The day after Jay Farrar (Son Volt), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Anders Parker (Varnaline) and Will Johnson (Centro-matic) hit No. 1 on the Billboard Heatseekers’ chart, they hit Santa Monica radio station KCRW for a performance and interview then visited Amoeba Records in Hollywood for a four-song performance and record signing.
Their album “New Multitudes,” released by Rounder, features the four singer-songwriters setting the words of Woody Guthrie to new music. Farrar and his band Son Volt was the among the musicians contacted in the early 1990s when Guthrie’s daughter Nora tapped Billy Bragg to sort through the archive and create new songs; Bragg wound up working with Wilco (whose mastermind Jeff Tweedy formerly played with Farrar in the band Uncle Tupelo).
“The idea stuck with me as something I wanted to try and I approached Nora in 2006 and Anders and I began visiting the archive,” Farrar said days before the L.A. performances. “That process took several years. There was no record company, no budget — I have a recollection of trading a guitar to an engineer to (record a song). In 2009 Nora played it for Jim and then Jim and I spoke about joining forces.”
At Amoeba, each member of the ensemble took lead for one song each – Farrar on “Hoping Machine,” James on “Changing World,” Johnson on “V.D. City” and Parker on “Old L.A.”
To create “New Multitudes,” each of the songwriters selected their own pieces to work on and then brought the completed song to the group to record. Farrar pulled “Hoping Machine” from one of Guthrie’s’ journal entries, enticed by its “positivity with philosophical overtones.” “Careless Reckless Love” was pulled from a folder of unused lyrics.
“Even though Woody was known for topical songs, one thing you realize” – after looking through his writings – “is that he was dealing with so many themes,” Farrar says. “The breadth and scope of what he was willing to take on — that spoke out to me. Especially the nuclear holocaust of ‘When the World’s on Fire’ and the social phenomenon that occurred during Prohibition, this neuro-toxic alcohol Jamaican Ginger. ‘Jake Walk Blues’ is about the way people would subsequently walk after drinking too much of it.”
Although Farrar hoped the album would have come out last year, it lands near the front of the calendar of Guthrie centennial celebrations. The author of “This Land is Your Land,” “Deportees,” “Tom Joad,” “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You” and thousands of other folk classics was born July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Okla.
The Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, the Guthrie family and the Woody Guthrie Archives have celebrations planned around the world this year with a March 10 tribute concert at the Brady Theater in Tulsa, Okla., next up. Among the performers are John Mellencamp, Arlo Guthrie, the Del McCoury Band and the Flaming Lips.
The Grammy Museum will have a week of programs in April and the Songwriters Hall of Fame is planning a tribute in June.
The “New Multitudes” quartet has six more shows to play on its short tour, hitting Seattle on March 10, New York on March 14 and Boston on March 16.
“We reconvene July 29 at the Newport Folk Festival,” says Farrar. “We’ve started to talk about whether we could do it again. It all remains to be seen.”