Popular music tends to look at New York City with awe, at Chicago with swooning tenderness, at New Orleans with a reverence bordering on religious. It’s when it turns its gaze toward Los Angeles that we start to feel its cynicism. We’ve come to accept Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” video as a quintessential L.A. story. Small-town Indiana dreamer arrives in town, a hay stalk still between his teeth even though he’s just traveled 2,100 miles by bus. A drug dealer immediately accosts him. Piles of TV screens promise fame and fortune. Insanity soon follows.
Not that L.A. doesn’t deserve this reputation as a place where dreams go to die, but is it any easier to show up in New York with nothing but the clothes on your back? Why does that city get to belt, “If I can make it there / I’ll make it anywhere,” while Angelenos are continually brought to their sha-na-na-na-na-na-na-na knees?
On California singer-songwriter Darryl Holter’s new record, he attempts to give us an answer. Radio Songs finds Holter performing tunes that folk legend/hero Woody Guthrie wrote during a three-year stint in the City of Angels in the midst of the Great Depression. Guthrie wrote them for his daily radio show with singer/multi-instrumentalist Maxine Crissman (“Woody and Lefty Lou”), and they crackle with attention-getting energy. These are songs about being sold a bill of goods, about yearning for a home that has literally gone to dust, about moving to a warm climate and finding nothing but cold comfort. Around the time John Steinbeck was penning The Grapes of Wrath, Guthrie was using his knack for melody and singular brand of caustic humor to not only tell Tom Joad’s story, but to make us feel like we had to do something about it. And by making a record to remind us of this material, Holter is also reminding us of California’s unique legacy of promises unfulfilled.
Radio Songs is part of a larger project funded by the Woody Guthrie Archives and BMI; Holter is also co-authoring a book about Guthrie’s years in Los Angeles. So it makes sense that a feeling of curation pervades these recordings, with Holter and co-producer Ben Wendel taking a T-Bone Burnett approach, using warm, spacious Americana arrangements to make the songs feel modern without really standing in their way. The opening “Do Re Mi” couples sprightly guitar strumming with honeyed pedal steel and dancing fiddle, underlining Guthrie’s ability to write stuff that could be a children’s song if it wasn’t about the crushing blows of institutionalized classism. “One By One” gorgeously pairs its guitar melody with light, military snare rolls. “My Flowers Grow Green” gets the mournful piano ballad treatment that its sailor’s widow storyline calls for. These are all moments of beauty, but even so they suffer from an overall sense of measuredness. Where a project like Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue albums benefited from a mix of reverence and artistic insight, Radio Songs leans a bit too heavily on the former.
Holter’s voice is appropriately workmanlike throughout, doing the intended job of laying the lyrics bare for us to appreciate. But every time a guest vocalist pops up — Sara Watkins on “California Stars”, Ani DiFranco on “Looking for That New Deal Now”, Julia Holter on “My Flowers Grow Green” — we get a glimpse at what might have been had this project been more about interpretation than documentation. If a variety of divergent voices had the chance to tackle these songs about California-as-mirage, chances are we’d have even clearer proof of how Guthrie’s songs hold up.
Still, Radio Songs helps to frame a history of L.A. bitterness that had nothing to do with Hollywood, and that has almost certainly influenced the way the city has been portrayed by songwriters ever since. If Woody had been alive to see the “Welcome to the Jungle” video, I’m not sure he would’ve dug it. But I bet his ears would’ve perked up when Axl Rose sang a line about L.A.’s rich and famous that could’ve been one of his — “You can have anything you want / But you better not take it from me.”