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Alternative supergroup adds music to Woody Guthrie's words

Alternative rockers collaborate on setting Woody Guthrie's unpublished words to music.
BY GENE TRIPLETT etriplett@opubco.com Published: March 2, 2012
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Just add music.

That's all there was to it. But those words — some typed, some handwritten on yellowed sheets of paper patched here and there with ancient, browned and brittled Scotch tape — were national treasure; the unpublished prose, poetry and lyrics of a genuine folk hero.

They were Woody Guthrie's words.

“I originally thought this was going to feel a little daunting, at least from the start, and a little bit pressured,” Will Johnson said of adding music to those words. “But it wasn't that at all. It all sort of came together pretty quickly, just because I think that's yet another testament to the power of Woody Guthrie's writing. It guides you, I think.”

Johnson, frontman in the Denton, Texas-based alt-country-rock bands Centro-Matic and South San Gabriel, was the last to join a supergroup lineup of musicians recruited by Guthrie's daughter, Nora Guthrie, to set to music some of the storied singer-composer's unpublished writings.

The result is “New Multitudes,” an album of 12 songs with words by Woody Guthrie and music by Johnson, Anders Parker (Varnaline, Gob Iron), Yim Yames, aka Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Jay Farrar (Son Volt, Gob Iron, Uncle Tupelo).

The album was released Tuesday to coincide with the centennial celebration of Guthrie's birthday, but it was years in the making.

And it all started with Farrar.

“The idea of working with Woody Guthrie's lyrics sort of took root back in 1996 when I received a request through the record label that Son Volt was on, Warner Bros., to work with (British singer-songwriter) Billy Bragg on some Woody Guthrie lyrics. That didn't work out at the time,” Farrar said last week from his St. Louis recording studio.

In fact, Bragg ended up working on the project with Farrar's old Uncle Tupelo bandmate Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, which resulted in two Bragg-Wilco-Guthrie albums, “Mermaid Avenue” (1998) and “Mermaid Avenue Vol. II” (2000).

“Then sort of fast-forward to 2006. I had time then,” Farrar said. “I started visiting the archives with Anders Parker and we started recording some separately, some together. … That process sort of spread out over a couple of years. And about 2009 is when Jim James visited the Woody Guthrie Archives and Nora Guthrie played some of the music that Anders Parker and I had recorded. So later, Jim and I spoke about joining forces and bringing Will Johnson into the mix.”

Drawing on his energy

For the album, each musician chose three sets of words to finish out with music. Some were obviously intended as lyrics, while others were actually journal entries, all written between 1939 and 1967, the year the Okemah native died of Huntington's disease at age 55.

“No Fear” was one of the later writings, set to music by Johnson.

“The more I ran over those lyrics, I just sort of heard a bouncy, simple, poppy sort of chord progression and everybody's harmonies,” Johnson said last week from Los Angeles, where he was recording with James in yet another side project, Monsters of Folk.

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