Woody Guthrie Folk Festival 2015

OkemahFor the last 18 years, the small town of Okemah in south eastern Oklahoma comes alive with 4 days of outstanding music at the Woody Guthrie Music Festival. Woody was born in Okemah on July 14th 1912 and over the span of his 55 years, Woody experienced a number of hard times which influenced his life and songs - during his childhood his family home burned down, a sister was burned to death, his fathers business aspirations ended badly, and his mother was declared insane plus his three marriages broke up, his daughter died, and he ended up with Huntington's Disease which eventually took his life. But despite his hardships Woody enjoyed performing as he hitchhiked or rode in boxcars or toured across America - he danced, played harmonica and guitar, and loved singing.

Woody Statue in OkemahHe was a free spirit and sang about what he saw and experienced with songs that described the lives of migrant workers, encouraged labor unions, and drew attention to social injustices with songs that were often a rallying cry to action and gave voice to the common man. Woody wrote over 3000 song lyrics and during the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival you'll get to hear several many of his songs.

Woody Fest is a tribute to his life and songs and it's fitting that the festival is held in Okemah which is about 70 miles east from Oklahoma City. Woody said that "Okemah, where I come from was one of the singingest, dancingest, drinkinest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, fist-fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club, and razor carryingest of our ranch and farm towns because it blossomed into one of our first Oil Boom Towns."

Woody Fest Music Venues

Part of what makes this festival fun is that the music is held in several venues around the city, the main venues include:

  • Crystal Theater - the theater has been around since 1920 and was remodeling in 1931 it's perfect for listening to some great musicians

crystal TheaterCrystal TheaterCrystal Theater

  • Brick Street Cafe Basement - Brick Street is four blocks down West Broadway from the Crystal Theater and it's home to a restaurant upstairs (which is currently closed) and a basement downstairs with a bar, stage, and seating - a really cool, unique, and cozy setting for music

Brick Street BasementBrick Street BasementBrick Street

  • CIA (Community Improvement Association) Stage - a tent was set up on an open lot about half way between the Crystal Theater and Brick Street Cafe

CIA Stage FansCIA VenueCIA Venue

  • Pastures of Plenty - about 2 miles from the other venues, Pastures of Plenty is a large open field with huge stage and some vendors selling food, beer, and merchandise - beautiful sunsets are included with the price of admission

Pastures of PlentySunset at Pastures of PlentyPastures of Plenty Stage

In addition to those 4 main festival venues, during the festival you can listen to or even sing at several other venues around Okemah. Walk out the back door of Brick Street and across the alley and you're at Lou's Rocky Road Tavern with an outdoor stage, trees, a swing, tables and chairs, and an outside bar serving cold beer and burgers, fries, wings and more. Each day at noon is open mic where anyone can sign up to sing and play a few songs. The music is continuous until they run out of performers each day - they were still going on at 8 PM one night.

Lou's Rocky Road TavernLou's Lou's Rocky Road Tavern

The Methodist Church, a couple blocks from the CIA stage is home to some kids concerts on Friday and Saturday. The Coffee Cup, a very small establishment serving coffee and espresso, invited the artists over at midnight to jam. The Day's Inn (which is where all the performing artists stay) parking lot pickin' and playin' starts after the music ends at Pastures of Plenty and goes on with lots of the performing artists until the sun comes up. This year there was live music as you got your hair or nails done in a hair parlor, as well as, just outside the Brick Street back door in the alley. And, of course, there is always some jammin' in the campground and typically on some of the sidewalks in town. One year 4 young musicians were playing and singing on the sidewalk each day for quarters and they were so good they were invited to play on the Brick Street Cafe stage the following year. Since the campground was flooded on Thursday, the owner of Brick Street said that anyone who wanted to pick and sing was welcome to do that in the basement and he would stay open until the music stopped!

Music in the alleyPickin' and singin' in the campgroundMusic as you got your nails done

Multiple venues are fun but the bad news is that you've really got to study the artists bios in the program and each day plan who you want to see - and without a doubt you're going to miss someone great or some part of their set. It's only 4 blocks between Crystal Theater and Brick Street and each day we walked (sometimes ran so we could catch more of a set) between all three venues several times plus some quick stops at Lou's Tavern for a beer and the open mic singers. Since 90% of the artists are unknown to us, we would read the bios in the program and talk to several people to get their opinion on who they liked and but missed several great artists.

But what's good are some cool venues if the artists aren't top notch! And the artists are what makes Woody Fest one of best festivals in the United States. The lineup includes award winning and nationally recognized performers that come from Canada, California to New York and lots of places in between. And there are several favorites from Oklahoma and Texas. 98 artists were on this year's schedule! Based on a count of our pictures, we heard some portion of a set, if not a whole set of 60 performers!

Wednesday's Music at Woody Guthrie Music Festival

Unfortunately we weren't able to make it to Okemah in time for Wednesdays music with included music at Brick Street from 1 to 7:15 and then moved to the Crystal Theater for a Bob Childers Tribute Concert.

  • Brick Street Performances - Andy Adams, Larry Spears, Joe Baxter, Wink Burcham, Ali Harter, Rick Reiley, Big Buffalo Rogers, and Randy Crouch
  • Crystal Theatre - Red Dirt Rangers, John Fullbright, Butch Hancock, Michael Fracasso, The Burns Sisters, Kevin & Dustin Welch, Susan Herndon, Gabe Marshall, Miss Brown to You, Kierston White, Bryon White, Monica Taylor, Wink Burcham, Rick Reiley, Joe Baxter, and Terry "Buffalo" Ware & the Oklahoma Geniuses

Woody Fest Music Lineup on Thursday

We finally arrived in Cotton's Corner in Okemah around 10 in the rain (it had been raining for days and one day Okemah got seven inches!) and when I talked to the owner about parking the RV in a site and my fear of getting our 50,000 pound 42' motorhome stuck, he assured me that the ground was very firm. I took his word for it and started backing into our site. About 80% of the way into our site, the back tires started spinning and I was stuck and not real happy!!!! I didn't want to miss the music, so we plugged the motor home into electric, jumped in the Jeep and headed to Brick Street just in time to catch a couple songs by one of our favorites - Radoslav Lorkovic. After listening to Rad and all the other artists plus a few beers I had forgotten about our stuck motorhome.

Crystal Theater

Brick Street

CIA Stage

David Amran
Allie Farris
Lauren Lee
Time Easton & Nellie Clay
Jared Tyler
Justin Whisnant
Dan Navarro

Radoslav Lorkovic

Melissa Hembree

Greg Jacobs

Monica Taylor

Jimmy "Daddy" Davis
Tish Hinojosa

Grant Peeples

Kelley Mickwee
Roy Bookbinder

Rod Picott

Matt Harlan
The Burns Sisters

Bob Livingston

Michael Veitch

Jonathan Byrd

Susan Herndon

Tom Marshall

Amy Speace

Del Barber

Beau Jennings

Here's who we got to listen to on Thursday (mouse over the picture for their names):

Radoslav & David AmranGreg JacobsMonica Taylor

Jonathan ByrdAmy SpeaceDel Barber

Susan HerndonBob LivingstonRod Picott

not sure who this isGrant Peeples

Miss BrownOklahoma had gotten drenched with rain for several days prior to the the Woody Guthrie Music Festival - in fact, the day before the festival started Okemah got around 7 inches of rain. Which means that unfortunately, all the rain had soaked the grounds at the CIA Stage and Pastures of Plenty, so the CIA Stage artists played at Brick Street after the last artist and instead of music at the Pastures of Plenty, the following artists entertained us at Crystal Theater starting at 8 PM:

  • Miss Brown to You - Mary Reynolds & Louise Goldberg
  • The Black Lillies
  • Tom Skinner was scheduled to perform but unfortunately he was seriously ill in a hospital in Tulsa so several artists did a tribute to him singing a lot of his fantastic songs
  • The Damn Quails

Black LilliesTom Skinner TributeDamn Quails

Black LilliesOur favorites and some of the highlights of Thursday included: we love Radoslav Lorkovic and his expressions, accordion, and piano playing; Susan Herndon has a beautiful voice and is a joy to watch and listen to; Grant Peeples was hilarious with his poems and unique songs; but the Black Lillies stole the show and we can't wait to see them again!

Tom Skinner was scheduled to play and unfortunately he was hospitalized a couple days before his set and I'm sad to say that he passed away on Sunday. His scheduled set became a tribute to Tom Skinner with several of the artists (Monica Taylor, The Gourds, John Fullbright, Butch Hancock, and more - the stage was packed to capacity with artists) playing and singing some of his best songs with the Woody Fest House Band (Terry "Buffalo" Ware, Mike McCarty, Dan Duggan, and T.Z. Wright - a very talented set of musicians - these guys are outstanding and back-up several of the artists during the festival) and several other musicians as backup was fantastic.

Another Great Day of Music at Woody Fest on Friday

The rain had stopped, the sun was out, there was a gentle breeze, the fields were dry enough for music, and it wasn't 105 degrees - a beautiful day for music in Okemah!

The line-up on the Crystal Theater Stage was outstanding and we spent most of our time there listening to BettySoo, Bill Hearne, Ray Bonneville, SONiA, Don Conoscenti, Greg Trooper, and John Moreland. But we missed Brandon Jenkins.

BettySooBill HearneGreg Trooper

SONIADon ConoscentiRay Bonneville

John Moreland

From the Crystal Theater we walked quickly during or after some of the sets to Brick Street to see some or all of: K.C. Clifford, Jeff Plankenhorn and Michael O'Connor combine their sets together, Seth Giler, and Smokey & the Mirror. Wish we could have seen Robert Williams, T.Z. Wright, and Wild Ponies.

K C ClifffordJeff PlankenhornMichael O'Connor

Seth GlierSmokey & the Mirror

And twice as I was walking to or from Crystal Theater and Brick Street I stopped to catch a couple songs from Jess Klein and Casper McWade. But we missed Joel Melton, Bill Lewis, Savannah Valentino, Mike June, Curtis McMurtry, and Chris Buhalis! From all that walking, my legs were starting to feel like rubber and since I was wearing off so many calories I had a couple bags of popcorn in the Crystal Theater, a sandwich to go from the local drug store, and several cold beers at Brick Street to quench my thirst and cool me off.

Jess KleinCasper McWade

At 7 PM the music started on the Pastures of Plenty Stage (which was still a tad muddy but that didn't stop any of us music lovers - my feet and sandals needed a good wash before hopping in bed) with Maggie Vogts and Rob McHale (the 3rd and 2nd place songwriting contest winners), Butch Hancock and his son on guitar, Terri Hendrix & Lloyd Maines, Ellis Paul, and the Red Dirt Rangers. Wow, what a fantastic cool evening of music under the starts

Butch HancockEllis PaulRed Dirt Rangers

Terri Hendrix & Lloyd Maines

All of the music was outstanding on Friday, but the highlights for me were Seth Glier (a very enjoyable set and for a couple songs they got off the stage and played in the middle of the audience); SONiA with her powerful lyrics delivered with passion and hope was outstanding); Don Conoscenti with his powerful guitar playing and humor was great; Ellis Paul has an unbelievably beautiful voice; and I loved The Red Dirt Rangers playing with 10 people on stage including the Woody Fest House Band, David Amram in a cowboy shirt and hat, Don Conoscenti, Jeff Plankenhorn, and John Fullbright on piano. What an outstanding day of music!

Ellis Paul with Don  ConoscentiTerri HendirxSeth Glier

In addition to all that, starting at noon in the Methodist Church Ellis Paul and Bob Livingston did a Children's Concert and that was followed by "Adding to the Collection and Continuing Woody Legacy (at the History Center Museum), a radio show interview with Monica Taylor, "Collection Woody 2015" by Barry Oilman, and more.

Oh, and each day while the music was going on at the three stages, it was open mic on the stage at Lou's Rocky Road Tavern for 12 to whenever they run out of artists who want to showcase their talent with 3 to 4 songs. What a great setting for music - a cool stage, trees, cold beer, and good food - burgers, wings, fries, and more. We caught several songs from a variety of different artists and generally speaking most were pretty good - a few should not have believed what their mother or wife told them about how great they were at singing in the shower!

Open Mic at Lou's Rocky Road TavernOpen Mic at Lou's Rocky Road Tavern

Saturday's Lineup at Woody Fest

Normally, the music starts at 10 or 11 each day, but for years Saturday morning at 8:30 you get to enjoy music, pancakes (plus bacon, coffee, and OJ for a small donation) at Mary Jo Guthrie's Pancake Breakfast.. Several of the artists who are still around (and up that early) come on stage and sing a couple songs. And Mary Jo, who is Woody's sister and only 94 (as she said at the breakfast "I can't wait to get to 100!) is always there and she loves to say a few words and thank everyone for attending. She's sharp as a tack, witty, and funny, for example: when someone tried to hold the mic for her she said "I'll hold it 'cuz you're hiding my pretty face and what would normally be my dentures with pancakes stuck in them, but I accidentally left them on the dresser this morning."

Mary Jo GuthriePancakes at the breakfastLauren Lee and Elis Paul

In addition to the breakfast, Saturday morning was filled other activities including harmonica lessons for kids, a session with Woody Guthrie Poets, radio show interview, David Amram meet and greet, and an enjoyable children's concert at the Methodist Church with the Red Dirt Rangers followed by Melissa Hembree and the under 12 talent winners.

Red Dirt RangersRed Dirt RangersRed Dirt Rangers

After a very enjoyable performance by the Red Dirt Rangers, we rushed to the Crystal Theater to catch Woody Sed - a 90 minute one man play about the life and times of Woody and the songs he sang about them. Thomas Jones sings 19 Woody songs as he relives Woody's life by acting out 25 different colorful characters in Woody's life - magnificent and an informative, entertaining, and absolutely unforgettable performance.

From Woody Sed we set off to the CIA Stage and during the day caught partial sets from Blake Lankford, Dan Weber, and Angela Easterling but we missed Graham Weber, Gordie Tentrees, Nancy Apple, Carter Sampson, and Shawn Russell.

Blake LankfordDan WebberAngela Easterling

Along with some cold beer, we had an enjoyable afternoon at Brick Street listing to Carrie Elkin & Danny Schmidt (excellent set!), Peggy Johnson, John Calvin Abney, and Kyle Reid. Some good artists we missed included: Annie Oakley, Thea Hopkins, Kierston White, and Ramsay Midwood. However, I did catch some artists playing at Lou's Backyard as we drank some more beer and enjoyed a cheeseburger and the music under trees!

Peggy JohnsonCarrie Elkin & Danny SchmidtJohn Calvin Abney

Kyle ReidPlaying at Lou's BackyardLou's Backyard

On Saturday, we spent more time at Brick Street (drinking beer) before heading to Crystal Theater to catch two outstanding sets from Patrice Pike and Sam Baker with Carrie Elkin. The artists we didn't get to see on the Crystal Theater Stage included: Rita Hosking, Hardin Burns, Ana Egge, Travis Linville, and Peter Case. But I ate a couple bags of popcorn to make up for that!

Patrice PikeSam Baker

At 7:30 on Saturday the music started on the Pastures of Plenty stage with Jane Fallon who took 1st place in the Songwriting Contest - she was followed by:

  • Joel Rafael
  • Kevin and his son Dustin Welch
  • Michael Fracasso
  • John Fullbright

Joel RafaelKevin and Dustin Welch

John FullbrightJohn FullbrightJohn Fullbright & Butch Hancock

 

After the music stops at Pastures of Plenty, the artists who are staying at the Days Inn typically pick and sing well into the wee hours of the morning and of course the music continues in the campground. Because we got up at 7:30 and listened to over 18 different musicians playing from 8:30 to 12 PM we couldn't make it to the parking lot or campground - must be getting old!

 

The highlights for Saturday included:

  • Dan Weber was a pleasant surprise and fun to listen to
  • Sam and Carrie's set was funny and filled with some phenomenal harmonies
  • John Fullbright was outstanding and his closing song, "This Land is Your Land," brought all of the remaining artists to stage to perform to a standing and singing ovation. John was born and raised in Okemah and was honored by the Okemah Mayor with plaque and a street around the Pastures of Plenty named in his honor - John Fullbright Loop

Sam Baker & Carrie ElkinDan WeberThe grand finale at Woody Fest

Sunday's Music in Okemah

Sunday at Woody Fest has always been one of my favorite days at the festival. From 12 to 2 is the Hoot for Huntington's at the Crystal Theatre and it's a fantastic way to end the Festival. Backed by Terry Ware and the Oklahoma Geniuses plus Don Conoscenti on guitar and a guy from Washington state on accordion plus David Amram's fantastic flute playing, any of the artists who haven't had to head to their next gig come out and sing and play one song. Tim Easton opened the Hootenanny with his "Festival Song" that included these lyrics: "When we all come together, it feels like the world's gonna be all right."

Some of the artists who sang to us included: Tim Easton, Dan Navarro, Chris Buhalis, Laura Lee, Robert Williams, Joel Rafael, Monica Taylor, Mary Reynolds, Louise Golfberg, Burns Sisters, Susan Herndon, Nancy Apple, Hardin Burns, and more. And for the last song everyone comes on stage for a round of Bob Childers' "Walking Woody's Road". Its a wonderful and fitting way to end another outstanding festival and everyone contributes a few dollars to help cure Huntingtons.

Susan HerndonGrant PeeplesHootenannyMonica TaylorBill Lewis

The Woody Guthrie Music Festival Fans

From our perspective, some festivals are about the money and cram the venues with thousands of people, others are about drinking and partying with music in the background, and others I'm unsure of what they are really about. But Woody Fest is about the music, the sense of community, and the camaraderie with no lines of distinction between the artists and the fans. People attend this Festival from as far away as Washington, Tennessee, California, Maine, and Texas and even Scotland! And those who attend are here for the music and at most of the venues you can hear a pin drop! A majority of the fans are older and most likely grew up on Woody Guthrie music. Here's a few of the fans but click on this link to see more of the Woody Guthrie Festival fans, venues, musicians, and more.

Fans of the Woody Guthrie FestivalFansfans of Woody Guthrie

Fans of the Woody Guthrie FestivalFans of the Woody Guthrie Festival

Camping & Lodging For Woody Fest

Campground at Woody FestAbout three minutes from the main venues is the Okemah Round Up Club Rodeo Arena Campground which has a large open field for tent or RV camping and 40 places to park an RV and plug into electricity on a first come, first serve basis. This year the field was soaked from all the heavy rain which discouraged a lot of fans from attending the festival. The only hotel in Okemah is the Day's Inn and it's always booked with the performing artists. The next largest town with some lodging is 10 miles down the road in Henryetta.

Five miles up the road from the venues is Cotton's Corner which is where we like to stay because they take reservations and have 12 sites with water, electric (30 and 50 AMP), and sewer hook-ups. Cotton's Corner also has a well stocked store with everything from ice to cold beer to food staples to some fishing gear and RV supplies. If you want water, sewer and electric (it can be 100 degrees in July in Okemah!) this is the place to stay and they take reservations. Here is a number to call to make reservations - 918 623-1812.

Pulling us out of the mudAnd the owner, Weldon, is a really nice guy. I was sure we would be able to get out of the mud without assistance since it hadn't rained for 3 days - nope! The tires continued to spin and we weren't going anywhere. Cotton's Corner is closed on Monday so I was just getting ready to call a tow truck when Weldon came driving up in his tractor - "I thought I better stop by to see if you were able to get out and noticed you're tires spinning!" So we hooked the RV up to his tractor (which looked like it was from the 1930's) which a mowing attachment on the back. I was sure a piston or axle would come flying out of the tractor but instead it moved the RV an inch and the tow strap broke with a huge snapping noise! "Don't worry, I'll get you out with a chain." So off he went to get a chain which made me very nervous - I could envision the chain snapping and flying through the windshield and front end! But with a big puff of smoke from the tractor, the motorhome slowly inched forward to some dry ground.

Cotton's Corner CampgroundCotton's CornerStuck in the mud

And off we went in a cloud of flying mud - our towed Jeep looked like it had been in a mud fight.

What a fun festival. Our thanks go out to all of the volunteers and staff who make this festival one of the best we've ever attended. See you next year.

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