from the museum backing out. They gave some
vague reasons about scheduling conflicts and then about
funding, but I didn't even listen to it because I knew it
was politics. I just thought, gosh, I'm fiftysomething now,
hasn't anything changed out there in all this time? Isn't
there a new generation there who can stand up and recognize
that this guy was from Oklahoma and he doesn't have to be
the star of the state, but you could at least say, "I might
not like his politics, but what a great writer"?
Where did the exhibition open?
In California, at the Steinbeck museum. And it turned
out to be really special there, after all. Lefty Lou
(Crisman, Woody's former radio show partner) came, and she
said to me, "How did you know to open it in L.A.?" I didn't
understand her, and she told me this story. She said, "When
we had the radio show at KFVD, every afternoon for lunch
Woody and I would come out to that rock over there" — we were
standing outside the Steinbeck center — "and eat. We would
hike up there every single day for lunch, walk around the
hills, then go back and do the afternoon show." So the
exhibition opened on that site where they spent so many
afternoons, and she thought I'd done that on purpose. It
wound up having its own significance.
Still, I always hoped it would make it to Oklahoma. Like
most of Woody's stuff, this exhibition has been a sleeper.
We had trouble getting it started, and we had to put up the
money ourselves to get it into New York. It turned out to
be such a huge success there that the director of the
museum came up to me one evening and said, "Nora, I was so
skeptical. I didn't think this show was going to be that
good. That's why we didn't push to raise the funds for it.
But the public response has been so amazing, we've had more
attendance for this than anything else this year. If I
could do it again, I'd double-book it. I just didn't get
You know, these people study charts and financial
reports, and they don't get the people. They're not
connected, and this was maybe a good lesson in that
What turned the tide to allow the show to come here?
Once it caught on elsewhere, we found some friends in
the Oklahoma Historical Society and the state arts council
there. It just took a couple of years. It was about that
amount of time that the festival in Okemah really took off,
too, so I guess it just takes time.
It' so typical of Woody's personality, you know. He was
always a sleeper. He'd slip into a room and say something,
and two people would pay attention, then a few more, then a
few more, until he had the whole place in the palm of his
Woody Guthrie exhibit to open Friday
The Smithsonian Institution's acclaimed exhibition, "This
Land Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie,"
opens Friday at the Oklahoma Museum of History in Oklahoma
The exhibit explores the life of the native Oklahoman
songwriter, author of such well-known tunes as "Union Maid,"
"So Long, It's Been Good to Know You" and "This Land Is Your
Land." The show offers material from the Woody Guthrie
Archives and the Smithsonian Institution, including
original manuscripts, drawings, sound recordings and some
The show — organized by Nora Guthrie, his daughter and
executive director of the archives, and the Smithsonian
Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) — has been
ramblin' round the country for two years. This stop in
Guthrie's home state will be its last. Guthrie was born
in the town of Okemah in 1912. He traveled the country
writing songs much of his life, many of those journeys with
dispossessed Okies in the 1930s. He lived in New York City
in the last years of his life, many of which were in
hospitals before he died in 1967 of complications from
Huntington's disease. He wrote thousands of songs before he
died, most of which remain collected in the Woody Guthrie
The exhibit will remain on view through May 4. The
museum is located in the Wiley Post Building, just SE of
the state capitol at 2100 N. Lincoln Boulevard in Oklahoma
For more information, contact the museum at (405)
522-5248 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
"This Land Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody
What: The Smithsonian Institution's traveling exhibit.
When: Opens Friday, runs through May 4 Where: The Oklahoma
Museum of History, Wiley Post Building, southeast of the
state Capitol at 2100 N. Lincoln Blvd., Oklahoma City.
Woody Guthrie wrote a lot of songs about rambling
He literally could not sit still. He had a natural
restlessness and a fierce wanderlust, and he died of a
nervous disease that made him shake. He was on the move all
the time — hopping freights across the Midwest, riding
sagging jalopies with Okies through the Southwest, touring
with his singing group in the Northeast, writing songs
about the Grand Coulee Dam in the Northwest, hiding out in
a swamp in the Southeast.
He touched every point of the compass — N, E, W, S — and
then he wrote songs that reported the news of the places
and people he'd seen. His songs were, for the most part,
journalism — with a large literary license. He happened to
be conducting his field reporting during this country's
hardest times, starting in the 1930s, so he met a lot of
homeless people, drifters, the dispossessed. The Okies.
Guthrie's own home back in Oklahoma had disintegrated,
partly because of the hard times and partly because of
family turmoil. Guthrie, a teenager, was left behind in the
decaying boom town of Okemah. His ties broken, he finished
his junior year of high school and stuck his thumb in the
wind. He left Oklahoma at age 17 and, except for a few
brief visits, he never came back.
Strange then that this rascally, clever songwriter --
famed for spirited songs as widely sung as "This Land Is
Your Land" — should be considered a native son of our state.
Strange then the fuss over Okemah's long-overdue embracing
of its late hometown boy and the fanfare of its annual
summer folk festival in his name. Strange the effort of
officials at the Smithsonian Institution and the Woody
Guthrie Archives to make sure the museum's current
traveling exhibition of Guthrie's life and work actually
opens in Oklahoma this week.
Or maybe not so strange. When you hear Guthrie's songs,
when you read his prose, when you study his life, it's
clear that Woody left Oklahoma but Oklahoma never left
The value of land
Oklahoma is restless land. Its
history is a pile of pulled-up stakes. Countless Indians of
every stripe were dumped here
— because the land wasn't valued. Only after the rest of the
continent had begun filling up did the government open
these lands to white settlers — because the land wasn't
valued. Oil companies jumped in, sucked the marrow out of
the earth and left as fast as they'd come — because the land
was no longer valuable. Thousands upon thousands of those
same white settlers were evicted from those same land
claims years later when severe drought turned them to dust --
and the land wasn't valuable. Migration, resettlement,
migration again. On and on.
But the land had value to those who planted it, hunted
on it, were born on it and buried their parents in it.
Those hard-working Okies probably had more sentimental
value for land than any category of Americans, and one wiry
little fellow watched all those land lovers come and go,
seizing and releasing the fields around his hometown. As a
boy growing up in Okemah, Guthrie met Indians, farmers,
ranchers and oil men. As he began traveling the plains
roads, he met countless farmers and ranchers who'd been
thrown off their land.
As he roamed to California and back with the
dispossessed, Guthrie learned about the value of home.
Thomas Wolfe had just informed the world that none of us
can truly go home again, but Guthrie discovered that, no
matter where someone hangs his or her head, home can be
rebuilt in an instant simply by strumming a few chords and
singing the old songs.
Joe Klein, in his 1980 biography, Woody Guthrie: A Life,
wrote of Guthrie's discovery on the road with the Okies:
"They always wanted to hear the old tunes — there weren't
many requests for fox trots in the boxcars — and Woody was
amazed by the impact the songs had. . . . The whiny old
ballads his mother had taught him were a bond that all
country people shared; and now, for the migrants, the songs
were all that was left of the land . . . It wasn't just
entertainment; he was performing their past. They listened
closely, almost reverently, to the words. In turn, he
listened to their life stories, and felt their pain and
anger. An odd thing began to percolate. He was one of
So Guthrie learned those songs — "The Boll Weevil," "The
Farmer Is the Man," "The Buffalo Skinners," "A Picture From
Life's Other Side." The ones that made him famous, though,
were the ones he wrote about the land and people's tenuous
relation to it in the 1930s.
In the songbook of folk favorites Guthrie and Pete
Seeger compiled in 1940 (which wasn't published until
1967), Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People, there's a
chapter called "The Okie Section." Each of the baker's dozen
of songs is by Guthrie — "I'm Goin' Down That Road Feeling
Bad," "Dust Can't Kill Me," "Dust Bowl Refugee," "You Okies and
Arkies," "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," "If You Ain't
Got the Do Re Mi," "Tom Joad," and more. They're all songs
about Okies — about people who'd been cut loose from their
homes and homesteads.
It wasn't just Okies out there on the road, heading to
California. In his introduction to "The Okie Section,"
Guthrie explains that by 1940 he'd come to a realization --
that the plight of the Okies is mirrored in the
workingman's struggle in every state.
"It looks like this Okie section ought to be my pet
section — but it ain't," he wrote. "When I first commenced a
working on this book, I thought myself it would be. And
then I took a looking tour through about 20 of the other
states — and everything was just about as hungry, and in
some spots hungrier. Virginia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania,
Kentucky, Ohio, New York and back to Oklahoma and Texas
again. One is about as naked as the other."
He was learning that the common man's struggle he
witnessed in Oklahoma was hardly different from the same
struggle in any other state or any other country. He was
becoming a citizen of the world.
Taking Oklahoma's message tothe world: But he was still
a gosh-dern Okie. Not long after arriving in New York City
in '40 — after years on the radio in L.A. as "Oklahoma Woody" --
Guthrie wrote a song called "Down in Oklayhoma," in which he
was still reflecting on the gulf between the state's
abundant natural riches and the workingman's poverty:
Just dig a little hole, you'll find soft coal
Some lead or zinc, just dig a little hole;
Everybody I know goes in the hole
Down in Oklayhoma
Other songs followed — "Hooversville," about a squalid
homeless camp in Oklahoma City; "The Dalton Boys" about the
famous gangsters and their Green Country hideout; "Verdigris
Headrise" about a young Will Rogers; "Okleye Homeye Home," in
which he begs the listener to "take me back to my
He dressed like an Okie. He often smelled like one, too.
More importantly, he spoke like an Okie, which means he
wrote and sang in the same way. "I'm Goin' Down the Road
Feeling Bad" is built around a chorus that declares, "I ain't
gonna be treated this-a way," and his songs were heavily
spiced with this down-home dialect. Guthrie's
autobiographical novel, "Bound for Glory," was described by
the New York World-Telegram as being written "largely in
Even as Oklahomans forgot Guthrie, Guthrie never forgot
his home state. Even when his politics got mixed up and out
of context over time — he supported unions and even
communists, because, as he wrote, "Nobody cared — except the
Union Boys. They was the onliest ones that was on our side
through thick and thin" — Oklahomans eventually shunned him,
but he never brushed the red dirt off his soles in protest.
He took the message of Oklahoma to the world, and it's just
now beginning to echo back.
Oklahoma Folklife Center plans to protect folkways for the future
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
In 1941, Woody Guthrie was involved in a theatrical
production in New York, a revue of sorts led by Earl
Robinson. The show involved a skit in which a group of
stalwart, American singers, featuring Guthrie, were set
upon by an unscrupulous music publisher hoping to buy them
off and water down their music. The script called for
Guthrie to stomp and cry out in outrage, but when he
performed the lines his laid-back, Okie drawl sounded
Robinson, according to Guthrie biographer Joe Klein,
said, "Woody, for Chrissake, don't you ever get angry at
people in Oklahoma?"
Guthrie leaned back and, slower than ever, replied, "Yup.
We get angry. But when we get angry, we just give 'em a
long, hard stare."
That trait, believe it or not — that laid-back approach
or the refusal to show immediate, hot anger — is a folkway,
a characteristic element of a particular group of people
that is learned or handed down from generation to
generation. It's ephemeral, it seems, but it's these little
distinctions that separate an Oklahoman from a New Yorker
or a Tennessean or a Californian.
And it's these folkways — from music to crafts to these
elusive social traits — that the Oklahoma Folklife Center
plans to preserve and to provide opportunities to examine
The Tulsa-based Oklahoma Folklife Center is a new
creation, a satellite of the Smithsonian Institution's
American Folklife Center, and organized under the umbrella
of the Oklahoma Historical Society and funded thus far
through a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the
Arts. So far, the center has one employee, director Guy
It doesn't even have a home yet. The center eventually
will be housed in Tulsa's historic Travis Mansion, 2435 S.
Peoria Ave., undergoing renovation and additions by its new
owner, the Tulsa Historical Society. Until those
improvements are complete, the Oklahoma Folklife Center
will operate out of Logsdon's midtown Tulsa home.
That's fitting, of course, because Logsdon's home is its
own folklife center. For decades, the former University of
Tulsa librarian has compiled his own massive and impressive
collection of Americana and folk music-related research,
and his back room is its own museum — a storehouse of
documents, research and artifacts relating to cowboy
poetry, American folk music and other subjects far and wide
— including recipes, folk art, even the peculiar way some
Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma
Historical Society, has even bigger dreams for the folklife
"I foresee this growing to the point where we need a
physical location for the center itself," Blackburn said
last week, "especially because of the performing arts aspect
of folk arts. It would encourage the performance of music
and the exhibition of more folklife materials, the
demonstration of folkways and apprenticeships."
Blackburn expects the folklife center to catch on
quickly in Oklahoma, largely because of its Tulsa base.
"The Tulsa community has always supported the arts so
well," he said. "I remember attending the Chautauqua event up
there five or six years ago, when Danny Goble portrayed
Huey Long, and it was standing room only. I thought, ‘Boy,
these Tulsans really get into this sort of expression of
our cultural heritage.'
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
We could clear the dictionary of superlatives discussing
the colossal talent of B.B. King and his indelible mark on
blues, rock 'n' roll, even jazz. A singer, a songwriter and
a guitarist beyond compare, King has been a forceful
presence in music for more than half a century, and at 76
years young the old master is still recording, still
touring — despite occasional injuries, like the fractured
leg he suffered two weeks ago falling from his tour bus
steps — even hawking Whoppers in TV commercials, somehow
without sacrificing an ounce of his legendary dignity and
We might also assume that King achieved such legendary
status by learning from the right people. Growing up in
Mississippi, King heard certain blues guitarists who fired
him up, and the excitement encouraged him to step out of
his street-corner gospel quartets and pick up an old
guitar. But even though he has been described by Rolling
Stone magazine as "a great consolidator of styles," King,
with his trademark humility in an interview this week, said
he couldn't then and still can't play as good as his
"I could never play like my idols. I wanted to. But I
couldn't do what they did, so I couldn't really take that
and do something else with it. People say I borrowed this
and I borrowed that and then made it all into my own thing.
All I ever had was my own thing to begin with," King said.
Indeed, in interviewing an artist the most cliched
question to ask is, "Who influenced you?" But when
approaching a legend as large as King, in a career that has
become its own undeniable influence, we couldn't help but
come back to that discussion. Where, indeed, did this
franchise begin, and are these the same roots sprouting
"Well, it wasn't Robert Johnson, let me say," King said. "A
lot of kids think Robert Johnson was the greatest blues
guitarist ever. I don't agree. Lonnie Johnson was much
better. And there was a guy born in Texas, born blind,
called Lemon Jefferson. People called him Blind Lemon
Jefferson. He was another idol. I liked jazz, too. Charlie
Christian — born right there in Oklahoma — he was great,
another favorite. Barney Kessel (another Oklahoman) said he
was the greatest jazz guitarist ever, and I trust him
because he's the greatest ever. I heard a French gypsy named Django
Reinhardt, and then T-Bone Walker playing electric guitar.
We called what he did single-string. This is the stuff that
made me fall in love with the guitar."
"Lookie here, I've got a lot of these records right here
in my room today."
"I still can't play like any of 'em.
"I wish I could explain it. I wish I could say what they
did that got me. Each one of them had something that seemed
to go through me like a sword. I don't know how to explain
it. It's something that happens and you just know, you know
on some spiritual level, that this was meant for you to
hear. It's like a person telling a story — each one of 'em
had a punch line. You get it or you don't. And I got it. I
A lot of blues players have come along during the 54
years King has been recording and touring, but few of them,
he said, have pierced him the way those original players
did. King's ever-expanding influence has brought many of
them to his throne. He's recorded with countless blues
stars, frequently with his old buddy and current opening
act Bobby "Blue" Bland, and with such figures as John Lee
Hooker, Etta James, Mick Jagger, Robert Cray, Willie
Nelson, Van Morrison, Albert Collins, even rapper Heavy D.
"The young guys don't get me the same way," he said.
"They're always playing something I wish I could play, and
they play things I can't play. I learn from them, but I
don't get that something I got from the other guys."
He speaks wistfully of his collaborations with Eric
Clapton, most recently the "Riding With the King" album. In
fact, that's the only record of King's in the last few
years that gets much airplay.
"Blues isn't on the radio much," King said. "Every city has
some station that plays the blues late at night. I met one
fellow once who said, 'B.B., every Saturday night after 12
we play a whole hour of blues.' And I said, 'Well, what do
you do with the other 23 hours?' ... Most of the time I
hear blues on the radio it's on a college station."
Ironically, maybe the most singular event in King's
development as a guitarist was his landing a job as a disc
jockey in the late '40s at WDIA in Memphis. He'd already
begun to work as a musician — playing at a cafe in West
Memphis, Ark., with the likes of Bobby Bland and pianist
Johnny Ace — so as a DJ he gained a reputation for playing
the hippest records around. As a bonus for listeners, King
sometimes would play along with the records on the air,
publicizing his own personal guitar lessons.
Years later, at the dawn of the '90s, King attached his
name and status to a nightclub on Beale Street in Memphis,
largely as a way to buttress the legacy of Memphis blues
that had set him so firmly on the path to stardom and
"Beale Street was down to nothing, and some people wanted
to help bring it back. I travel around the world, and
people think Chicago is the home of the blues. Now Chicago
did a lot to help blues players — they opened their doors
and hearts to Muddy Waters and many like him — but
personally I think Memphis is the home of the blues and
always was," King said. "Most of the original blues players
were born in Mississippi and moved to Memphis and then went
many different ways. I was one of them. And people had
started to forget."
You wanna talk influence? King's regular gigs in the
late '40s on Beale Street convinced Sam Phillips, then an
engineer at another Memphis radio station and at the
opulent Peabody Hotel, to open his first recording studio.
King was one of his first clients in 1950, recording his
first records. Phillips went on to be the most important
producer in the history of rock and soul, starting Sun
Records and launching Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Roy
The B.B. King Blues Club is now the cornerstone of the
gentrified Beale Street, and the success of the club has
led to three more openings — in New York City; Universal
City, Calif.; and in the Foxwood Indian casino in
Connecticut — with plans to open a total of 10 across the
"If I live long enough, maybe I'll see all 10. I'm really
proud of them," King said. Then he sighed. "I've been pretty
good through the years. I've lived a pretty good life.
Someday they'll be blues without B.B. King around, and I
doubt you'll miss me that much. But I've done OK."
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Brady Theater, 105 W. Brady St.
Admission: Sold Out
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.