The Radio Cure
Where Music Makes Friends

Cover Friday

March 23, 2012

New Multitudes – Talking Empty Bed Blues (lyrics by Woody Guthrie)

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There’s a good side, and a bad one, to collaborating with dead people.

Jay Farrar found that out fast when he took on the task of putting his own music to lyrics by the late Woody Guthrie. On the one hand, the departed can’t argue back. On the other, “he’s not here to bounce ideas off of,” Farrar says. “Ultimately, though, I found that working with Woody’s lyrics allowed the songwriting process to be less self-conscious. Often when I’m writing my own lyrics I have to stop and think, ‘What am I trying to say?’ But with these lyrics it was total inspiration. It was all there right on the page.”

And in such large portions.

Guthrie left scores of verses and journals behind after his death from Huntington’s disease in 1967. His estate, overseen by daughter Nora Guthrie, has endeavored for more than a decade to get those words out by inviting younger musicians to match them to fresh music. The first such project dates back in 1998 when Brit-folkie Billy Bragg teamed up with Wilco to craft tunes for the master’s words on the “Mermaid Avenue” album. They released a second volume in 2000 and plan to put out a third, culled from their original sessions, later this year. Another Guthrie set, featuring collaborations with stars from Lou Reed to Jackson Browne, called “Note of Hope” also arrives this year.

In the meantime, Farrar has his own Ouija-board-like collaboration with Woody’s words. He created his with three other important contemporary songwriters: Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) Anders Parker (of Varnaline) and Will Johnson (Centro-Matic, South San Gabriel). The supergroup-style setup not only resulted in a fresh disk, “New Multitudes,” but a tour, which comes to Webster Hall this Wednesday.

Farrar has a long and complex history with both Woody and the first band to create such a project, Wilco. In the ’80s, he made his initial name as a fellow guiding light, with Jeff Tweedy, in the band Uncle Tupelo (the first of the so-called “alterna-country” groups). By the early ’90s, the band split into two rival bands: Tweedy’s Wilco and Farrar’s Son Volt.

Farrar, who first heard Guthrie songs played by his parents in his youth, says an initial invitation to collaborate with Billy Bragg on Woody songs came to him back in ’95, before he came to Wilco. “I met Billy once and he seemed like a nice guy,” Farrar says. “But it was also important to do this on my own terms.”





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