This April, Cincinnati musicians will pay tribute to a pair of American music icons — Merle Haggard and Woody Guthrie — with separate live events celebrating the spirit and legacy of each.
• Last year, local musician Joe Macheret, fiddle player in popular Folk band The Tillers and leader of his own Country Blues group, Joe’s Truck Stop, organized Hagfest, a tribute to legendary Country music singer/songwriter/guitarist/fiddler Merle Haggard, who’d died the previous year.
Haggard’s role in shaping Country music can’t be overstated. Bob Dylan once said Haggard was “even too big for Mount Rushmore,” noting that he “transcends the Country genre.” In the ’60s, he was an innovator of the “Bakersfield Sound,” the musical movement that bucked the crooning and saccharine strings of Country Pop at the time, incorporating electric guitars and rockier rhythms while also throwing back to Country’s more honest and pure original spirit. That vision coupled with his darker lyrical tone — which touched on things like poverty, depression and working-class concerns — led Haggard to also became associated with the Outlaw Country scene of the ’70s, another movement that was a response to the more cleaned-up Pop records coming out of Nashville. Haggard’s presence is still readily evident in music today — besides the mainstream Country artists who idolize him, Haggard’s essence lives on in AltCountry, Roots Rock and numerous other corners of the current “Americana” scene.
Featuring local and out-of-town performers, the inaugural Hagfest was held on April 6, which is both Haggard’s birthday and the day he passed away. Hagfest is back this year for another April 6 celebration, returning to the Southgate House Revival (111 E. Sixth St., Newport, southgatehouse.com) and featuring more than a dozen Country and Americana acts. Though many versions of songs from Haggard’s catalog will certainly be heard, Hagfest isn’t like most tribute shows. Instead of entirely covers, the performers are invited to pay their respects to Haggard however they want. Macheret posted on Facebook that, along with Haggard, Hagfest also “(pays) tribute to those who came before and paved a way for newer artists to find their own route, write their own songs and keep getting better at picking their guitars.”
Local artists performing at Hagfest include Joe's Truck Stop, Comet Bluegrass All-Stars, Magnolia Mountain, Harold Kennedy and the Honky Tonk 3, Arlo McKinley and the Lonesome Sound, Billie Gant, Warrick & Lowell, Maria Carrelli and Casey Campbell. Also appearing are Kentucky musicians John Clay, Justin Wells and Senora May. Hagfest will also feature Texas guitar hero Bill Kirchen, the inventor of “Dieselbilly” (what he calls his mix of Honky Tonk, Rockabilly and other rootsy styles) who is also known as “The Titan of the Telecaster.”
Like last year, some of the proceeds from the second annual Hagfest will go to the Appalachian Prison Book Project, which gives free books to incarcerated people in West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Maryland.
Find more Hagfest 2018 info here.
• Before Merle Haggard there was Woody Guthrie, the Folk pioneer and activist whose enduring music has influenced countless artists in a variety of genres. Guthrie’s massive effect on American culture is most obvious in the music of self-proclaimed disciples like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Rage Against the Machine and Wilco, but his legacy is so deeply embedded in American music’s DNA, even artists who’ve never heard a note he played have been shaped by his life’s work.
Even Lady Gaga has “sampled” Guthrie, borrowing a few lines from his most known song, “This Land is Your Land,” to kick off her Super Bowl halftime show in 2017. The stirring song has become something of an alternate National Anthem, though, as some noted after Gaga’s performance, it was written as a secular retort to “God Bless America,” with socialist (or even communist) undertones (the lesser known verses are more blatantly radical and revelatory). That’s the real legacy of Guthrie. After the Super Bowl spot, there was widespread debate over whether that moment in Gaga’s supposedly apolitical performance was actually a subtle but incredibly pointed statement in response to then-new president Trump’s isolationism and anti-immigrant policy plans. Timely and timeless, Guthrie’s insight, satire, humanity, sarcasm, poetry, compassion and advocacy was front and center in the public’s consciousness again after just a few lines from one song he wrote more than 75 years ago were re-weaponized and repurposed to rabble-rousing effect.
Twenty years ago, Cincinnati Folk singer/songwriter Jake Speed — whose music unabashedly shows the mark of Guthrie’s influence — began paying tribute to his idol with the first WoodyFest, which was held at former Clifton hangout Cody’s Café. With Speed affably telling stories about Guthrie and, of course, performing his songs, WoodyFest moved around to different venues a few times over the years, before settling into its current home at Mount St. Joseph University’s Recital Hall (5701 Delhi Road, Delhi). WoodyFest’s 20th anniversary event is April 14 at 7 p.m.
To celebrate two decades of WoodyFest, Speed says he decided to turn the show into “a hootenanny of sorts,” inviting several of his local musician friends to join in. Comet Bluegrass All-Stars leader Ed Cunningham will play the epic “The Ballad of Tom Joad” (among other songs) and Folk Rock group Willow Tree Carolers will also perform selections from the legend’s Dust Bowl Ballads, which Guthrie wrote about the devastation brought on by the dust storms of the 1930s. The Carolers will also play their raucous version of Guthrie’s “The Sinking Of The Reuben James,” which was featured on the band’s 2015 self-titled debut album.
The Kentucky Struts’ Todd Lipscomb and Northern Kentucky Bluegrass Band’s Chris Cusentino will offer a different perspective on Guthrie’s lasting impact on music at WoodyFest. Lipscomb is doing songs from the Mermaid Avenue albums, the Wilco and Billy Bragg collaborative projects for which they wrote music for some of Guthrie’s lyrics that were never published or put into song form. Guthrie’s daughter Nora was the impetus behind Mermaid Avenue and she also more recently gave Bluegrass great Del McCoury some of her father’s lyrics to turn into songs. The result was the acclaimed 2016 album, Del and Woody, which Cusentino will draw from for his WoodyFest performance.
This year’s WoodyFest will also serve as an album release party for WoodyFest on the Mount, a live recording from the 2014 event. Interspersed with storytelling, the album includes Speed’s versions of several Dust Bowl selections (“So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Yuh,” “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues”), as well as other songs Speed says “capture his long life of social satire, wit and working-man focus,” like “Talkin’ Hard Work,” “Philadelphia Lawyer,” “Union Maid” and more.
You can listen to the WoodyFest on the Mount track “Hard Travelin’” here.
Visit freddiesmusic.com for more info on Jake Speed and WoodyFest.