For two years we've been hearing of this recording, a project where original lyrics from Woody Guthrie were to be reinvented as bluegrass songs by the legendary Del McCoury. Like previous sets from Billy Bragg & Wilco (3 volumes of "Mermaid Avenue" released between 1998-2012), Jay Farrar, et al ("New Multitudes," 2012) and The Klezmatics (a pair of 2006 releases), lyrics stored within the Woody Guthrie Archives were turned over to McCoury to be repurposed.
This rootsy set, fully bluegrass in sound and intent, is the result and the first thing one may notice is how much it sounds like a typical Del McCoury Band album: if unaware of its genesis, one wouldn't be surprised by anything included here.
The musicianship is naturally first-class. Ronnie and Rob McCoury, mandolin and banjo respectively, are untouchable when it comes to playing off - and with - each other. Jason Carter is given plenty of room to fiddle, including on "Wimmen's Hats," an otherwise unnecessary number, while Alan Bartram keeps the bass pulsing as it should. The senior McCoury's guitar playing retains its distinctive rhythm and snap.
McCoury has crafted these 12 songs within the well-established family oeuvre, balancing up tempo, but still substantial numbers ("Dirty Overhalls," a very different song than the same-titled piece Guthrie recorded with Cisco Houston) and reflective, even maudlin songs ("Family Reunion"). Some of the references are obviously dated, not a shortcoming in 'grass.
The previously released "New York Trains" serves as the set's strong lead offering. "Californy Gold" has hallmarks of timelessness, elements found in McCoury standards including "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" and "My Love Will Not Change."
Social commentary is apparent in "Government Road," familial affection in "Little Fellow" (written by Guthrie on the occasion of his son's birth), and "Hoecake Fritters" is a breezy jam. "Ain't Gonna Do" reminds one of a song Doc Watson could have performed, while "Because You Took Me Out of the Rain" communicates emotional heft within unadorned lyrics.
"Del and Woody" should satisfy those searching for fresh takes on Guthrie lyrics as well as the legion that devours music of The Del McCoury Band.
A separate take on the CD:
By John Lupton
Widely considered the single most influential figure of the 20th century in American folk music, it has been nearly a half-century since Woody Guthrie passed from the scene in 1967 and more than six decades since Huntington's Disease cut his performing career short while still only in his 40s. To many modern folkies Woody's most visible legacy has been the ongoing career of his son Arlo, whose shows invariably include some of his dad's iconic songs as well as his own. Somewhat below the popular radar, but no less important and rewarding, has been the stewardship of Woody's papers, notebooks and other archival material by his daughter Nora, longtime president of the foundation named for him.
Among the voluminous writings left by Woody were some 1,000-plus songs for which he had written lyrics, but no music. In the early 2000's, Nora began inviting some of the leading lights of the modern folk music community to "collaborate" with her father and apply music to some of the lyrics.
After hearing Del McCoury perform at the Newport Folk Festival in 2009, it struck Nora that McCoury's award-winning band was exactly the sort of ensemble that her dad would have had - if, that is, he had ever been able to afford to carry a five-piece band around with him. Nora recognized as well that the bluegrass that McCoury has been a master of for more than 50 years is closely related and a natural fit to the early "hillbilly" music her father had grown up with in Oklahoma, long before labels like "country," "folk" and "bluegrass," let alone "Americana," became common.
For his part, McCoury says that during his musical coming of age in the 1950s, he wasn't all that familiar with Guthrie's recordings - but he knew a lot of Woody's songs like "Philadelphia Lawyer" and "This Land Is Your Land." When Nora Guthrie asked him to match his own tunes to some of Woody's words, he jumped at the chance, resulting in a thoroughly captivating and engrossing collection of a dozen songs.
Longtime Guthrie fans will instantly recognize the many moods of Woody's muse: the opening "The New York Trains" is a lighthearted look at country folk visiting the big city; even more lighthearted is "Wimmen's Hats", a good-natured poke at the extravagance of feminine haberdashery; and "The Government Road" celebrates the workers who built the highways, railroads, bridges and dams in the recovery years of the Depression. McCoury's music also does justice nicely to the mournful "Left In This World Alone," as well as to the sentimentality and optimism of "Family Reunion."
Tribute albums and other projects of this type can often be a mixed bag, but this is a success probably beyond what even Nora Guthrie hoped it might be. All 12 cuts are as seamless and united as if Guthrie and McCoury had been sitting at the same table working them out together. Well done.