in its rightful location, Woody’s hometown of Okemah, OK. You see, last year’s virtual festival (you can revisit it here: https://americanahighways.org/2020/07/17/show-review-woody-guthrie-festival-2020-virtually-was-a-celebration/ ) was really spectacular. Actually, it was one of the best virtual events I covered. But still, and understandably, it just wasn’t quite the same. So the opportunity for all involved to physically gather and mingle, was certainly something we were all looking forward to. With that in mind, early this year The Woody Guthrie Coalition found themselves questionng if this year’s fest would be virtual again. With a green light, things moved forward, though concerns remained. How to safely put on a festival amid many Covid related concerns. Ultimately, the way the Coalition addressed all concerns should serve as an example for other festivals and gatherings. You can view Woody Fest’s Covid protocols here: https://www.woodyfest.com/covid-protocols/
This year’s festival officially kicked off as it usually does, on Wednesday night with Woody’s Birthday Jamboree at the Crystal Theatre in Okemah, which is just blocks away from where Guthrie’s childhood home once stood. Hosted by Barry Ollman, the night featured an evening of Woody’s songs performed by a cast of characters including Susan Herndon, Joel Rafael, Ellis Paul, Butch Hancock, David Amram, Jaimee Harris and more.
Unfortunately, work and home commitments prevented me from attending this first night. Instead, I found myself rolling into Okemah Thursday morning, just in time to check in and get situated for Maestro David Amram getting the day’s festivities started at the Crystal Theatre. Over the next hour, joined by the remarkable multi-instrumentalist Radoslav Lorkovic, Amram performed songs and shared tales from his past 70 or so years of performing and collaborations. It was truly a priceless memory, exceeded only by the several minutes I spent chatting with Amram as he signed a copy of his memoir I picked up at the merch table. As is the case with most Woody Fest performers, Amram would pop in here and there throughout the festival, joining other artists for their sets, or just to watch. Following this fortuitous start, I stuck around to make sure I saw all of Lorkovic’s set this time. Like most festivals, Woody Fest attendees are often faced with impossible choices of who to see at any given time. In 2019, I had only been able to catch the tail end of Lorkovic’s set, and regretted it immensely. Not so this year. Thankfully, my choices this time were clear, and Radoslav never disappoints. Right off the bat, I saw two of my favorite sets of the festival. Not bad, at all.
After a quick lunch and another study of the day’s schedule, I was back at the Crystal for Robert Williams’ set, which just happened to include accompaniment from Miss Brown to You’s, Louise Goldberg and Mary Reynolds. Up next, it was great to see Nellie Clay back in town for a set which had a surprise guest in Tulsa’s Jesse Aycock on guitar and lap steel as well as Okemah native, Sam Walton on trumpet. A song swap with Nellie had been one of the last shows I’d seen before everything shut down. It kind of felt like coming full circle, so thanks for that Nellie! Butch Hancock was just about perfect, and even provided me with a perfect phrase for any situation: “What a world.. Try it, you’ll see. Next up Miss Brown to You followed with a great set of their own. Lots of fun. Closing out the day at the Crystal Theatre, Butch Hancock returned, and was joined by Ellis Paul and Jaimee Harris for a song swap, the highlight of which for me, were a pair of “punch you in the gut” new songs from Jaimee Harris. Her upcoming album is going to be something else y’all. You heard it here first.
Next, everyone headed over to the wide open spaces and main stage of the Pastures of Plenty. Here, things kicked off with a Muscogee (Creek) blessing from tribal member, Luisa Harjo. Next, the always fun and rambunctious Red Dirt legend, Randy Crouch performed with his band, before taking up his fiddle with his other band, the Red Dirt Rangers for their set. Also joining was David Amram on penny whistles and percussion. Amram’s 90th birthday was the previous November, so what better to kick off their set, but in a rocking Happy Birthday performed to the birthday boy himself. Closing out the first night on the Pastures were festival veterans, Ellis Paul and then Joel Rafael. What a day of music, and how great it was to be back seeing live music.
On Friday, I made it into town and headed over to The Rocky Road Tavern, to catch Ali Harter’s set.
Thankfully, I also caught the tail-end of Jake Flint’s set, which had me regretting not seeing all of it. Added to the list for next year. Harter, who’s Pigs Fly Shop also designed this year’s merch, played a great set including material from her most recent release, “Near the Knuckle”. Next, was one of my favorite performances of the entire festival. Woody’s great-granddaughter, Serena Guthrie played a stunning set of songs from artists like Oasis, Wilco, Tame Impala and Leadbelly sprinkled with a pair of really impressive originals. Next, I finally caught a set from Cassie Latshaw and band including another appearance from Jesse Aycock. Latshaw was a name that kept popping up in conversations of who I needed to see, and I’m glad I did. Great songs and a really fun time. Closing out the day for me at Rocky Road was a fabulous song swap featuring Jaimee Harris, BettySoo and Bonnie Whitmore. With each one mesmerizing the packed house. Next, I headed back over to the Crystal Theatre for another song swap with Mike McClure, Brennen Leigh and Okemah’s own John Fullbright before heading out to the Pastures for the main stage. Following the evening’s blessing, Carter Sampson and her band the Jackolopes played a wonderful set, followed by full sets by Mike McClure and John Fullbright. Fullbright’s set in particular was just remarkable, and likely to be a year-end highlight for me. The night could have ended there and I’d been satisfied for sure. But the music wasn’t over by a long shot as Patty Griffin accompanied by long time collaborator David Pulkingham rallied the crowd with an amazing show before closing out the night, and leaving me with another long drive home to reflect.
Saturday, I was late getting under way with a lazy start. I discovered that I was no longer conditioned for show after show, day after day like I once was. I had hoped to make it in in time for Mary Gauthier’s “Saved By Song” panel. But, the day’s previous heat had taken a toll, and I slept in a bit, not making it to Okemah until Ken Pomeroy’s 1pm Rocky Road Tavern set, which I then had to cut short to make it over to the Crystal Theatre for Branjae at 1:30. I’m telling you folks, the struggle is real when faced with these decisions. I will say Pomeroy and band sounded top notch as always. Branjae and her band, Count Tutu first played the festival in 2019 and dang near stole the show. This time, it was a much more subdued and intimate affair, featuring only her and a guitarist, but still captivating regardless. Following Branjae’s set, I had planned to get a bite to eat before making it back to Rocky Road for a bit. Instead, still at the Crystal reviewing photos, I caught a glimpse of the stage being set up for Possessed By Paul James and found myself quite intrigued. There was a banjo, guitar and fiddle along with a stomp board. Seemed right up my alley. Curiosity winning out, I stuck around, and boy was I glad I did. Possessed By Paul James is comprised of one Konrad Wert, and proved to be one of my top discoveries of the fest. Wert is a powerhouse vocalist and one heck of a musician. Definitely an artist I would recommend any fan of DIY music. I was so impressed, I made sure I picked up a copy of his 2013 release, There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely, and have thoroughly enjoyed it since.
Next, I caught Jaimee Harris taking the stage again, before heading over to the tavern to catch Bonnie Whitmore at 5pm. I got there early (it’s a short walk) and was lucky to catch the tail end of yet another great set from an artist I wasn’t familiar with, Wink Burcham. Dude is no joke folks. What I caught of his set ended up being another highlight of the festival for me. Playing guitar and then a lap steel and harmonica, Burcham was a great follow-up to Possessed By Paul James’ set. Burcham’s earthy, authentic country blues from the heart were really special. Thankful I caught Burcham’s set, I enjoyed following it up with the aforementioned Bonnie Whitmore, joined by the incredible BettySoo. Both ladies are incredible talents with recent releases (Whitmores “Last Will and Testament”, BettySoo with the band, Nobody’s Girl), and it was worth the late afternoon sun and heat just for the opportunity to listen.
Next, back over to the Crystal for the Guthrie Girls (Cathy Guthrie and Sarah Lee Guthrie) along with their band, The Stage Door Johnnies, as well as David Amram, Radoslav Lorkovic and young Guthrie phenom Serena. The ensemble provided a rollicking good time that proved to be yet another highlight.
Before heading over to the Pastures, I wandered (as Woody would have undoubtedly encouraged me too!) about the alleys and side streets sightseeing a bit. It’s not difficult to envision a young Guthrie exploring these same, then brick streets in his time. Now, they’re mostly paved over, with only portions of the brick remaining. I eventually followed the sound of music resonating from the nearby Rocky Road Tavern and caught a bit of Levi Parham’s set before paying my respects at the lot that was Woody’s childhood home.
Over at the Pastures I settled in for the final night at the main stage with Kyle Reid and the Low Swinging Chariots. Reid’s band is yet another incredibly talented Oklahoma ensemble and their jazzy swing was a great follow-up to all of Kyle’s sit-ins with so many others throughout the fest. Next, Samantha Crain proceeded to blow me away once again. She does it every time. What a voice, and so much talent. Saugeye, another Oklahoma all-star band led us into the night’s closing stretch. Comprised of Jared Tyler, Seth James, Jake Lynn and Casey Van Beek, the band rocked a set of songs highlighting some pretty impressive fish tales and honey-spots. Closing out Pastures of Plenty for 2021, it was none other than the incomparable Mary Gauthier, who played a remarkable set of songs accompanied by Jaimee Harris. Gauthier is one of those artists that instantly commands your attention. This was my first time seeing her perform, and she certainly had mine. As is traditionally done, the Pastures of Plenty officially closes with an ensemble consisting of the festival artists, Coalition Members and guests for a robust and heartfelt take of “This Land Is Your Land.” Sunday officially ends the fest over at the Crystal Theatre for the annual Hoot for Huntingtons fundraiser, and thoughts turn to next year’s fest.
Here are my takeaways.
Oklahoma has some of the finest songwriters I’ve ever heard. Note, I’m a native Texan and that’s not a compliment I would use loosely. In the span of a couple hours I “discovered” multiple new favorites. I was also often reminded of how talented some of my previous favorites are. On another note, I also really enjoyed the song swap sets.
Secondly, and on a more personal level, I’m not a young man anymore. I don’t recover like I used too. Snicker all you want. I also found myself ridiculously fascinated by gas mileage back and forth each day to the shows. Weird. Everything really does seems to go to hell after fifty, although I’m happy to report that I’m still as socially awkward as ever. Sorry about that.
Most of all though, I realized just how much I missed live music. These were my first shows since everything went nutty last year. The fact that it was Woody Fest wasn’t a coincidence. I’ve had opportunities, but for some reason, I really thought this was the one to reignite my love of live music. I was right. Whatever it was that had kept me away was gone. Healed in a sense. I don’t think it was just me either. Many of these artists were actually performing in front of real live audiences for the first time in weeks, months, and even over a year. Sure there were wrong notes, botched lyrics and other mistakes. But there were more than enough smiles, hugs, along with laughter, and all those other great qualities synonymous with Woody Fest. If you glance through the photos above, I believe I was able to capture some of that. Many of my photos were candid, and my intention was to share a feel for what this festival is, and how special it is. I hope I succeeded.
It was good to be back in Okemah. There are countless top notch music festivals every year across this great country. . Meanwhile, The Woody Guthrie Coalition is over here quietly putting on one of the best music festivals in the country, with some of the world’s best artists. Many of which attend simply to play, share, visit and honor Woody. They consider it a privilege. You’ll find incredible and often spur of the moment collaborations. You’ll hear brand new, and re-interpreted songs as well as your favorites. Artists and audience mingle. Don’t be shy. Say hi. Unlike other fests I’ve attended, there is a deep sincerity about everyone involved.
In closing, I’d like to thank all the performers, participants and volunteers as well as the city of Okemah and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Lastly, heartfelt thanks to the Woody Guthrie Coalition Board of Directors and Advisory Board. This special festival wouldn’t be possible without each and everyone of their tireless efforts and dedication.
Find out more here: https://www.woodyfest.com/
See our coverage of the 2019 festival starting here: https://americanahighways.org/2019/07/18/show-review-woody-fest-2019-day-1/