Okemah knows how to throw a birthday party.
Arlo Guthrie is opening the 13th annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival on Wednesday, which commemorates his father's 98th birthday and begins a free folk festival that invites dozens of musicians and thousands of patrons to join Okemah's 3,000-plus fulltime residents for four days and five nights of musical Americana.
A few artists wouldn't miss Woody
The Oklahoma country act Red Dirt Rangers plays every year. Even a helicopter crash couldn't keep the band from performing.
In 2004, two weeks prior to WoodyFest, bandmates John Cooper, Brad Piccolo and Ben Han sat in the backseat of a downed helicopter after it got tangled in power lines over the Cimarron River. Cooper said he couldn't make it to WoodyFest because of broken ribs, punctured lungs and several other injuries, but drummer Piccolo managed to sing one song onstage at the festival.
"Everybody is there for free," Cooper said. "Nobody is getting anything out of it except for the music, and that's really why I think it's a special festival."
Cooper said it's a labor of love to play in the heat.
"They put it in the middle of July in Okemah, not a choice time to be putting on a festival weather-wise, but it's more than about all of that, it's about honoring Woody and music," Cooper said.
Friday's headliner, Ellis Paul, said he performed in Okemah before the festival's inception because of his fascination with the Guthrie family. He has noticed the town's festival involvement grow.
"It's been nice to watch them get more and more involved and embracing Woody's legacy and embracing all of us when we come into town," Paul said. "We really turn the town upside down when we're there."
Paul said he missed one festival in 2004 because his daughter was being born and that it takes a big event for a musician to give up the chance to play WoodyFest.
"It's Woody that ultimately brought everyone back to begin with," Paul said. "It's kind of like our New Year's. It's what we build our calendars around."
Oklahoma City musician Mary Reynolds will perform Saturday and said she loves Okemah.
"There's a certain smell in the summer when the sun hits that red dirt and those leaves that just talks about home to me," Reynolds said. "So, sitting under the blue sky and listening to that kind of music in my own home state is just really special."
Reynolds said Okemah was hostile to Woody's legacy until the late '90s, but she is glad a small group of people got together to organize Woody
"I don't know if I can put a concrete word on it," Reynolds said.
"There's this energy about all these people getting together in what looked to be the middle of nowhere to do this crazy thing."
13th annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival
When: Wednesday through July 18. Where: Various venues in Okemah. What: Musical performances, children's activities, open mike, poetry reading, documentary screening, songwriter workshops and fundraisers. Admission: Free except for the opening show at 8 p.m. Wednesday, featuring Arlo Guthrie, $30 for general admission, $50 for Gold Circle seating. Parking: Free for daytime events; $10 per car evenings at the Pastures of Plenty Stage. Information: www.woodyguthrie.com.