Our parents leave us a lot. Arlo Guthrie, for instance, inherited a name that's almost synonymous with America in all its rootsy, red dirt glory, from his father, folk singer Woody Guthrie.
He took that heritage and made his own musical mark, tapping the cultural zeitgeist in 1967 with "Alice's Restaurant," and parlaying that rambling, banter-laden storytelling into a style all his own.
Or at least that's what he thought.
When Arlo was a kid, his father was always leaving him and his sister Nora, suddenly disappearing for long stretches with no hint of where he was going or when he might return.
"He didn't want to get too tied down," says Arlo, whose current tour includes a handful of his father's tunes as part of the centennial celebration of Woody's birth. "He wanted to be able to pick up and go at a moment's notice."
Arlo recalls his father coming back one day and sleeping on the kitchen floor. When asked why, Woody explained that he couldn't sleep somewhere soft because then he might not leave. To Arlo, it spoke to not just a restless spirit, but also the challenge to be one's self.
"So for me to imitate him would be silly," says Guthrie. "[But] to be yourself you have to figure out who that is — you have to bat it around for a while, and kick the tires, and see what happens."
The irony is that even as Arlo believed he was forging his own path, he was unwittingly following in his father's footsteps. Not that he could ever know. All Arlo had heard was his father's recordings, never a performance. In fact, he'd wondered to himself how his father had become so popular.
"It's not how he's singing. The guy can hardly carry a tune. He's not a good picker. The guitar is out of tune and it's speeding up or slowing down depending on how much whiskey they just had," Arlo explains. "It's not like listening to Louis Armstrong, or somebody who sucks you in with their ability."
Then one day five or six years ago, someone showed up at the Woody Guthrie Archives unannounced with an extremely rare wire recording of a live performance.
"He'd go into this rambling tale that starts in one place and seemingly goes nowhere, until he turns it this way or that way. And the whole time he has the audience in the palm of his hands laughing at his jokes," recalls Arlo. "My sister looks at me with tears in her eyes. She's hearing these tales that go on for like 15 minutes, and she said, 'Ohmygod, I thought you invented that.' And I'm like, 'I thought I invented that too!"
In more recent years, Arlo's been releasing music on his own Rising Son label, ranging from Mystic Journey, which rivals current Dylan albums in quality and content, to In Times Like These, a live album of typically overlooked songs — minus the banter — with orchestral accompaniment and arrangements by Elvis guitarist James Burton.
Although sometimes disgusted by politics and the media-industrial complex, Arlo is generally hopeful and happy. "The hard task is to learn what you got at the moment, and what it means," he says. "It's not about embracing the moment, it's being aware and understanding that's all you really have anyhow.
"That's not just a philosophy, that's practical reality as far as I'm concerned."