Four decades ago, the son of folk legend Woody Guthrie first took the stage to perform for the first time … solo. He was alone and by himself. He played in England, Scotland and Denmark during the summer of 1965, showing up at clubs or singing on street corners … alone. In November that same year he began work on his epic adventure, “Alice’s Restaurant.” He worked as a solo artist touring around the world to as far away as Japan for the next two years until “Alice” was recorded. In 1967 “Alice’s Restaurant” hit the radio and the record stores, and history was made.
Now, he’s also hitting the road once again for his first year-long solo tour in many years. Prior to the tour’s kickoff, DISH spoke to Guthrie about having the foresight to start his own record label over 20 years ago, his views on the state of music and the world and how, with a lot of determination, a lone folk musician can make beautiful music with an entire symphony.
His 22nd album, “In Times Like These”, will be released this summer on his 60th birthday. An unlikely and lovely effort, the 13-song disc was recorded with the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra. The album includes new material as well as his famous “City Of New Orleans” and covers of “Good Night Irene” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love”.
DISH: You’re known mostly as a solo musician. What led you to perform and record with a 70-piece orchestra?
ARLO GURTHIE: When I first started out, of course as a kid, I was about 18 and grabbed a guitar and I played solo for a number of years, but then after that I started playing with other people because bands were fun. I did that for the next 40 years and beginning in just a week or two, I’m doing the first year long solo tour that I’ve done since I was about twenty. So that’ll be interesting.
During the last, I guess 7 or 8 years ago, we had the opportunity to start doing some shows with symphony orchestras. I thought “OK, let’s write some new arrangements, put in some new songs”. We finally got to a point where we had about 25 pieces that we could choose from to do a night and we thought let’s record this. So we had recorded shows at a number of different places, some very prestigious places. The Kennedy Center in Washington, Carnegie Hall in New York and none of them worked out because there were problems in the hall, problems with the tech stuff, problems with the orchestra, whatever it was. Finally, my friend John Nardolillo had become musical director for the University of Kentucky and he said “look, I’ve got a great bunch of kids here, they’re great players, why don’t you come and do a concert here and try to make the record here”. So we set it up and we happened to hit a great night. And not only recording-wise- but the music was right, the audience was great and everything about it worked, out so we finally got a record.
DISH: The orchestra accompanying you on “In Times Like These” emphasizes all the emotions and drama of your lyrics. What was it like for you to be on stage, surrounded by this swell of music?
ARLO: It was like living in a movie. Instead of just watching it, you’re in the middle of it and it gives you the feeling…if you’re walking down the road playing a guitar it’s different than if you’re walking down the road hearing a symphony orchestra. That’s what gives the big movies those feelings. So for me it was like living in a dream.
Orchestras I started with playing with years ago…they hadn’t done any performances with someone like me. I’d stop the songs in the middle of the arrangements and tell a story about something and eventually get back to the song and these guys would look at me, [and think] ‘what is he doing?’ At some point, everything clicks. And the audience forgets that they’re sitting in the theater, they’re lost in the moment and when the orchestra players feel that, they get into the movie too. And you can see them going from these frowns of “oh God, here comes some long-haired hippy” to “oh my God, this is magic!”. And when the magic of music and lyric is working, when it’s working, there’s nothing like it.
DISH: The title track, “In Times Like These”, is a new song you wrote last year and deals with the state of the world. Having been a child of the ‘60s and the peace movement as well as being a social activist, what do you think of the world today? Are you hopeful?
ARLO: Yeah. I’m always optimistic about these things. We’re dealing with a world that is reeling from the times we live in. We’re all becoming part of a very big world. 50 years ago, 40 years ago might have been the beginnings of it. The Second World War might have been a preamble to these times in some way. But before that we were all living in our separate little worlds. Each country had its own way of doing things and not only that, each region of each country…40 years ago you could tell where somebody came from in the U.S. when they opened their mouths. Those days are gone.
Now, everybody is saying, “look they’re coming to get us, they’re trying to wipe out our way of doing things”. So you get guys on one side, could be Osama Bin Laden-type guys, and on the other side you’ve got President Bush-type guys.
What I’m saying is that we spent all of our energies finding out where the idiots are. Ok, we did that, we know where they are now. But let’s spend some money where the regular people are. The ones who want to get along, live their lives, wear their clothes, speak their language, have their religion and get along with everybody else. Where are the “live and let live” guys? And if we do that, I think things will return to normal. But everyone at this point has forgotten what normal is.
DISH: In December of 2005, you performed several benefit shows for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. How were the profits used?
ARLO: We’re not a big organization, we’re just a little family operation. I think we raised about $100,000. We gave money to a number of foundations whose purpose it was to make life easier for some of the musicians who lost everything in the Katrina disaster. Aside from instruments we were able to collect or purchase and distribute, a lot of the money went to places where musicians could contact their agents and managers. We were hoping to help with some of the mundane, everyday, ordinary things that regular working musicians would find beneficial.
DISH: You launched your own record label Rising Son Records in 1983, well before a lot of other musicians who are currently doing this. What prompted you to do that?
ARLO: There were a number of things. The biggest thing for me was the realization that the kind of music we were making was not going to be marketable by the entertainment industry. They had a bunch of people running the entertainment industry, and frankly they’re still running it, whose interest changed in the ‘60s and ‘70s, where people who were running it then, loved music and knew how to make it. It’s now run by people who love money and know how to make it. We needed to find a way to break away from the industry part of it and get our material to people who wanted to hear it.
They’ve done it to themselves. I don’t have any sympathy, frankly, for them. I’m glad to see it die. I hope it dies well. Because the music now, temporarily, is back in the hands of musicians. And it’s spreading around the world. Any guy with a computer can record a little song and put it up on YouTube or iTunes or whatever it is and it works on it’s own merit. The little box that shows the little picture on iTunes for my records is the same size icon that shows up for records from Sony or Warner Brothers or anybody else. The only reason why one record is going to be more popular than another is because the music is actually more appreciated than the next. That’s not 100% true but more true than it has been and I’m in heaven about it.
DISH: You’re launching your “Solo Reunion Tour – Together At Last” this summer across North America. What can people expect?
ARLO: I wish I knew. I have no idea. I just did three nights of just by myself for the first time in about, who knows how long. I haven’t done a year-long tour since I was a kid. And the first three nights were a little uncomfortable but it got better every night. By the time the tour starts, there’s a lot of new material that I’m bringing out. Obviously I’ve got to do some of the old stuff because of some of the old fans, you know. But other than saying that, I have no idea.
DISH: You’re birthday is also this summer and you'll be turning 60. Have you any thoughts on hitting that particular number?
ARLO: I’m planning to be…more grouchy. I don’t know how it’ll work out for me. I’m gonna see if I can get away with it any way.