The idea of setting unreleased Woody Guthrie lyrics to original music isn’t anything new. Billy Bragg and Wilco famously accomplished that task on their two volumes of Mermaid Avenue and and any number of lesser known artists have done the same in search of fresh inspiration. After all, Woody set the precedent when it came to both populism and protest, a tireless troubadour who defined the term folk singer well before it became part of the popular musical jargon.
Del McCoury can claim a similar pedigree. Surprisingly, he wasn’t familiar with the singer himself, although he had certainly taken stock of Guthrie’s material over the years. And while McCoury is a quarter century Guthrie’s junior, both men share a similar perspective and reverence for music spawned from America’s roots. The Del & Woody project was sanctioned by Guthrie’s daughter Nora, the archivist of her father’s legacy, and supposedly, when she suggested McCoury take a stab at putting the words to music, she apparently did so with the feeling that if Woody had ever had a travelling band, it would have likely have sounded similar to the Del McCoury Band.
Consequently, the musical mesh flows together in natural synchronicity and although these lyrics were mostly hidden from public view, in McCoury’s hands they already come across like standards. While they don’t necessarily push any parameters as far as basic bluegrass is concerned, songs such as “The New York Trains,” “Family Reunion” and “Ain’t A Gonna Do” sound as if they were borne from both Guthrie and McCoury’s common core. If there’s an enduring classic in the bunch, it would likely be “Californy Gold,” not only due to Guthrie’s fascination with westward expansion, but also because the song boasts the same kind of enduring melody that would translate well to popular realms. It’s definitely of the hummable variety and one more reason why this music still resonates.