I happen to call Arlo Guthrie right after a snowstorm. The Berkshires “got hammered,” he reports. His car was stuck. A neighbor came to help.
Now he’s warm inside his Washington home, just “crunching the last of my Triscuit.”
“That didn’t used to bother me when I was 25 or 30. I’d be out there diggin’ and stuff like that. But at this age, that’s heart attack stuff — so I let her do it,” says Guthrie, 75. In the background, his wife, Marti Ladd Guthrie, bursts into laughter.
A lot has changed for Guthrie in recent years. Aside from marrying Marti in 2021, Guthrie announced in 2020 that he was retiring.
“It’s been a great 50+ years of being a working entertainer, but I reached the difficult decision that touring and stage shows are no longer possible,” he wrote in a lengthy Facebook post at the time. “In short – Gone Fishing.”
But now Guthrie’s back from the pond for a minute.
While he still considers himself retired, he’s announced four conversations — cheekily titled “What’s Left of Me” — with Bob Santelli, executive director of the Bruce Springsteen Archives. It kicks off at the Boch Center Shubert Theater Saturday — seven years to the day since Guthrie’s first stroke.
In conversation, he’s the same ol’ Guthrie fans are familiar with: talkative, quick, funny. He’s always had the ”gift of gab,” he says — as evidenced in his 18-minute Thanksgiving anthem, “Alice’s Restaurant.”
“I was in Chicago in the early days, and somebody yelled from the audience, ‘Shut up and sing!’ Then ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ came out. I think I was in Boston when somebody yelled, ‘Shut up and talk!’ ”
I called Guthrie to talk about his talks, his marriage, his recent Thanksgiving reunion with the “Alice’s Restaurant” gang, his dad, Woody Guthrie, and more.
Q. What sparked you to come out of retirement for a bit?
A. [I retired because] my ability to sing was diminished to the point where I wasn’t happy with it. I thought, maybe there’s something else I can do. Marti came up with the idea of conversations. I thought: Sounds like fun. Let’s see what happens.
[The title] is tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also appropriate for anybody my age. Abilities diminish over time. Yogi Berra said, “If you live long enough, you get old.”
Since I retired, I haven’t had any health issues. I’m feeling pretty good. We’re doing four shows, but I’m not planning on any more until we see how this goes.
Q. Boston will be the first show of any kind you’ve done since retirement.
A. The first and maybe the last.
Q. What can we expect?
A. If I knew the answer we would’ve advertised it. I don’t even know what Bob Santelli will ask.
Q. The billing says the show includes “rarely seen video footage.” What will that be?
A. That’s yet to be determined. However, I think we’ll open with an old claymation video of “The Motorcycle Song.”
Q. Nice. So you got married about a year ago.
A. So far, it’s been marital bliss. At this age, you don’t get married to start families. It’s companionship, spending time with someone you not only respect but love, to enjoy what’s left of life.
Q. You met 22 years ago in Woodstock.
A. My wife had the Wild Rose Inn in Woodstock [N.Y.]. We got along famously, but neither one of us wanted to get married again; we’d both been married before. But something changed about a year ago.
Q. What changed?
A. I don’t know! [Marti is heard in the background] Marti’s saying it was her stroke — she had a stroke, too [in 2021]. But I don’t think that was it. I think you have to recognize the moment you’re in. We’re not doing anything different, except that we’re married. That means maybe more to other people than it does to us. For us, it simply means we’re committed to being here, and doing the best we can.
Q. What clicked when you met at the inn?
A. Marti looked me in the eye and said, “Want something to drink?” I said, “You got a beer?” She said, “I got Guinness.” That did it for me.
Q. [Laughs] Last November, you had Thanksgiving dinner with Alice [Brock] for the first time since ‘65.
A. I did. I don’t know how it happened that we didn’t have Thanksgiving in the interim. I think we realized, “Hey, time’s going by, let’s get together before it’s too late.” We got together at my friend Rick Robbins’s house — Rick took out the garbage with me 50-something years ago.
Q. You’ve said the song is based on exactly what happened that day.
A. I still remember it exactly. We dumped the garbage, returned to the church. The next morning, we got a call from Bill Obanhein, who I refer to as “Officer Obie.” He talked to Alice. She said something to the effect of: “Well, it wasn’t me but I think I know who did it … ”
I’d left college, which meant the military was looking at me. They were sending everybody to Vietnam. When they told me, “Arlo, you’re not fit for military service,” I couldn’t believe it. I drove out of there at 90 miles an hour, hoping I’d be pulled over so that I could tell somebody, even a cop giving me a ticket. I’ve been telling that story ever since.
Q. You were unfit because you’d littered.
A. Yes! Which I thought was ridiculous. A lot of people thought “Alice’s Restaurant” was an antiwar song. It’s really an antistupid song.
Q. What’s the most surprising thing that’s happened to you?
A. I never had any intention of making music a career — that surprised me. I thought I was gonna be a forest ranger. I went to college for forestry. I left after one semester, a musical career developed, I never went back.
Q. A big break was the ‘67 Newport Folk Fest.
A. I wasn’t scheduled. I just went as another kid with a guitar — lots of kids showed up with guitars. They had me on some milk crate out in the field. Somebody said, “Hey, this kid’s alright. Let’s put him on a bigger stage.” So they put me on a bigger milk crate. And somebody said, “Hey, this kid’s pretty good.” So they got me on the mainstage, and I walked out the next day into a [new] life.
Q. You were young when your dad was hospitalized [with Huntington’s disease]. Do you have memories of him playing guitar?
A. My earliest memories are just snippets. He bought me my first guitar for my fifth birthday. I remember him telling me “It’ll take you 10 years to get good.” And I thought to myself, “He don’t know nothin’. I’ll figure this out in two weeks.” When I was 10, I thought: “Maybe my dad was right.”
By the time I was 5 or 6, he was in the hospital, so I don’t have typical memories. But I’d visit my father every week. I learned how to take care of somebody. He lost the ability to feed himself. They weren’t always attuned to his needs at the places he was. When we brought him home, he was famished. Starving. He could eat 10 hot dogs, he was so hungry.
Q. Did he get to hear you perform?
A. My manager, Harold Leventhal, who’d been my father’s manager, took test pressings of “Alice’s Restaurant” to him in the hospital. He heard them and died two weeks later. So the joke is my father heard “Alice’s Restaurant” and died. [Laughs]
Q. [Laughs] You were home when Bob Dylan knocked on the door looking for Woody.
A. I was 13, an awkward teenager. Bob Dylan came to the door and I liked him because of the kind of shoes he had. I looked at him with a kind of suspicion, but I liked him. He came in, we played harmonicas together.
Q. Do you have favorite songs of your dad’s?
A. Oh, sure. “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “Deportees.” Given the voice, frankly, I’d be singing them today. Songs that sneak through time and hold up.
Pete Seeger said folksingers are links in a chain; it goes back to time immemorial. I’ve always been comfortable with being a link in a chain.
When early troubadours went from town to town, they sang for something to eat, a place to stay. That same feeling is evident in every band that’s playing some little bar today: There ain’t a whole lot of money in it. What’s there is a transference of community spirit, passed from one person to the next. I’m just happy to be in there somewhere. To share in a moment of time with an audience. I’m hoping these shows coming up will be a shared moment in time.
Q. I love that. Anything else you want to add?
A. I wish somebody would start Brigham’s ice cream in Cambridge again. It was freaking great.
ARLO GUTHRIE: WHAT’S LEFT OF ME
At the Boch Center Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont St. April 1 at 8 p.m. $29-$69. bochcenter.org
Interview was edited and condensed.