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Daughters of Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson Talk About Their Dads

Cathy Guthrie and Amy Nelson call themselves “Folk Uke.” Their songs are humorous and full of whopper-doozer punchlines, many of them aimed at bad boyfriends and crummy dates, and several containing swears that have earned their CDs the “explicit” warning label. It makes the songs that much funnier that the duo sings with the sweetest, most angelic soft voices and delivers the lyrics completely deadpan.

Sometimes the dads join their daughters in concerts and on CDs, and it’s been a running joke with the four of them that when they all play together, they call themselves “The Horse You Rode In On.” Since these dads happen to be Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson, it’s particularly fitting.

Folk Uke chatted with Disney Dads about what it was like having these music legends as the men they referred to as “Dad” growing up and now as adults.

My dad was always really famous to us. But then we'd see him on television, and we'd realize he was famous in the rest of the world, too.

GUTHRIE:  I think being the “daughter of Arlo Guthrie,” or getting introduced that way, can be a blessing and a curse. I’ve got the best dad in the world for me, and I love my dad. On the other hand, when someone hears I’m Arlo Guthrie’s daughter, there’s a certain expectation, like maybe that we’re gonna come out on stage and do “On the Road Again” or “City of New Orleans.” When we come out and do “Knock Me Up,” it sets the tone pretty quickly. We’re not trying to do our dads’ music. Disappointing people who have different expectations may be part of the curse.

NELSON:  We’re not interested in getting out of our fathers’ shadows, but we do want our music to speak for itself. In a way, we feel it’s a shame we didn’t really get a chance to develop more as a band before we got noticed. It’s easy for us to recognize that there’s a lot that we both need to learn about how to better play our instruments. We both grew up surrounded by amazingly talented musicians, and so we know what it’s like to hear music by people who really know how to make music.

GUTHRIE:  We grew up in the same music world, but Amy and I never actually knew each other as kids.

NELSON:   Right, yeah, that’s true. Our parents were really good friends. But Cathy and I didn’t meet until we worked at the same restaurant in the Gas Lamp quarter in San Diego in our 20s. A total coincidence. Then my mother was in town, and we all had dinner together at that restaurant where we worked. We were trying to figure out how it was possible that we didn’t actually ever meet as kids. We realized we had kept missing each other. I think, like we actually went to Farm Aid on opposite Sundays or something. Pretty amazing.  We realized right away that we were a lot alike. Our upbringings were so similar in so many ways. We have similar personality quirks. And we were both kind of the musical holdouts of the family.

GUTHRIE:  I remember, I took piano lessons as a kid, and I didn’t really love that. And I didn’t want to play guitar because it hurt my fingers. And I always felt like the kid who was best in school. What I really wanted to do was go to college, which in my family was considered really weird. I was the first one to go to college in my family. I was the black sheep. Then, music didn’t happen for me until much later, and even then it was kind of accidental. My dad never pushed us to do music. We really had the freedom to choose our own paths. Of course, now that I think about it [laughs], maybe he did have a master plan. I did come back around to music.

NELSON:  I went on the road with my dad a lot as a kid — pretty much from the time I was born. I was born the year the “Outlaw” record came out, and so we traveled then full time. But when I got old enough to go to school, my mother felt it was important to go to public school. I’m really thankful, grateful for the opportunity to grow up as a normal kid. Nobody really wants to be set apart at that age.

GUTHRIE:  Early on, I didn’t really even understand that my dad was famous because it was such a small town [Washington, Massachusetts, in the middle of the woods of the Berkshires] and nobody treated me any differently. At a certain age I can remember starting to become aware my dad was famous, but what I didn’t realize was that everyone else didn’t have famous dads. I assumed that if my friend’s dad was a really good accountant that maybe he was famous also, for being a good accountant.

NELSON:  It was pretty much the same for me. My dad was always really famous to us. But then we’d see him on television, and we’d realize he was famous in the rest of the world, too. It still happens to me, actually. I hear about him or see him on television in an interview and I am reminded that he’s also a public figure. And then sometimes it’s really hard to gauge how famous he is and who he’s famous with.

I did a children’s album with him about 13 years ago and went back to my old high school. I was visiting my teacher and was looking for some of the songs she had played. So the teacher introduced me to the class, and told them who my father was. I was waiting for a reaction, and not one of them knew who my dad was. So I just never know who knows him and who doesn’t. It’s always been a bit like that, I guess, since I was little.

I love my dad, and I’ve always been really proud of him. He was always funny and really silly when I was growing up. He wouldn’t yell at us. I mean, never. He really had authority, but he was able to do that all with . . . well, it was like, the worst thing in the world would be to get a disappointing look from him.

We all really looked up to him. He was so good at balancing everything. He seriously never yelled. He was so laid back, and he just led by example. He has an incredible work ethic, for example. He worked in the cotton fields, picking cotton as soon as he was old enough to pick cotton. He was a child laborer and now he’s well into his “retirement years” and still working really hard. A very strong work ethic.

We maybe didn’t get to spend as much time with him growing up as with a typical dad. We did grow up having to share him. But he always felt it was really important to spend time with us. He would take us on hikes in the woods.  Another parallel with Cathy I guess — both of our dads made sure we had a teepee to play in.

GUTHRIE:  Yeah, the adventures in the woods. My dad called them “safaris.”  My dad, of course, was gone a lot, too. But when my dad was home, he was home.

I remember going on the back of his motorcycle. He’d take us for rides. I remember riding on the tractor. We used to cut the field for hay. We also used the tractor to grade the road, and to plow in the winter. And he would take us on rides in the back of his truck.

When I think of my dad and how he was as a parent, I think about the really deep solid spiritual base he has. I think of how he taught us that you have to stand up for the underdog, do the right thing. He was a lot more politically active years ago, but he still represents that to a lot of people.

I’m trying to teach my own daughter the kind of morality I learned from my dad. Kindness and just a general doing the right thing, even when it’s not popular. It’s what my dad’s been known for and my grandfather [Woody Guthrie] as well. It’s not always easy to do the right thing, and that’s what I try to pass on.

NELSON:  We used to ask our dad constantly, “Tell us a story,” and he would often tell us stories, and also read to us from the Bible. A long time after, he told us that when he would read from the Bible he was making things up as he went along, but we didn’t know at the time. He was raised a church-goer, and we all went to church on Sundays. I wouldn’t necessarily consider him that religious, but he believes in God and believes in being a good person and serving humanity.

GUTHRIE:  Then there was life on the road as a kid. I loved when we would travel with him — go on tour with him. And my favorite time was when he’d be doing sound check. There would be nobody there, and it felt like it was the time just for us. We’d get to hear him — and we didn’t have to share him with anyone.

NELSON:  Yes, it’s like getting your own private concert at the sound checks.

GUTHRIE:  All of us kids would be running around the venue, playing tag or whatever, while the sound checks would be going on. It was so much fun. We’d run on and off the stage. It was just the big empty venue and us, and they’d be setting stuff up and tuning the guitar. I didn’t really know how special that time was until I was grown up. I feel it in sound checks now. I love the sounds. Check one-two. Check-one-two [laughs].

I guess it was really hard to share my dad with everyone. There would be the moments during the sound check where he was just ours. And you could feel that the time was precious and limited, because shortly afterward all the people were gonna come and we’d get shuffled backstage.

When you’re sharing space and energy with someone, and you know things are about to get taken away, the moment is more full. Sound checks were between 30 minutes and an hour and that was it. Sound checks still trigger these memories.

NELSON:  For me, as a kid traveling on the road with my dad, the special times I think were the long stretches on the bus between towns. The long silences with my dad where we could get into talking about whatever. Anything. My sister Paula would be there with me. She’s four years older.

We played a lot of cards, went running through a lot of hallways in hotels, knocking on doors and running away and laughing. We learned to entertain ourselves, which I actually think it a really good thing for kids to learn. I feel like I’m able to appreciate solitude. I can lock myself in a closet and get out of context for hours. I feel it’s a gift.

My dad gave me so many great things. Really, he’s done so many things and bought me really great gifts. He bought me a car when I was 16, and did great things that a dad who has money can do. But I think the best thing, still, that stands out, was one time I was about 10 years old. He gave me a job to go through his mail and throw out the things that weren’t important. I felt so honored. I felt like all of a sudden, he regarded me as being old enough to know what was important and what wasn’t important. Honestly, I have no idea what I might have thrown out [laughs]. It made me feel really responsible, and proud.  I felt I grew up a lot that day. He gave me confidence. It really meant a lot to me. It’s really the thing that meant the most. That he had figured out a way to make me feel this incredibly important and grown up as to give me a job.

He always kept that feeling there, that I was always welcome to go on tour with him and work for him. And I work for him now, still.

Folk Uke released their latest CD in November, 2011. It’s called “Reincarnation” and features Willie Nelson, Arlo Guthrie, Shooter Jennings, and Cathy’s brother, Abe Guthrie. For more information and to buy their music, visit www.folkuke.com.

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