A version of this story appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
WoodyFest features several playing Okemah event for the first time
Garrett Lebeau and Trout Fishing in America are among the musicians making their debut at the 16th Annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, continuing through Sunday.
“Sometimes I refer to it as kind of a folk approach to blues and R&B because the whole thing with blues is the feeling,” said Lebeau, who is making his first trip to Oklahoma to play the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival Saturday in the folk icon’s hometown of Okemah. “I just want to make music that speaks to people about real things, so it really is a folk tradition.”
The self-taught musician, who is of Shoshone heritage, was born and bred on the Wind River Indian Reservation near Lander, Wyo., where he didn’t really grow up listening to much music.
“There’s a lot of people like that, especially in the Midwest, that music is just not … a priority for them,” said Lebeau, 34, adding he was in middle school when a family acquaintance taught him to play a few bluesy guitar chords. “As time went on, I heard Buddy Guy … and that kind of got me reinterested in playing the blues. But I had nobody to play with and nowhere to go see music.”
He played his first gig at a coffeehouse in his hometown around 2004, but when he moved his brood to Marble Falls, Texas, about seven years ago to be nearer to his wife’s family, the father of two found more opportunities to make music in nearby Austin.
“I had this style that I was wanting to do, which was evolving, which the record is a culmination of that,” said Lebeau, who recently released his debut album, “Rise to the Grind,” on Oklahoma-bred Austin music mainstay Jimmy LaFave’s Music Road Records. “I’m real proud of that record … because all the songs are about something.”
Lebeau wasn’t interested in recording what he calls “the Kraft macaroni and cheese blues.” He wanted to craft his soulful songs based on strong lyrics as opposed to a cookie-cutter blues-rock riffs.
“The Woody Guthrie Festival, I think, is a great example: You’ve got all these people there that are songwriters and it’s about the art and writing the tunes and these people have something to say. It’s a different thing. The blues, to me, I think was that way at one time, but not so much anymore,” Lebeau said.
“To me, Woody Guthrie is this person who wanted to write about things from people’s perspective … just normal people. And that’s who I write tunes for.”
Lebeau joins several renowned artists making their WoodyFest debuts this year. Other first-timers include folk-rock/kindie rock duo Trout Fishing in America; California-by-way-of-Canada singer-songwriter Steve Poltz; Atlanta-based “The Voice” Season 1 contender Rebecca Loebe; Ohio-born up-and-comer Griffin House; Nashville, Tenn., songsmith Tim Easton; rambling indie folk scribe Otis Gibbs; young Oklahomans Parker Millsap and Levi Parham; and more.
In addition, WoodyFest, which continues through Sunday, will feature returning favorites LaFave, John Fullbright, Ellis Paul, Joel Rafael, the Red Dirt Rangers, David Amram, The Damn Quails, Samantha Crain and more at various venues around Okemah.
The free festival, scheduled annually around the folk hero’s July 14 birthday, also will feature this weekend children’s concerts, an open mike and special events such as a poetry forum, pancake breakfast hosted by Guthrie’s younger sister Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon and hootenanny benefiting the Oklahoma chapter of the Huntington’s Disease Society of America.
Reeling in WoodyFest
Although Trout Fishing in America partners Keith Grimwood and Ezra Idlet are playing their first WoodyFest, they’re already quite familiar with the event.
“We’re really excited about doing this. My wife has been volunteering at the WoodyFest since the very first year and has been coming home raving about it. We work an awful lot around the country and have not been able to make it,” Idlet said, adding his wife, Karen Idlet, helps sell merchandise every year at the event in addition to running the duo’s record independent label.
Although the pair’s sprawling schedule hasn’t included many Oklahoma gigs in years past, the four-time Grammy nominees have already done three shows at Oklahoma City’s Blue Door this year. Last month, they also toured Tulsa’s new Woody Guthrie Center and performed across Brady Street at the Guthrie Green.
“Two years ago, I had the time off and I just went (to WoodyFest) with Karen — did not perform, just went and watched — and I was knocked out by the caliber of performers, the camaraderie between the musicians and the presenters. And the audience was just tremendous,” Idlet said in a spring phone interview from the “Trout House” in Prairie Grove, Ark.
“That house band is awesome. Terry Ware is just a fabulous guitar player … but I mean, their drummer, their bass player, they’re just smoking hot. Wonderful.”
Along with playing the big Pastures of Plenty stage Friday night right before Fullbright’s headlining set, Trout Fishing will play a children’s concert at noon Saturday at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Okemah. The longtime duo is known for crafting catchy children’s songs that draw from an array of musical genres as well as folk-rock music for grown-ups.
“Our music goes across age limits very easily. We skip back and forth really comfortably because it’s real music,” Grimwood said. “It’s music that comes from our heart and real subjects and things like that. We’re trying to play good music for people.”
Sounds like just the kind of thing Woody would appreciate.
Woody Guthrie Folk Festival
When: Through Sunday.
Where: Various venues in Okemah.
What: Musical performances, children’s activities, open mike, poetry reading and fundraisers for the state chapter of the Huntington’s Disease Society of America.
Parking: Free for daytime events; $15 per car evenings at the Pastures of Plenty Stage (includes a festival program).