Nora Guthrie Talks Del and Woody

One of today’s more exciting new releases is Del McCoury’s Del and Woody, for which the bluegrass legend interpreted a new batch of lyric from Woody Guthrie’s extensive vaults. Woody’ daughter, Nora, first heard McCoury in 2009 and thought he’d be a perfect fit for something like this. Where similar projects have brought Woody into more contemporary territory, McCoury writes in a traditional style that Woody himself would recognize. I asked Nora Guthrie a bit about the project.

What made you choose Del for this project? What about him made you think his writing would work with Woody’s lyrics?

When I first heard Del’s band perform at the Newport Folk Festival, they reminded me of a band that Woody was in when he was in his late teens living in Pampa, TX. There’s a photo of him with the band, The Pampa Junior Chamber of Commerce Band, wearing a broad white cowboy hat, chaps, a western style handkerchief around the neck, and he’s holding a stand up bass, with mandolins, banjos, guitars, and a pile of instruments at his feet. If Woody had stayed on that course, I thought, he could have ended up writing and playing in a band just like Del’s. The instruments were the same, the “vibe” was the same. That’s where I first got the idea, the light bulb went off. What if we could “go back in time” and hear Woody Guthrie lyrics in his familiar, old-timey, hillbilly, bluegrassey style? And would I dare ask bluegrass GREAT Del McCoury if he would be interested in working on such a project?! I would have been honored if he had said yes to recording just one song. But to have a full cd – 12 brand new compositions – that was the mother-lode. That would be historic. Because the weight of such a project, a collaboration of two such important musicians, would become a staple of Woody Guthrie history and scholarship. I’m sure Del’s own musical legacy will reflect upon this project as well.

How did you choose what lyrics to send along?

I chose certain lyrics with two specific ideas in mind: first, lyrics that were written with an Oklahoma/Texas drawl, or phonetics. Lots of these lyrics are written exactly as Del sings them. I didn’t want someone to change that, nor did I want someone imitating that way of speaking. That would sound demeaning. I wanted it to sound authentic, the way Woody spoke and wrote the words; like “whoopin’ it,” “ain’t a-gonna do,” “Cheap Mikes” has a lot of this dialect. Del’s voice was the perfect match-up, and tonally, also perfectly matched Woody’s sense of humor and irony.

The second criteria had to do with lyrics that expressed Woody’s Okie, or any other outsiders, first impression, or innocent perspective on things. For instance, New York Trains tells what it was like in 1940 coming into Grand Central Station for the very first time for someone from a small, rural, Texas town. As Woody’s wife Mary said when she came to New York to meet Woody, “We thought it was going to be like Pampa’s small depot, so we just agreed to meet up there. We had no idea it was so big. We never did find each other that day.” “Wimmen’s Hats” also expresses his first impression of sophisticated, style-conscious, New York ladies. Back where he came from farm women didn’t have the money or the luxury, or sometimes even the awareness of so-called high fashion. From an outsiders perspective, fashion trends often appear ridiculous! So content played a large part in my choices.

Did any of his decisions surprise you?

No, none of his choices surprised me, because I could hear him do any and all of them. What surprised me, actually, was that he went along with all my suggestions!

Do you have any more projects with Woody’s lyrics in the works? How many more do you think you could do?

I have a number of single lyrics out, or coming out soon, with various musicians writing the music; Lucinda Williams just recorded one on her new album called “House of Earth”. Jorma Kaukonan just recorded “Suffer Little Children”, and John Mellencamp has one coming out on his next album. But for the present, no plans for what the next full cd project might be.

Is there anyone you haven’t worked with yet that you would want to hear interpret Woody’s lyrics?

There’s lots of artists out there I’d like to work with. I could probably just keep going on like this for the rest of my life! But, to be clear, the only reason I do this is because I know that there’s so much about Woody’s song writing that’s still not known, not just by the public, but even by Woody scholars, that I feel obligated to focus each collaboration, each CD project, on hitherto unknown aspects of Woody’s writing abilities, writing subjects, writing styles, etc. I see it as “scholarship,” but scholarship that’s fun to listen to.

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