From Wednesday’s Life section of The Oklahoman.
Up-and-coming Oklahoma musicians playing Okemah’s WoodyFest
Young Sooner State singer-songwriters like The Damn Quails, Okemah-area native John Fullbright, Samantha Crain and Jesse Aycock have not only been influenced by Guthrie’s music but also by the hometown festival that bears his name.
Bryon White and Gabriel Marshall started out playing in punk bands in high school.
Until they began making pilgrimages to the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah, the hometown of the famed folk troubadour, that is.
“Obviously, Oklahoma’s got a real rich history musically and Woody was one of the forerunners of that. He was the one that ended up going out into the world and taking the stuff that he learned when he was a kid and going out into the Dust Bowl and perpetuating it. I was real proud of that,” said White, who with Marshall forms the core of Norman-based Americana band The Damn Quails.
“I think Woody was one of the first people that really didn’t give a damn. And I really like that, the thought that he could talk about politics and he could talk about angst and rock ‘n’ roll and then he could go back and write a song about a woman that was real sweet and real sultry. … Woody was the man at that.”
The 15th Annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival launches Wednesday night with a concert by Arlo Guthrie, the late music icon’s son, and continues through Sunday in Okemah. The festival is planned annually around Guthrie’s birthday — July 14, 1912 — and with 2012 marking his centennial year, this year’s WoodyFest features returning favorites like Billy Bragg and Judy Collins; regulars such as Ellis Paul, Jimmy LaFave and the Red Dirt Rangers; and first-timers Melanie, John McCutcheon and Carolyn Hester.
In addition, the WoodyFest lineup includes up-and-coming Oklahoma entertainers like Okemah-area native John Fullbright, Samantha Crain and Jesse Aycock, who have not only been influenced by Guthrie’s music but also by the hometown festival that bears his name.
Marshall, 30, has attended every WoodyFest, while White, 29, is making his 12th trek to the festival. They will play Thursday their first official slot as The Damn Quails.
“We grew up at WoodyFest,” White said. “Ellis Paul he goes there like every year and was one of my favorites and still is. Like I love that guy. I would always go down and catch his show and Don Conoscenti. Those guys have both been real big helps to me personally, just kind of lighting a fire and figuring out you don’t have to be real loud to say something. … (They) introduced me to Woody and that’s where I got to learn a lot of Woody’s music, met some Woody’s family — Arlo and all those guys — and everything and that kind of kicked me in the right direction.”
For Fullbright, 24, WoodyFest is like a family reunion right in his neighborhood. He hails from and still lives in Bearden, what he calls an Okemah suburb. The singer-songwriter started attending the festival when he was 16. about the time that he started to realize that a musician from his neck of the woods really was famous.
“The festival itself was kind of big for me because it was where I learned. I kind of had a lonely musical upbringing. I was kind of the only one of my age that did what I do. When I started going to that festival, it was like once a year all these people would just come to town and they all had guitars, and they would all get together and they all seemed to know the same songs. And I hadn’t heard any of them, but I had a guitar, too. … So that’s how I kind of cut my teeth was at that festival. I’m really grateful for it for that reason,” he said.
For the musicians who play and attend, the casual after-hours motel parking lot and campground jams are among the highlights — and for the younger generation, a core part of the learning experience.
“It’s kind of a little family. There’s such a sense of community in that festival,” Fullbright said. “The campgrounds were huge. … They grabbed me not knowing anything about me. I just had a guitar. And everybody there just kind of scooped me up, sat me down in a circle full of people and told me to play something. And I’d never done that before.”
While he has performed at the festival a few times, Fullbright this year will play a Friday night set on the big Pastures of Plenty Stage.
“Woody taught that you can literally write a song about anything. You know, you can write a song about washing your hands or buying a hat,” You could write about anything and he was one of the first guys that did that,” he said with a laugh. “But his message was always really clear … which is ‘help the next guy in line.’”
Crain, 25, of Shawnee, gave her first WoodyFest performance in 2007 at the tender age of 20 and returned the next year to play again. After spending the past few summers touring, the singer-songwriter is coming back to the festival for a Friday show at the Brickstreet Cafe.
“Right at the beginning of me coming into songwriting, Woody Guthrie was a really big influence just because of the way that his songs were structured … sort of long, lots of verses, pretty simple melodies,” she said.
“I think the first time I met Randy Crouch was at the Woody Guthrie Festival. The Red Dirt Rangers, that was the first time I met those guys,” she added. “The people that are there to play there aren’t playing there because they’re making a lot of money. They’re there because they’re celebrating Woody Guthrie, so there’s just sort of a down-to-earth, laid-back nature to that festival.”
Like The Damn Quails, Aycock, 29, of Tulsa, has attended WoodyFest several times, including the inaugural event. After spending a few summers at other gigs, he will return to play his first official set Friday at the Brickstreet Cafe, where he has seen so many memorable performances.
“I’ve been exposed to so much good music by going to that festival. … It’s just a good chance to get together and share songs and be inspired,” Aycock said. “That’s the main thing: There’s something really inspiring to me about the whole festival, just the different artists that you hear and even the town of Okemah itself and the history with Woody. I don’t know, just walking around the town kind of gives you this magical feeling.”
15th Annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival
Where: Various venues in Okemah
What: Musical performances, children’s activities, open mike, poetry readings, guitar workshop, fundraisers for the state chapter of the Huntington’s Disease Society of America and more.
Parking: Free for daytime events; $15 per car evenings at the Pastures of Plenty Stage. Cost includes a festival program.
Fundraising concert: Arlo Guthrie will play a solo acoustic show benefiting the festival at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the newly renovated Crystal Theatre, 401 W Broadway, Okemah. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. Gretchen Peters will open the show. Tickets are $25 for balcony seating and $35 for general admission; gold circle seating is sold out.