Wednesday, January 18, 2012 , Updated 12:00 a.m., February 28, 2012
Will Johnson of Centro-matic teams up to release Woody Guthrie tribute album
Johnson and friends were lucky enough to sift through Guthrie's personal diaries, notebooks, and handwritten lyrics to find the songs that spoke to them.
Will Johnson of Denton’s Centro-matic has added another project to his list -- a tribute album to the great Woody Guthrie. Guthrie was an American folk singer from the 1930s to 1950s who wrote songs ranging from politically-driven themes to children’s tunes. He is best known for his legendary song, “This Land is Your Land.” Johnson teamed up with Jay Farrar (Son Volt, Gob Iron, Uncle Tupleo), Yim Yames (My Morning Jacket, Monsters of Folk), and Anders Parker (Varnaline, Gob Iron) to record a cover album called New Multitudes.
The project stemmed from an invitation extended to Farrar from Billy Bragg in 1996, to record some of Guthrie’s potentially unreleased songs made available by his daughter, Nora Guthrie. Although Bragg went on to make a record with Wilco, the desire to pay tribute to Guthrie stayed true with Farrar. He reconnected with Nora in 2005 and began to peruse Guthrie’s unreleased notebooks, diaries, and pages of lyrics she owned. He then invited some of his friends to join in on this historic musical discovery, which led to years of recording and planning towards the album’s release.
Johnson says they went through the treasured documents on their own to find which lyrics spoke to them. “I started looking for the pages of lyrics that kind of sang back to me, to hear the mood of the song through the lyrics. I wanted them to speak to me in that regard, like the song chose me.”
He says that so many people (musicians included) gravitate towards Guthrie’s music because it crossed so many boundaries at the time. “Guthrie was able to paint a picture regardless if it was a children’s song about waking up or if it was a really graphic, morose picture of venereal disease, prostitution, or heroin. He was one of the very first punk rockers – he rebelled in a way that people really responded to and became active in the result of. So many of those lyrics still apply to many of the issues and experiences we encounter in our lives these days.”
Working on the album has made Johnson more aware of how he uses detail in his songwriting, especially in his solo career, he said. Guthrie’s music has pushed him more towards a narrative style of writing.
When the disc is released February 28, Johnson says he's most proud of the album’s cohesiveness. “After all of this time and all of the sessions that took place for it to come together, I’m pleasantly surprised how the album ended up fitting together and the way that the recordings wound up sounding alongside each other. It sounds cohesive and complete. It can sometimes be like a quilt that doesn’t match up, this particular quilt – to my ears – ended up coming together in a cool way.”
Johnson hadn’t heard any of the other artists’ recordings when he went into the studio, so hearing the record as a whole was a totally different experience than his other projects, he said.
New Multitudes comes out the same day Guthrie would’ve turned 100. The group has announced an accompanying tour for the release, passing through California, Oregon, Washington, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts. (No stops in Texas.) However, Denton songstress Sarah Jaffe is set to open for the band on their California and Oregon dates.