Photo courtesy: Arlo Guthrie
Arlo Guthrie says that his “Alice’s Restaurant 50th Anniversary Tour,” coming to the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center for the Arts on Jan. 30 and 31, is “more elaborate than anything I’ve done,” complete with a light show and multimedia. “Most of the songs we’ll do will be familiar to anyone who’s followed what we’ve been doing for a while,” he says via email. “The exception is the full version of ‘Alice’s Restaurant,’ which I haven’t done for years.” In our exchange, Guthrie, 68, answers questions about his 18-minute folk epic, music-industry changes and why people shouldn’t be shocked that he, the son of left-wing music icon Woody Guthrie, is a registered Republican.
Richmond magazine: Did your father give you advice about a career in music?
Guthrie: My father gave me a guitar when I was 5 years old. And told me that music would be my best friend. He was right.
RM: What do you remember about writing “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”?
Guthrie: I was staying with my friends Ray and Alice Brock in their old church during the Thanksgiving holiday of 1965. After a really good dinner, we sat around singing hymns and old songs. Alice was talking about her plan to open a restaurant, and eventually, just being silly, I began to create a song incorporating all the events that had taken place that day.
RM: Do you think the 1970 film "Alice’s Restaurant" captured the song’s essence?
Guthrie: I thought [director Arthur Penn] captured the elements of the song wonderfully. But the song takes only 20 minutes to tell the story. A full-length feature film had to be about an hour and a half, so they had to make up 70 minutes of fiction to go along with the 20 minutes that really happened. That 70 minutes wasn’t as good in my view.
RM: Some of your ’70s albums, specifically "Amigo," were outstanding examples of country rock. Do you ever feel you got kind of short-shrifted in the whole “country rock pioneer” sweepstakes?
Guthrie: I always loved making records, but from the first album I made with Reprise/Warner Records, "Alice’s Restaurant" in 1967, to the last album, "Power of Love" in 1980, the entertainment industry changed. I never enjoyed the industry part, preferring the entertainment part more. So in 1983, we parted ways amicably and I started my own recording company, Rising Son Records. From hindsight, that was the right move to make.
RM: Not many people outside of Massachusetts know that you are responsible for its state song. How did that come about?
Guthrie: Not many people IN Massachusetts know it either. Some schoolchildren were learning how to pass a bill, and decided they would try to get one of my songs to be the official state song. All went well, until they discovered there was already a state song, so the lawmakers made “Massachusetts” the official state folk song.
RM: I was surprised to learn that you’re a Republican. How does the GOP platform fit in with the themes of social justice that you and your father have sung about?
Guthrie: Ever since I became a Republican, the party has descended into chaos and craziness. I can’t take all the credit, but someone had to do something. I believe the truth is that there’s not nearly as much difference between the two major parties as we would like to imagine. When it comes to politicians at every level — local, state and federal — it’s hard to find any that are not in some way sponsored by interests other than the best interests of the people that elect them, no matter what party they’re in. So people are left without a common sense of unity and purpose. I support anyone and everyone in any party who has faith and trust in the American people, all of us, because we are a great people when we believe in ourselves and each other. That sense of unity and purpose does not always come from leaders. It must come from us. That’s the platform I care about.
RM: Which of the current candidates do you support for president and why?
Guthrie: I support ideas more than candidates. I support everyone who agrees with me that we need to take care of the most vulnerable among us, and restore authority back to the average guy instead of in the hands of the rich and powerful. Everyone counts and anyone making it more difficult for anyone to express themselves politically will not get any support from me. The business of government should be the interests of the people, not the interests of business.
RM: If your father were alive, what do you think he would make of the current political climate?
Guthrie: My father may be long gone, but his spirit is alive and well. I continue to believe in the things he stood for and I’m honored to be his kid and promote his ideas as best I can.