Woody Guthrie and Bob Wills traveled different musical paths through the grim swirl of ’30s dust and deprivation that was the Great Depression, but their goals were much the same. As far as anyone knows, the two icons never met, but what if such an encounter actually had occurred at some red-dirt crossroads? What would the rumpled Okemah native with the guitar slung over his back have made of the fiddle-playing Texan in the fancy Western suit and 10-gallon hat? Or vice versa? "Time Changes Everything,” a one-act play written by Thomas Conner and John Wooley, speculates on the outcome of just such a meeting of the minds, starring Red Dirt Rangers members John Cooper as Wills and Brad Piccolo as Guthrie. The production, directed by Vern Stefanic and featuring the music of Guthrie, Wills and the Rangers, will make its Oklahoma City debut at the Oklahoma History Center, 2401 N Laird Ave., at 7 p.m. Saturday. "We got to talking about Bob Wills and Woody Guthrie, these two iconic figures who came out of Oklahoma in the ’30s, and how they both wanted to do the same thing,” Wooley said, recalling a conversation with Conner. "They both wanted to help their people, the working class, the people hit by the Dust Bowl and everything,” Wooley said of Guthrie, the folksinging political activist, and Wills, the king of Western swing. "But they did it in two different ways. Bob Wills wanted to help (people) escape for a few hours from their lives. And Woody, of course, wanted to change things with his music. ... Bob Wills had to come from Texas to Oklahoma to really make it; Woody Guthrie had to go from Oklahoma to Texas before he really kind of started to make it.” And the two musicians came from very different backgrounds, Wooley said. "Bob Wills was from a very poor family, and they did their share of sharecropping down there in West Texas, and yet his people (in his back band, the Texas Playboys) always dressed up onstage. Woody Guthrie came from a middle-class home, and he dressed down when he played. There were all these little weird things. So we thought, ‘Wonder if they ever met?’” Wooley and Conner, both of whom are former Tulsa World entertainment writers, interviewed members of the Guthrie and Wills families, but the closest connection they could find between the musicians was that Luke Wills, Bob’s younger brother, once hired a vibraphone player named Smokey Wood, who was a close friend of Woody Guthrie’s. "Anyway, we thought, wouldn’t it be interesting (for Guthrie and Wills to) meet on the way up when they’re both pretty full of themselves around 1939,” Wooley said. "And you know they’re going to disagree. About the only thing they can agree on is drinkin’. ... Wills can’t understand the kind of agitation that Woody Guthrie is involved with. He’s like most of America. He doesn’t really understand ‘red.’ What are these ‘reds’ anyway? "I think most of the country didn’t like the term ‘reds.’ Bob Wills was not political, really. You know, they wanted him to run for governor a couple of times, and he’d have I think pretty much kicked anybody’s a-- that he would run against. But he wasn’t political. He was just more of kind of an everyman. He didn’t understand political activism. "And then we meet them again in the early ’50s after Woody has (started to fall ill with) Huntington’s disease. ... And Bob has had to sell his ranch house down in Dallas, you know, and he’s in debt and he’s in California at Wills Point (nightclub) in Sacramento, kind of holding things down there and recouping. "So in this show, they meet on their way up and they meet on their way down. And by the second time they’ve kind of maybe come over to each other’s way of thinking a little bit.” The writers tapped their friends Cooper and Piccolo to play Wills and Guthrie respectively, because the Tulsa-based Red Dirt Rangers have always cited those two musical giants as their chief influences. Cooper said he took the role of the Western singer because, "I think I look like Bob Wills more than Brad, for one thing. I’ve actually shaved my facial hair and tried to get into the role. I’ve been a huge fan of Bob Wills since I first heard the music, and being over here in the Tulsa area where we kind of are these days, you are inundated with Bob Wills. He’s kind of everywhere. I would say he’s probably the most popular guy to ever come out of Tulsa. I think that can be argued for sure. Inventing Western swing was a pretty big deal. "And, of course, the Red Dirt Rangers, our band, Woody Guthrie’s been a huge part of our music for a long time,” Cooper said. "Those are the two streams of music that run into what’s known today as red dirt music.” Cooper admits his only prior acting experience was in the title role of an eighth-grade performance of "You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” But Piccolo allows that just being in a band is acting experience enough. "When we started out, we really hardly even knew how to play our instruments, so we were just acting like we could play in the beginning,” Piccolo said. "We’ve been together 21 years, so hopefully we’re a little beyond that now. ... It’s such an honor to be able to play these guys. It’s also terrifying.”Comments
"Time Changes Everything”
→Starring: John Cooper, Brad Piccolo and the Red Dirt Rangers.
→When: 7 p.m. Saturday. →Where: Oklahoma History Center, 2401 N Laird Ave. →Tickets: $25 to $35. →Information: okhistorycenter.org.