The best way to get to know any bunch of people is to go and listen to their music.
It’s early July in Oklahoma, and that means a couple of things. First and foremost, the summer heat has typically made itself at home across the state, loathsome grass burrs are starting to pop up, and most importantly, The Woody Guthrie Festival 2023 is underway in Okemah.
I missed last year’s festival, both figuratively and literally. In the first week of July I got really sick with some mysterious illness the doctors couldn’t identify. Right at the same time, my elderly mother also fell ill, though her’s was far more serious, being out of state and requiring surgery and ultimately a move into assisted living. If I’ve learned anything in the past few years, it’s that life comes at you fast. As such, I found myself looking at the bigger picture, and decided I had to skip the 25th annual WoodyFest last year. Truthfully, this year hasn’t been all that much better, but I was determined to make it this year, and boy, I’m glad I did.
As usual, work commitments kept me from attending the Wednesday night kickoff at the Crystal Theatre, and unfortunately the Thursday schedule as well. So while I knew I’d missed some great music already, it sure felt good to roll into Okemah on Friday afternoon, ducking into the air conditioned Crystal Theatre just in time to hear the Maestro himself, David Amram reading from his newest book, Upbeat: Nine Lives of a Musical Cat. As I listened to Mr. Amram reading a tale of Woody Guthrie describing his hometown of Okemah, while sitting in the actual theatre that Guthrie saw movies in, I was struck by what an appropriate beginning to the fest this was for me. Amram’s importance to WoodyFest also stuck with me on through the rest of the weekend, particularly when you see how revered he is by everyone. A national treasure for sure. What a fantastic start.
Over the next two days, by my count, I took in 30 sets of music. Several of these featured multiple artists, paired up together performing song swaps, The WoodyFest Concert Committee obviously put some serious thought into planning these out, and I think they really nailed it. One of the themes I quickly realized this year was collaboration, and while this was also apparent through random sit-ins and guest spots, it was the focus on these collaborative song swaps that stood out the most. Following Amram’s set, I got my first example, and it was unquestionably one that was tough to beat. Taking the stage at the Crystal, Chris Buhalis, Sara Hickman and Ellis Paul repeatedly wowed one another with their songs which, in full disclosure, was a common occurrence in each of the subsequent song swaps throughout the fest. It wasn’t unusual for whomever had to sing next, to have to sit in contemplative silence for a moment, wondering how in the world they’re supposed to actually follow-up after what they just heard.
Next up, I walked the couple of blocks over to the Bound For Glory stage, strategically situated in the back portion of a shared storefront featuring ice cream and coffee. Regrettably, I only caught the tail end of a song swap with My Politic and Joel Rafael. I’ve always really enjoyed catching Joel Rafael’s many WoodyFest sets over the years I’ve attended, and I was most disappointed to have missed his main set on Thurday along with Ellis Paul’s. So I was thankful for this smaller set with My Politic, who I wasn’t familiar with at all, but as is occasionally the case, became one of my fest highlights. I actually don’t listen to or seek out much in the way of politically themed music, my reasoning being, as Woody so eloquently put it, “Left wing, right wing, chicken wing.” But as you may have guessed, and as their name suggests, you’re probably getting some political songs. We did, and they were all finely crafted I might add. That said, the song that stopped me in my tracks more than any other song I heard all weekend was a song more about character, judgment and addiction than any obvious politics. “Buzzards on a Powerline”was the song, and all I can say is, wow. My favorite song I heard all weekend. These guys were so good, I sought them out again the next day for their full set.
Next, quickly setting up next on the Bound For Glory stage, was a song swap featuring a remarkable trio of up and coming songwriters with pedigrees. Adam Amram (son of David), Rory Hancock (son of Butch) and Serena Guthrie (great-granddaughter of Woody). I’d first heard Serena Guthrie and Rory Hancock, at their first fest appearances in 2021, and catching them both again had been a priority. Being able to also catch Adam Amram was simply icing on the cake. Just a stellar set. I headed back over to the Crystal Theatre just in time to catch another book reading, this time from Mary Gauthier, reading from her memoir, Saved By A Song. Gauthier stayed busy. She would also grace the same stage later in the evening, performing a fantastic full set with Jaimee Harris, as well as hosting a songwriting clinic during the afternoon. Next, I caught the majority of the next song swap trio of Jaimee Harris, Butch Hancock and Pat Byrne (in his fest debut no less!) take the stage and nearly immediately found themselves in the same pickle as every other swap, repeatedly stunning one another, song after song.
It should be acknowledged that the Concert Committee did a wonderful job of spreading out shows each day, with minimal overlap. So while you might need to hot-foot it, again figuratively and literally, a couple blocks over to another stage, the entire fest is organized so well that you’re able to see multiple artists with out missing much. Unfortunately, you’ll probably miss one or two, and that did happen to me a couple of times. Sometimes the set you’re watching is just so good, you just can’t leave until it’s finished. Over the next couple of hours, I took in portions of Radoslav Lorkovic, Mallory Eagle, Jared Tyler, Tom Skinner’s Science Project, Don Conoscenti and Smokey & The Mirror swapping songs with Kyshona as well as a jaunt over to the Rocky Road Tavern where Josh Polaschek was hosting a memorable open mike schedule.
My top highlights from Friday included a barn-burner of a set from Jacob Tovar at the Crystal that featured John Fullbright on piano and accordion. More of those memorable collaborations! I’ve seen Tovar several times, and it dawned on me this time, that every time I’ve seen him, he’s absolutely blown me away. Don’t let the cowboy hat or twang lull you into thinking he’s just another country singer. He’s not. He’s also one hell of a picker and each time I’ve seen him, he’s had a bad-ass band backing him and absolutely rocked the place. Indeed, his one was probably the best I’ve seen him do. As we filtered out of the Crystal, we learned that the evening’s performances which had been slated for the outdoor, Pastures of Plenty stage, were being relocated inside the Crystal Theatre due to a strong possibility of inclement weather. Again, the festival organizers deserve a shout out for making the tough, but right decisions and for having a viable contingency plan in place.
Tovar’s amazing set had been later in the afternoon, and honestly, I figured there was no way anyone would top it. But, I’ll be damned if just a short time later, Beat Root Revival didn’t strut on stage and do just exactly that. Somehow the Austin based duo has managed to fly under my radar until now. But that’s part of the magic of WoodyFest, discovering new to you artists to completely obsess over. Let me put it this way, a pair of songs in, and I stopped photographing just to text my wife, insisting she immediately look them up. Just like that, they’ve got two new fans. Just an amazing performance, one that garnered a pair of standing ovations, something I’d not seen before, but undoubtedly, Beat Root Revival must experience on a nightly basis. Mary Gauthier and Jaimee Harris might have been the only duo that could have followed such and exciting performance, and they had us wrapped aroung their fingers, feeling feelings in no time. Closing out the night’s main stage shows, Parker Millsap laid down a stunning solo acoustic set that sent the WoodyFest faithful home content and happy wondering how the following day could top what they’d just witnessed.
With that, my first day of the festival was a wrap. I navigated the thunder and lightning storm as I headed westward and home, one of the content and happy, and already excited for what Saturday would have in store.