After a few hours sleep, I head east once again towards Okemah for my final day of the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. The first two days have proven to be simply magical, and at this point, I’m no longer expecting anything but for that magic to continue. To this point, I’ve taken in 18 extraordinary sets of music over the first two days, and enjoyed every single moment of every one. It’s still hard to process, but I’ve resigned myself to the fact that there’s just something remarkably special about this festival. Despite the mid July heat, the late nights/early mornings and the ache in my bones, I realize that I don’t want the weekend to end.
Much like yesterday, I left my house with the desire of arriving in time for a particular set. This time it’s for Michael Fracasso’s noon set at the Crystal Theatre. Once again, I was rewarded by arriving early with a yet another musical discovery and striking set of songs from Peggy Johnson. Johnson manages to capture a true essence of Guthrie as a tried and true protest singer. Despite not being familiar with her work previously, I was struck by the sincerity and selflessness of her stories and songs. Next, Michael Fracasso played a set highlighting his newest album, along with a few classics for good measure. There was a special treat, as Betty Soo, another fabulous songwriter, also from Austin, periodically joined Fracasso on accordion and harmonies.
Following, Fracasso’s set I had intended to set out for the “Woody’s Kids Talent Show” over at the Methodist Church a few blocks away. This intention was quickly derailed as a young wiry man took the stage preparing for the next set. Glancing at my pocket schedule, I recognized the young man’s name as Josh Okeefe. Another photographer had filled me in on an impromptu coffee house set that Okeefe had done yesterday at Sacred Grounds Brew. He insisted it had been one of his favorites of the fest. Okeefe bears a striking resemblance to Woody, and based on those factors I remained glued to my seat for his set. I’m so glad that I did. The young man from England was mesmerizing. Joined for the last portion of his performance by his lovely bride, Cora, Okeefe’s set quickly became another high water mark of the fest for me.
Headed over early to the Bound For Glory tent for the 2:30 performance of Krishna Guthrie, I was able to take in a good portion of Jared Deck’s highly entertaining and high energy set as well. Deck’s fun set combined with the performance’s tent location, provided a feel of a good ol’ revival. Next up was the fun rock ‘n’ roll set of Krishna Guthrie. Woody’s great-grandson, Krishna and band also provided a fun energetic performance that showcased the improvisation and more modern presentation of the Guthrie legacy. Following Guthrie’s set, I headed over to the Rocky Road Tavern in the hope of catching Kirsten White’s set. Unfortunately, a family emergency kept White away, but I was again rewarded by being able to catch Ali Harter’s set instead. Harter had been on my “Oklahoma artist must see” list for a while, and I was glad to finally catch her. In addition to her beautiful songs, Harter also had her Pigs Fly Shop booth set up in the vendor area of the Pastures of Plenty. Speaking with her later in the day, she could barely contain the excitement of joining Carter Sampson and others for the Rock “n” Roll Camp for Girls that was starting on Monday in Oklahoma City. Another rewarding moment that worked out despite my best laid plans.
Heading back in to the Bound for Glory tent, I caught the last few songs of Joe Purdy. Another artist while familiar, Purdy was one I wasn’t overly familiar with., but what I was able to hear, left me wishing I had walked over a little faster. Kyle Reid and the Low Swingin’ Chariots took the stage next, and also really impressed. Having seen Reid play as part of other bands throughout the fest already, it was fun to see Kyle lead his own band. Their jazzy New Orleans feel would have had the crowd up and dancing if there had been an inch of room in the tent. The tent remained packed for Folk Uke who were up next. Comprised of Cathy Guthrie and Amy Nelson, their set was clever, funny ,and all things risque all wrapped up in one. Definitely a duo I hope to see again soon.
Following Folk Uke’s set, it was back over to the main stage at the Pastures of Plenty for this year’s final main stage performances. First up, was a rocking performance from Levi Parham. Another artist I was aware of, yet had never really invested into. Lesson learned. Parham’s set was by far the highest energy performance I’d taken in so far. Joined by Hard Working American and respected multi-instrumentalist Jesse Aycock on guitar, Parham and band blistered through, as hot as the setting sun.
The next performance was easily one of the most talked about for days following the fest. Tulsa’s Count Tutu and their “world groove funk machine” continued the high energy momentum initiated by Parham and band. Fronted by the engaging Branjae Jackson, Count Tutu was a band that absolutely demanded your attention. The band is led by Nathan Wright on guitar, and absolutely smoked in their festival debut. Don’t miss this incredible presentation if it heads your way.
The momentum continued with Jaimee Harris’ rock infused country and captivating stage presence. Her songs are candid and filled with the themes of love and loss we all identify with. Though the majority of her songs this evening were higher energy, I found myself really drawn to songs such as “Red Rescue” that slowed things down and really highlighted her songwriting skill. Harris really impressed me with her songs and heartfelt presentation, and I’m looking forward to catching her again soon. Coming on the heels of his festival debut the previous year, Willie Watson held the next to last spot of the evening. Watson is a performer that I’ve been fortunate to have seen multiple times before. Usually these times were opening slots for bands such as Houndmouth and Tedeschi Trucks Band. I’ve always come away from those performances thoroughly impressed, and this time was no different. Watson’s real delivery of true “folk songs” is an absolute natural for the Woody Guthrie Folk Fest. Alternating between guitar and banjo, Watson’s witty banter between songs was as enjoyable as his renditions of traditional folk songs such as “Samson & Delilah”, and Leadbelly’s “Take This Hammer”.
The final set of the night was fittingly reserved for none other than Arlo Guthrie, but only following a moving video dedicated to Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon. Mary Jo was Woody’s younger sister, perhaps no other person held Woody in higher regard or did more to champion his legacy. Mary Jo passed away earlier this year at 96 years young, and her presence was tremendously missed throughout the fest. Playng with son Abe Guthrie on keys and grandson Krishna Guthrie manning the drums, Arlo settled into a chair center stage and easily captured everyone’s attention. Trading off between a six and twelve string guitar, Guthrie’s set was infinitely special and featured some of his greatest songs including “Coming Into Los Angeles” as well as Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans”. Certainly the highlight of the entire festival was the show closing sing-along presentation of “This Land Is Your Land” rhat filled the stage with artists, coalition members and more. Truly a special moment that manages to still initiate a smile just thinking about it.
The Woody Guthrie Folk Festival left me with a lot to think about. Growing up in Texas, I was fortunate to have attended other legendary festivals such as The Kerrville Folk Fest and the Old Settlers Fest near Austin. Both are special in my memories, but fall short of my Woody Fest experiences. Woody Fest is a truly magical experience that I cannot recommend highly enough. The degree to which every coalition member, volunteer and artist contributed is immeasurable. The fest seemed a real labor of love for everyone involved and I was honored to have been a small part of that, and can only hope to be a part of going forward. New friends were made, new music and artists were heard. Everyone involved becomes gratefully part of a small, inclusive community. There’s kindness and a genuine camaraderie in abundance as well as an overwhelming sense of family that’s inherently part of the weekend. I’ve rarely experienced anything like it, and can’t wait for next years fest.
I’d like to thank everyone involved with the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. I met and interacted with many of the artists and coalition members throughout the weekend, and can only hope to show a small measure of gratitude for the hospitality and kindness I was shown. A special call out to Media Chair, Maddie Gregory, VP and Concert Committee Gary Hart, fellow photographers Chris J. Zähller and Bryan Duke and festival ambassador of good will, Nellie Clay. Additionally, the town of Okemah, it’s people, merchants, food trucks and employees including Sacred Grounds Brew,, The Hen House Cafe, Rocky Road Tavern and Tacos El Palomo.
Next year’s festival dates have already been announced, so you have plenty of time to plan your trip to one of the countries’ finest music festivals. Join us next year July 15-19 in Okemah, Oklahoma.
All things Woody Fest can be found here: https://www.woodyfest.com/