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Folk artists pay tribute to a mentor, the late Utah Phillips

Chuck Myers
McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

Folk songstress Ani DiFranco had long planned to work on another record with fellow folk songwriter Bruce "Utah" Phillips after their collaborations on "The Past Didn't Go Anywhere" in 1996 and "Fellow Workers" in 1999.

But she never got the chance. Phillips died of congestive heart failure in May 2008.

After Phillips passed away, DiFranco did the next best thing by honoring her friend with a double-disc album dedicated to his music, "A Tribute to Utah Phillips; Singing Through the Hard Times," released through her Righteous Babe label.

"Life just got away from us," said DiFranco. "As my friend Buddy Wakefield pointed out, 'he died of heart success.' ... It stuck with me. If anybody had heart success, it would be Utah Phillips. But, this record of his songs is, I think, a good and necessary thing to put in the world whether he is here to hear it or not."

A self-taught musician, Phillips drew inspiration from his varied life experiences. As a teen, he ran away from home and rode the rails in the company of hobos. Later, he worked a variety of jobs, including as a printer, dishwasher, warehouseman and state archivist in Utah.

Phillips' music blends a traditional folk spirit with a gift for storytelling. His style echoes the folk music of the Great Depression, and expresses empathy for the challenges faced by the disenfranchised and ordinary working people.

The tribute concept emerged in February 2008, when artists Kendall Morse, Jacqui Morse and Dan Schatz discussed helping Phillips cover his medical expenses with proceeds that could come from a record devoted to his music. The nature of the effort changed upon Phillips' death.

A wide range of folk performers — many familiar, others less well known — contributed 39 songs to the album, with majority of the tunes written by Phillips.

The title track, "Singing Through the Hard Times," features, among others, Schatz, Magpie, Emma's Revolution, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer. John McCutcheon offers a potent version of Phillips' tune about being kicked to life's curbside, "All Used Up," while Mary Black and Emmylou Harris provide a wonderful melodic turn on his' "Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia." On another rich rendition, Rosalie Sorrels delivers an endearing take on the reflective "The Soldier's Return."

Riding the rails and is a reoccurring theme on the play list, with Phillips' longing meditation, "Starlight on the Rails," performed by Saul Broudy, and "Queen of the Rails" from Schatz.

Ten classic folk tunes by other songwriters featured on the album include "Or Else! (One-a These Days)," contributed by folk icon Pete Seeger, "Hallelujah! I'm a Bum," added by Mick Lane and a French Quarter-inspired instrumental of "The Internationale," courtesy of DiFranco.

Phillips' death last year holds particular poignancy for DiFranco. The two artists shared a progressive outlook when it came to championing social issues and activism. She feels that Phillips would have reveled in election of President Barack Obama.

"The day that Obama was elected, I really longed to have Utah to call," said DiFranco. "It was just such a transcendent moment. I hope that whatever plane his spirit exists on now, he still got to feel it with us."

Proceeds from the album's sales will go to support Phillips' family.

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