A Conversation with Arlo Guthrie
Mike Ragogna: Arlo, Alice’s Restaurant’s 50th Anniversary tour is dovetailing into your Running Down The Road tour. With your focus on that older material all these decades later, have you noticed things about those songs that you might have missed at the time of their creation and recording?
Arlo Guthrie: I’ve been touring quite a long time and all the tours seem to dovetail, or at least follow one another as the decades move on. This is no different today than it was years ago. For example, I did a whole tour dedicated to my father’s 100th birthday where I included a song he wrote about migrant workers being deported to Mexico. I hadn’t intended to include it this year, but it became an important dong for our times. It’s not so much that I missed anything years ago but the song has a new relevance. So it’s back in the setlist.
MR: How has that era’s material's lyric or arrangements changed or evolved over the years as you've perform them live?
AG: The arrangements change depending on the band or if I’m solo, things like that.
MR: Can one assume that by your performing as often as you do compared with releasing less recorded material that you prefer the live setting over the studio?
AG: I’m a road warrior by nature. I still love doing shows in real theaters, which have been my bread and butter for decades. The records were always secondary, as I was never a pop entertainer, preferring to do what I thought was important rather than what may have been temporarily popular. A lot has changed over the years. The biggest material change has been the demise of albums in favor of individual songs. Neither of them were as important to me as live performances.
MR: How have your concerts evolved over the years for you and your fans?
AG: I remember as a young person going to concerts where the performer simply did a series of songs. But I also went to the theater where an entire story was being told. I’ve combined both of those traditions in my own live concerts. So our shows these days aren’t really plug and play. They’re created to be an entire evening. With the addition of lighting cues and other factors, the shows tend to be less spontaneous but more easily done from night to night. Having said that, I’m still me, which means there’s always a little room for the unexpected.
MR: Which songs from the Alice’s Restaurant and Running Down The Road albums resonate best with you in 2017?
AG: There’s a set list published on our website [http://www.risingsonrecords.com] that tries to keep up with what we’re actually doing. I try to let our audience know what to expect, as well as what not to expect.
MR: What are your thoughts about what’s happening on the US’ political front these days and is it inspiring you to write more, become more creative, or even be more politically active?
AG: That’s very complicated. But in short, I see the desires of people in the US and around the world as trying to become more locally centered as a good thing. People enjoy being different from everyone else, and I’m usually a voice in favor of less centralized everything. I do not, however, enjoy politicians who exploit the differences we should be enjoying and using that as a means to enrich themselves while at the same time creating suspicions about the differences we have.
MR: How does 2017 compare with 1967?
AG: I will probably remember 2017 a lot better than I remember 1967.
MR: If Alice’s Restaurant were written recently, how would it change from its original version?
AG: I don’t know. But, it’d probably be a lot shorter.
MR: What are you working on lately? And what’s the update on your family? What kinds of projects are they involved in?
AG: I’m just trying to get through life like everybody else. I realize there’s more behind than in front of me. I’m pretty happy about the way my kids and grand kids have turned out. They are involved with too much stuff to answer in a short interview, but it’s all good.
MR: This is an odd question, sorry. But how might your dad Woody Guthrie have viewed what’s happening in the US these days and how might have he responded?
AG: Not an odd question at all. My father, for all his faults, was someone who gave a voice to the unheard, a smile to the un-noticed, and shared his sense of what was right or wrong with anyone who cared to listen. I don’t think he’d have seen these days being much different from days past. As long as greed, injustice and exploitation are still with us, he’d have been singing the kind of songs that remind us that these are things we can and will overcome not just as a nation but as individuals. Every generation fights the same fight in different ways.
MR: Your father wrote about Latino immigrants/migrant workers and how they’re treated in "Deportee." Though it was about another era it seems the song’s theme is very appropriate now. How do you feel about that song considering current US policy towards immigrants and Latinos?
AG: I didn’t intend to include the song in the current tour, as I’ve done it a lot over the past few years. But I’ve had to make room for it in the setlist. The words not only voice a concern for migrant labor in the past, but lead us to an understanding of the systemic sense of injustice people feel these days. It’s the same old crap, which means I get to sing the old songs.
MR: On your self titled album, you also wrote “Presidential Rag” about Richard Nixon. Do you find the parallels between Nixon and Trump interesting?
AG: There’s a difference, however small, between Nixon fooling all of the people some of the time, and Trump fooling some of the people all of the time.
MR: Arlo, you donated part of your North Carolina performances to the ACLUNC. How do you feel the ACLU is doing these days?
AG: The ACLU, it seems to me, has a great reputation for standing up for the right stuff, even if that means defending the rights of those I find disgusting. It’s that kind of clarity of purpose that I find extremely important these days. And naturally, when they’re helping people I care deeply about, it urges me to help to kick in some support.
MR: Arlo, what advice do you have for new artists?
AG: By artist, I think you mean musician/entertainer, or you wouldn’t ask me. A real artist, in my view, is someone who is compelled to create, and then do the work. It’s not for everyone. I like the kind of artist who’s art tells a good story and tells it well. If you’re just wanting fame or fortune or to simply tell us all about you, please choose something else. My father used to say, “Let me be known as the man who told you something you already knew.” Real art seems to come from people who are otherwise empty. If you’re full of yourself, there won’t be much room for creativity.
MR: Beautiful. Beyond the announced dates, will you possibly expand the tour?
AG: There are gigs we can’t announce until the venues make it public. I just end up going where we are invited by the people who work for the theaters. I try to be helpful about the logistics as to when and how we get there, but I don’t get to pick and choose whatever cities and towns we end up playing at.
MR: My obsession with your Rolling Stone, 5-star reviewed album Amigos is healthy, right?
AG: I think that Amigo  was probably the finest technical record we’d made up until In Times Like These . By that I mean everything worked so well together and created a gem of a record. There were other songs on other records that may have been equally good, but as far as an entire album goes, Amigo is right up there with the best of ‘em. My personal favorite is still Son of the Wind  which is just a collection of old cowboy songs.
MR: Is there anything else you want readers and your fans to be alerted to by this interview? Perhaps a secret of life?
AG: The secret of life is a secret for very good reasons.
Today, Reviver Records’ country artist Michael Tyler releases his debut album 317, its title a reference to the number on his odometer when he arrived in Nashville from his hometown in Thayer, Missouri. You may recognize him as the co-songwriter of the monster #1 hit and platinum-selling Dierks Bentley smash "Somewhere On A Beach."
A Conversation with Michael Tyler
Mike Ragogna: Michael, congratulations on your music career, as an artist and your debut album, 317.
Michael Tyler: Thank you, I appreciate that.
MR: You've had a lot of success as a songwriter. You must be having the time of your life right now.
MT: It's insane. I've always wanted to do this thing that I'm doing right now. I finally got to record 317 and I'm super excited. It's so surreal at times.
MR: When you were putting the material together for this project was it tempting, since you’ve had hits with Dierks Bentley and others, to put together a “best of” project?
MT: We thought about it. I think it was time to finally record some of my stuff as an artist, to get some new music out there for people to listen to.
MR: What’s the difference between when you’re writing for someone and when you’re writing a song? It’s still coming from Michael Tyler but what do you find is the difference with the material for you versus material for others that you’re writing for?
MT: Well, most of the time, we go in the writer’s room and we just try and write a song, a cool song. We don’t try and aim it at anyone. When we get done, we demo the song, we listen to it, and we think, “You know what, I bet Aldean would love this thing.” Then we’ll send it in to Jason Aldean or whoever, but most of the time, we just try and write a cool song. If it leans a certain way, then we get lucky with that. When I go in and write songs for myself, it’s the same process. It just depends what the end project is.
MR: What were some of the things that you wanted to say on 317 and do you think, from your perspective, that you were successful?
MT: I think we were successful in picking the songs that we thought were right for this album. I had a secret weapon named Michael Knox who produced with Jason Aldean. He was a massive song producer when he first came to Nashville. We really narrowed it down to some things I really wanted to put out there like “They Can’t See,” which is one of my favorite songs on the record and our current single. I’m so glad I got to put a positive message in there. It’s not about what’s on the outside, it’s about what they can’t see. I think we did a good job of getting what we wanted on there.
MR: Do you find that, because you’re in a certain genre, you’re limited to writing and recording in that genre?
MT: Well, I grew up in a town of 2,000 people, so I wrote a lot about my experiences, and I wanted to connect with small town America, in a sense. There are other songs on there like “Love Myself” that are a little more progressive, young and fun to dance to. Then there are other things like “Interstate” that are a little throwback country, in a way. We tried not to limit ourselves to just one specific sound. We wanted to travel all over the place, and that’s exactly what we did.
MR: Interesting, because the songs and production go beyond country, and that’s what young country is doing these days.
MT: Yeah, exactly! We definitely wanted to progress in that area.
MR: What is a song on 317 that are a little more autobiographical?
MT: There’s actually a song called “Songs About Missouri,” one of the first songs to be recorded for the album. It was a situation where I was dating a girl, and you always hear songs about Georgia and Mississippi, but you never hear songs about Missouri. So there was one point where I say in the song that, “If they could have seen it through my eyes there would be a lot more songs about Missouri.” It’s growing up in a town of 2,000 people in Missouri and dating a Missouri girl.
MR: When you’re writing material that you are recording for yourself, what do you want to do as far as your mission? And is there some way that you’re presenting or representing yourself that you feel is different from your contemporaries?
MT: I try and be 100% percent myself and I just hope that people are attracted to the honest me. I think people can connect with that real side. I think that’s what makes some songs as big as they are sometimes.
MR: So, you are a descendent of Jimmie Rodgers! How did that affect you and your creativity, and how does Michael Tyler fit into the Rodgers paradigm?
MT: Honestly, I didn’t find out until after a year of being signed at peermusic in Nashville. Back in the day, there was a guy named Ralph Peer who signed Jimmie Rodgers to his first contract and he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. I had no clue that I was related to this guy until I was already signed at peermusic in Nashville for a year, and we found out when I brought my mom in to show her where I write and collaborate. There was a picture of Jimmie Rodgers on the wall and she goes, “Huh, we’re related to a Jimmie Rodgers,” and my producer, Michael Knox, goes, “You’re talking about the one who was around in the ’50s?” Mom is like “No, ours died in the 1930s,” and Michael Knox says “That’s our Jimmie Rodgers!” After that, we got on Ancestry.com and looked it up and did the tree. Sure enough, he is our second cousin four times removed.
MR: I was going to ask you if you hit up Ancestry.com to find out that you’re related.
MT: Yeah, we did! We did the ancestry thing. Mom is very good at it. She figured it out, and sure enough, there it was.
MR: Did it make you think that now you really have to go for it? Maybe—you never know—become an icon like him?
MT: You know, that’s what we’re going for in the end anyway! I don’t feel that weight too much right now, but it’s definitely at the back of my mind.
MR: Let’s take a tour of your album. Which songs were your favorites to write and which were your favorite to record?
MT: My favorites to write and record… One would be “They Can’t See.” It’s my favorite on the album. It was just super fun to write and record, and we got to be creative in the studio and do something different. It also happens to be my single and I'm so thankful country radio is playing it. “Love Myself” was a super fun song that I wrote that was a real-life situation about a bad breakup that I had and I got to put it into words and make it this fun thing. It’s always fun to do at the shows. “Hey Mama” is another one that is a real-life situation. It was about my brother calling my mom in the middle of the night to tell her that he met the girl he was going to be with forever. Now, my niece is five years old, so that song is super meaningful to me and I hope other people dig it, too.
MR: Sometimes when recording an album, there’s a certain song that you just have to kick its butt in order to make work. Do you have one of those on the project?
MT: Honestly, the songs on my album came together pretty easily because we had a long time to write for it. We had so many songs that we had to narrow down. We had thirty songs and had to narrow it down to twenty, and then down to eleven. But those eleven songs actually came fairly easy, in a sense. Not all of them come easy, but those did for some reason.
MR: Gee, I wonder what your mom’s favorite song is!
MT: My mom’s favorite song would have to be “Hey Mama,” of course!
MR: What about your favorite song as far as others recording your material? Do you have one of those?
MT: “Somewhere On A Beach” would have to be my favorite that someone else has recorded that I’ve written. “Somewhere On A Beach” changed my life more than I ever imagined. It’s worked wonders for my career as well. It’s hard to explain the feeling.
MR: So where’s the duet? Like maybe with Jason Aldean?
MT: We’re working on that one! Hopefully we’ll get to do one on the next album.
MR: What are you looking at as far as your career? What is the goal? What’s the fantasy?
MT: Well, obviously, the fantasy would be to play arenas around the world. I’d like to play in the UK and other places, playing my music all over. Right now, I’m just excited for this album to come out. When the album comes out, I really want to tour around in the summer and fall and see where it goes from there. I’ve got a feeling that it’s going to be a crazy ride.
MR: Most people and recording artists would normally answer, “Oh, I’d love to have a bunch of hits, and I’d love for that to enable me too,” and fill in the blank. But your fantasy is to play.
MT: That’s always what it’s been. That’s what’s been driving me this whole time.
MR: Even from when you were a kid?
MT: Yeah. Growing up, my parents always educated me when it came to music, so I would watch AC/DC perform their whole show on DVDs, and they would take me to concerts when I was ten or eleven years old. My first concert was Poison and Cinderella, of all things! I’ve always loved it.
MR: So your parents exposed you to metal and it seems like, although your music doesn’t go that direction, the energy and feistiness of your project contains it in a way.
MT: Yeah, well thank you! It’s one of the first music styles that I heard, so I feel like it’s a big part of my recording, and that’s another reason I wanted to work with Michael Knox, who produces Jason Aldean. They cut those aggressive guitars and have that rock sound that I love, mixed in with this progressive, new country. Of course, I’m influenced by everything, but that was the first kind of music that I started listening to.
MR: What’s the bond like between you and your producer? How did he assist in bringing out your sound and help organize the musicianship?
MR: I actually have been working with him for nine years now, so we have a really close relationship, a really close bond that he and I both knew exactly what we wanted to do when we went into the studio. We got to use Jason Aldean’s band to record my whole album. We knew the direction that we wanted to go.
MR: I always ask this question, and since you’re beginning your recording career, it would be interesting to ask this question now and then ask it again in forty years. Michael, what advice do you have for new artists?
MT: The only advice I can think of is to just keep going no matter what happens. If this is something you love, you’ve just got to keep doing it, because there’s nothing more attractive than a hard worker, and people see that more than a lot of other things. Just keep riding, keep playing shows, and keep doing your thing, and something will happen eventually. They can’t turn an eye on you forever.
MR: So does your brother suddenly want to become a country recording artist or songwriter now?
MT: No, my brother lives back at home in Missouri and he’s got a family now, of course. He works at my stepdad’s company. I think he is content.
MR: Where do you see this going? I asked you earlier what the fantasy was. Are there acts that you’d like to work with, are you starting to have the bigger picture of starting a company while you’re on the road, doing certain things while you’re in certain towns, like participating in certain functions in the towns that you’re visiting? Have you gotten an overview yet of what the potential is of your career now?
MT: Obviously, I definitely want to be involved in a lot of things like that. I want to take it more than just playing shows and doing music. I think that if you don’t, then you waste the potential. I definitely want to be a part of a lot of things, help people, and take advantage of the situation.
MR: How many times a day do you listen to your new album?
MT: I have listened to that front-to-back, and all the way through. I keep checking it every now and then to make sure it’s still the same.
MR: [laughs] By the way, what was it like shooting the video for your single “They Can’t See!”
MT: The video was awesome! We got to shoot it in Nashville, and I got to bring a couple of my buddies over and shoot their little pieces. Josh Mirenda and his wife Kayla, I was actually at their wedding. It was a really special thing, so I knew I wanted them in my “They Can’t See” video. My other buddy, Shane Minor and his wife Brooke, and country music veteran Charlie Monk and his wife Royce. It was just a really cool thing for me to have them in there. I’m glad I got to do that.
MR: You also talked about a lot of love that you had for "They Can't See" early on in the interview. You seem very attached to that song, and I’m not picking up that you’re doing it purely for promotion. Is that the secret to getting airplay and potential huge success?
MT: I think it helps 100% if you really love your single and you believe in it.
MR: Was there anything different about how you wrote that song or how you approached it that that makes it even more special?
MT: It’s got a super-positive message and I think that is more attractive than a lot of other things nowadays. People want to hear some positive things.
MR: You must be really excited about your album. But on the personal front, is everything coming together and you’re pretty happy?
MT: Yeah, I couldn’t ask for anything more than what my life is right now. It’s so insane to think that a few short years ago, I was dreaming about being on the road with a band playing music, and now, this is what I do. I have a song on the radio, a video on CMT, and I couldn’t be more content.