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Mary Gauthier, Patty Griffin Playing the Woody Guthrie Festival in Okemah This Year

[The Oklahoman]

By Brandy McDonnell

After making her Woody Guthrie Folk Festival debut virtually in 2020, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier will finally get to make a pilgrimage to the late, great folk icon’s Oklahoma hometown this summer. 

“I really, really want to experience it,” Gauthier told The Oklahoman in a 2020 interview. “He painted pictures, and that’s part of how you change people’s hearts is to tell a story with pictures so they can see enough to empathize with the character. The way to get to the universal is through the particular, to get closer in to the experience — and he was very, very good at that.”

After going fully online last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival will return to Guthrie’s birthplace of Okemah for its 24th annual edition, set for July 14-18 at multiple venues across town. 

The nonprofit Woody Guthrie Coalition, which organizes the festival every year around Guthrie’s July 14 birthday in his hometown, officially announced this week its plans to return to Okemah with this year’s event. 

“I feel like before it was kind of theoretical, and now we’re actually doing all the planning and the work that goes into providing a physical festival. So, it is exciting and it feels different this year because it won’t be like any other year,” said Maddie Gregory, the festival’s marketing chair. “It is a brand-new world, so we’re having something to look forward to — seeing the people who you’ve been seeing all these years.”

Who will be playing? 

The lineup for the event will include some new voices to go with familiar faces. In addition to Gauthier, two-time Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Patty Griffin will make her WoodyFest debut this year, along with two-time Texas Music Awards Best Female Vocalist winner Brennan Leigh.

“The spirit of Woody Guthrie lives on, and I consider myself one of Woody’s children. Nora (Guthrie, his daughter) talks about Woody’s children a lot,” Gauthier said in a phone interview last year. “The approach to songwriting, I really relate to what he was up to. He was up to calling out fascism and connecting people and bringing love into the world and respect and dignity to all people. He was a rabble-rouser and an activist in song. He really was a magic man, and his songs are timeless. They never expire.”

The Guthrie family will be represented at this year’s festival by Cathy Guthrie and Sarah Lee Guthrie, two of Woody Guthrie’s granddaughters, and Serena Guthrie, one of his great-granddaughters. 

WoodyFest staples who are planning their return with the 2021 event include Americana singer-songwriter and storyteller Ellis Paul; longtime Guthrie student and collaborator Joel Rafael; Okemah native and Grammy-nominated musician John Fullbright; and the venerable Payne County band of psychedelic cowboys, the Red Dirt Rangers.Your stories live here.Fuel your hometown passion and plug into the stories that define it.

The lineup also will feature Mike McClure, Samantha Crain, David Amram, Crys Matthews, Possessed by Paul James, Travis Linville, Branjae, Randy Crouch, Kyle Reid & the Low Swingin’ Chariots, Saugeye and Carter Sampson. 

“We definitely wanted to make it memorable and entice people to attend, but also make it just be a great festival. I love Patty Griffin. … She’s just one of my most favorite musicians,” Gregory said. “And I think that we’re all just looking forward to having some semblance of normalcy.”

What will be different? 

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Woody Guthrie Coalition will enforce physical distancing, encourage face coverings and limit capacity within festival venues. The festival’s only two stages this year will be Okemah’s historical Crystal Theatre and the outdoor Pastures of Plenty, Gregory said. 

Shows inside the Crystal Theatre will be limited to about 250 tickets, well under the 600-seat capacity, while tickets will be sold in advance to events like the Midnight Woody song swaps, which this year will be at the Rocky Road Tavern. 

“We’re all aware of what everybody has been through the past, you know, more than a year. … It doesn’t matter who you are, what you do or what you believe, it’s been a hard year and we want to recognize that and honor that and have a good time, but give people space,” Gregory said.

Other aspects of the festival may be shifted to alternative venues due to the pandemic; for instance, organizers are planning to move the panel discussions inside the Crystal Theatre to let participants to spread out.https://4f6bafdbf230f82cefbd02ab3b7fbb1c.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

In addition, the grass at the Pastures of Plenty will be marked to help people stay in their social distancing “bubbles,” she said. 

“We’re going to create a barrier so that people aren’t going up to the stage because we don’t want people gathering there and then potentially exposing others and the artists and everybody else who’s working if they have not gotten vaccinated,” Gregory said.

“We’re also going to be getting vaccinated armbands, so that whenever people check in, they can show their proof of vaccination and they’ll get a vaccination armband that will kind of help reassure everybody around them that they are vaccinated.”

Although the festival will be back in Okemah, organizers are planning to once again offer a virtual component to provide accessibility to all. 

“The festival is entirely volunteer run, so it is a lot of work. But also it’s work that we enjoy doing. So, it’s just exciting to get back to it,” Gregory said. 

Tickets go on sale May 15, with a full schedule and list of artists due for release later this month. For more information on WoodyFest, go to www.woodyfest.com. For sponsorship opportunities, contact Lindsey Flowers at lflowers@woodyfest.com.