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America’s Other Great Guthrie

Aug. 3, 2009
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Woody Guthrie is a hard act to follow but his son Arlo has done so with great success. There will never be another Woody Guthrie, who wrote so many songs—important songs that made an impression on many people—and led the way for contemporary folk singers. But I believe that there are many out there like me who, when someone mentions the great folksinger Guthrie, answers "Which Guthrie, Woody or Arlo?"

Arlo has put out over 20 records since 1967. He has written many songs on these records and recorded other folk singers' material, including some of his Dad's songs and some by his Dad's friends. He has appeared in the Woodstock movie and starred in Alice's Restaurant. Arlo has also been an innovator on the business side of music. He started his own web page years before it became a common industry practice. He formed his own record company and bought back the rights to his back catalogue. He has involved all his children in the business. His son Abe performs with him on tour and handles the recording of all the shows. Abe also works in the studio on the recordings. Cathy and Annie handle the management, doing the accounting for their Dad and his record company. Sarah Lee and her husband Johnny Irion have toured with Arlo and also do many dates themselves. They have released some great CDs on their own as well. Sarah Lee's first ever concert was at Milwaukee's Shank Hall with her Dad in the audience. Arlo has it together on and off stage

I have been an Arlo Guthrie fan since 1977. Although I was only 13, I was hooked after seeing him that year at the Performing Arts Center in Milwaukee. I started promoting concerts in 1983 and could not wait till I could work with him. My first show with Arlo was in 1984 at UWM. Since then I have promoted over 70 of his concerts throughout Wisconsin and have traveled to other cities to visit and enjoy his shows. Being a music promoter and nightclub owner, I usually see and hear four-five bands a week. Conducting business during the shows, I don't always get to see an artist's entire showbut not with Arlo around. I always make sure to enjoy his performance.

And we've gotten to know each other outside the concert hall. A few years ago on an off day, in between Madison and Milwaukee concerts, I was already home and Arlo was coming in on his tour bus to Milwaukee. It was a Sunday afternoon and the Packers were playing the Vikings. People that know me well know I love football. Nothing could have moved me from my sofa on football Sunday...except Arlo! He called as the game was starting and said he was going to the Milwaukee County Zoo. Would I like to join him? Without hesitation, I answered, "Yes I will be right there!"

I have never seen Arlo do a bad show. If you don't like Arlo Guthrie, I'd wager you have never seen him in concert. He has a tremendous stage presence. He has a very sharp wit and really cares about what he is talking about on stage. He will normally do two sets of music, always introducing or back announcing the song he is playing with a bit of history. Half the songs are his own and the other is songs from his Dad or friends of his Dad. He is keeping these songs alive for another generation.

I occasionally have seen performers "mail it in" on a show and tour just for the money. Not Arlo. He really cares about his concerts and his fans. The guy you see on stage is the guy that you see walking on the street or at the hotel. He tours 10 months out of the year doing well over 100 shows. If Arlo won the lottery I believe he would not cut back on touring that much, as he really enjoys what he is doing. I have never seen Arlo get mad at anybody or anything.

There have been so many special moments on and off stage with Arlo, but two stick in my mind. For years he always closed his show with "Amazing Grace" but had decided to give the song a rest. We were doing a run of dates around Wisconsin in 1999 during Easter week. I mentioned to him that my parents were coming to the show, and asked if he could do "Amazing Grace," as it also was one of my Mom's favorite songs. The next night in Milwaukee he mentioned me by name, and how he also enjoys coming to Wisconsin and doing shows with me. He then proceeded to play "Amazing Grace." Sarah Lee, who was with him on these dates, came over to me and said, "My Dad never mentions people on stage like that." That was a very special night.

And it would not be the only special night of "Amazing Grace." A few years later at an Oshkosh concert, an usher handed me a note to give to Arlo. Since the note wasn't sealed I read it to make sure it wasn't something that would bother him before doing the show. The message was from a lady who said she lost her husband a month ago; this was her first night out since he died. They had always attended Arlo's shows in Oshkosh together, so she asked if he could play "Amazing Grace" for her. During the second set he said, "I have not played this song in a while but this is a special request for someone here." He started the song and you could hear the women gasp in the audience. He did not say why or who it was for, but he knew she knew, and I knew what he did was very special to this person.

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