Great songwriting teams are an alchemy of negotiated creativity. Regardless of how the team works, an agreement must be struck between the two as to what aspect of a song takes precedence: words or music. Sometimes the teams easily agree on where to strike the balance — sometimes, not. Communication and a like-minded vision helps the cause, I suspect. In the end, someone’s viewpoint inevitably rises to the top. But how does the process work, when the artists create their work physically apart from each other?
One of my all time favorite documentaries is Two Rooms: The Story of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. It chronicled how these two artists, one a poet and the other a composer and piano player, came to meet and build one of popular music’s most successful creative collaborations of the 20th century. Taupin, during his interview for the documentary, discussed how rarely the two ever worked together in the same location. Hence the title of the film, ‘Two Rooms.’ Taupin would deliver the poem or lyrics on paper to Elton who would choose what appealed to him and then write and arrange the music in relative short order, alone. They worked apart from each other. Yet in the end, created music that sounded like the completed thought of one brilliant mind.
I immediately recalled my sense of wonderment upon learning that, after my first listen to the latest album by Del McCoury. Del and Woody released April 15th on McCoury Music, was created essentially in the same manner. But, instead of mere geography separating the songwriter from the composer and arranger, decades and a lifetime also provided creative space in which to work.
The songwriter in this instance is the late Woody Guthrie. The lyrics being among the thousands of songs and poems written by Guthrie and lovingly curated by his daughter Nora. Woody’s daughter has thoughtfully selected a number of artists over recent years to allow the recording of her father’s work. Billy Bragg and Wilco’s effort, Mermaid Avenue, likely most recognizable to the masses. Del McCoury was the perfect choice to bring those words to life. But for hearing work by Del along with Steve Earle in the late 1990s, and then witnessing a Del McCoury performance in 2009, the collaboration may never have been considered. A few years later, after Nora heard The Del McCoury Band perform some of her father’s songs at the Centennial (Woody Guthrie) concert in Tulsa it became clear how well the pairing of national musical treasures could sound.
In a recent interview with writer Mike Mannon, Nora recalled,
“I wanted to officially recognize in this project that Woody was a writer for a band. I don’t think most people think of him that way. Because of his association with Dylan and the folk movement, most think of him as isolated. But he wasn’t. He was ready to play anything, with anybody, anytime.”
And of course no better bluegrass band tours (for my money,) today, than The Del McCoury Band. Woody’s daughter clearly agrees. Nora told Bluegrass Today writer John Lawless, earlier this year:
“After hearing Del’s show, I remember thinking that if my dad had had a band, it would very possibly have sounded very much like Del’s.”
Mc Coury was ultimately sent a ‘few dozen’ sets of unrecorded lyrics, from which Del came to select twelve, for the album. He was given carte blanche with respect to the lyrics, but he didn’t choose to use it.
“When I read them, it seemed pretty easy to me to hear the music that would fit. Nora said, ‘you can change some things if you want to,’ and I said no. He’s a great writer, and I do not want to change anything in his songs. I would just like to put a melody to these words so that maybe folks will accept the songs, and that’s what we did,” McCoury remarked.
The resulting negotiated creativity is a razor-sharp collection of music that remains lyric-driven through the delivery of Del’s glorious voice and guided by a musical arrangement that sounds like the band was performing on the Guthrie front porch on a random Saturday afternoon. Such care and respect was given to the words as written. Did Del have a time machine with which to go back and ask Guthrie his opinion? Seems like it. As I listen, it’s hard not to think these musical arrangements and the completed songs haven’t already existed for decades. Even my 10 year old son, a veteran of every DelFest performance since the event began, assumed he’d already heard one of the tracks before, HoeCake Fritters, when he wandered past as I was listening.
But don’t confuse that aural sense of deja vu with a lack of creativity in musical arrangement. Quite the contrary. McCoury’s compositional skills, along with the indisputable chops of his entire band, breathe incredible life into Guthrie’s lyrics. That is for me where the real essence of Del and Woody lay. They are two artists who never met each other, separated in their musical lives by decades, yet capable of speaking in the singular voice of an everyday man to create work that makes still makes sense a near century after it was originally written.
It took me several listens of the album before I could figure out for me, why both voices were able to sound as one despite the time and distance between the men. I’ve been a fan of Del’s since Bonnaroo 2002. Admittedly, I’m not a scholar of Woody Guthrie’s catalogue and career. I knew what most lay persons did of him beforehand. I knew he composed This Land is Your Land. I was aware that he had a sticker on his guitar that stated “This Guitar kills Fascists.” I had a basic understanding of his political affinities. Frankly, I didn’t know much more.
When I received the assignment to review this disc, I assumed I’d be hearing a ton of protest music. I was completely wrong. After listening for a while, I learned much about the fullest breadth of the Guthrie musical legacy. As usual, Del schooled me on the history, as he so often gently does from the stages he performs on. As I listened again and again, it came to make even more sense why McCoury was chosen by Nora Guthrie to record these particular songs.
Both men focus primarily on the everyday lives of people. It’s simple really. But often the genius is in the simplicity. They make music that considers the everyday just as important as the iconic. It took the correct person to see that correlation and to put the two artists together. Nora’s gift at hearing who is right for what song has shown itself before, in the projects she’s spearheaded to keep alive her father’s work. Much like the inspiration of producer Ray Williams to introduce a young Reginald Dwight (Elton John) to Bernie Taupin, Nora’s sense that McCoury and her father were cut from similar musical cloth was inspired. There are over 3000 unrecorded compositions of Woody Guthrie’s music archived. I suspect Nora’s father would be pleased with who was given the reins with these twelve.