Acclaimed music supervisor Randall Poster had a busy year. The award-winning music supervisor has worked on projects such as Pretend It’s a City and Questlove’s documentary Summer of Soul, not to mention his latest collaboration with Wes Anderson for the upcoming The French Dispatch. What’s more, he’s nominated for an Outstanding Music Supervision Emmy for his work on The Queen’s Gambit.
But one of his most ardent passion projects this year is Home In This World: Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads, a re-interpretation of Woody Guthrie’s classic 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads — a set of (eventually) fourteen songs set amid the economic and spiritual hardships of the Great Depression. It’s typically considered one of the very first concept albums, and tracks like “I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore” remain indelible folk mainstays.
Poster assembled a murderer’s row of performers to re-interpret Guthrie’s songs for the 21st century, from Grammy winners like Lee Ann Womack and John Paul White to rising folks act like Watkins Family Hour and Lost Dog Street Band. But the album takes some bigger genre swings as well, bringing in acts like Waxahatchee and Swamp Dogg.
The album was also created in partnership with Kiss the Ground, a nonprofit organization hoping to stem the tide of climate change by providing education on, and advocacy for, sustainable and regenerative agriculture.
For the album’s release on September 10th (courtesy of Elektra), Poster spoke to Consequence about his relationship to Woody Guthrie’s music, assembling his posse of players to reimagine the ballads and more. He also discusses his long career as an acclaimed music supervisor, and what The French Dispatch may have in store for us.
What was your relationship to Woody’s music, and Dust Bowl Ballads specifically, before taking on this project?
Woody Guthrie is probably one of the pillars of American music, so there was a certain familiarity that was brought more into focus [with this project]. I had a bit of a reawakening a couple of years ago, when I made a Hanukkah record for Verve — the challenge of making a Hanukkah record is that there really isn’t much of an existing repertoire. Some artists wrote songs, but I also searched for what was there. What I discovered was that Woody Guthrie had actually written a bunch of Hanukkah songs with his wife, Arlo’s mother, who was a Jewish songwriter. I just had this vision of Woody Guthrie sitting around the kitchen table with his mother-in-law, writing Hanukkah songs. We even had Watkins Family Hour [who contribute to Home in this World] doing a song of his called “Hanukkah Dance.”
From there, I turned my attention to his whole discography. I felt that Dust Bowl Ballads was very relevant to what’s happening in the world today — the ecological disaster that we’re living through and is currently pending. So I thought it would be interesting and compelling to have contemporary artists take a crack at the whole collection.
What was the process behind finding the artists? Was it a matter of assigning them tracks or would they say, “Hey, I want to do this song”?
I was working on The Devil All the Time, and in my off-hours was searching for various New Americana artists, we’ll call it. I was really captivated by the Lost Dog Street Band; in a way, I wanted to make this record so I could just do something with them. When I reached out to them, curiously enough they mentioned that [guitarist/vocalist/songwriter] Ben [Todd] busks to “I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore.” So I said, “Great, let’s do that one.”
Generally, some artists knew exactly what they wanted to do, some wanted suggestions, and at a certain point, some artists just wanted an assignment. That’s how it evolved.
Were there any artists you were particularly surprised wanted to come on board, or had connections or approaches to Woody’s music you didn’t expect?
The most unique, or should I say surprising, artist on the collection is Swamp Dogg, who I love and always try to figure out a way to include. Working with my friend George Drakoulias, who produced that track [“Dust Bowl Refugee”], we figured there could be more of a soul/R&B take on it. George also produced the Mark Lanegan track [“Dust Pneumonia Blues”], which is another one that’s a bit surprising.
Otherwise, I just wanted to have people who could really get inside of it, and embrace both the legacy of Woody Guthrie and the message I think the music is putting forward.
One of the cool things about the album is that it feels like a straightforward ode to Woody at times, but then you get to experiment with genre and see the ways these folk origins can be transplanted into different styles of music.
Yeah, I got to work with really great bands — Shovels & Rope are one of my favorite bands, and I always ache to work with Katie Crutchfield (Waxahatchee). I play Saint Cloud constantly. When you hear her talk-singing version of “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues,” it’s very simple but a really brave approach.
We recorded during the pandemic, so that was a challenge, but I think it helped define the construction of a lot of the pieces.
What were some of the things you had to do differently during the pandemic?
People had to work with what they had available to them in their home studios. A couple people stepped out into private studios, but it was a constantly evolving process. There were moments where it was more forbidding: Colter Wall’s version of “Do Re Mi” was basically a field recording.
One thing that strikes me about Dust Bowl Ballads, both old and new, is that Woody’s lyrics are intensely, transparently political in ways that I feel like many artists get lambasted for today.
I don’t know if it’s really politics, but it’s more of a cultural critique in a way. It’s really kind of a wake up call; the difference for me is that , while we’re not really competing with Woody’s version, the variety of voices we have on display makes it impactful in a different way. We’ve rounded up this posse of artists, basically, to both pay tribute to Woody Guthrie and also to update his warnings. It’s a musical alarm.
Another difference is that we have so much more insight now into why things like the Dust Bowl happen, and what we might be able to do to forestall another one. We’re doing this album in support of an organization called Kiss the Ground, which promotes regenerative agriculture. So there’s both a creative and practical purpose to the ablum.
The notion is that you can joyfully push back at climate change by practicing a different way of farming. That’s why there was a Dust Bowl in the first place — farmers exploited the Earth to the point where nothing more could grow. That’s reflected in the album art, too. We didn’t want to depict the project with the tumbleweed going across the plains. It’s much greener and more promising imagery because I think we can fight back against climate change.
Do you have a favorite track on the album?
It changes; there are so many of my favorite voices on the record. One week I may be captivated by Lillie Mae; Lee Ann Womack is probably my favorite vocalist of all time, really. And I love the way John Paul White sings and always wanted to do something with him.
But I reached out to all these artists because I love their music. It’s a very satisfying meal of songs.
Switching gears, you’ve worked with Wes Anderson for, what, twenty years now at this point? What is it about your respective musical sensibilities that makes you so simpatico?
Wes has such a unique vision for storytelling. He can be really musically adventurous: He’ll say, “Let’s use the music of Satyajit Ray [for The Darjeeling Limited], or let’s record 14 David Bowie songs in Portuguese [for The Life Aquatic], you know? Working on Rushmore and Tenenbaums, we put together a lot of music that we thought we were going to use, and then we did it. Then with other movies, it’s been a bit looser, where we discovered the musical element.
Wes is brilliant not just in helping pick the songs that’ll be in the movie, but in how he utilized them and how he works in the picture. Oftentimes, the shotmaking takes the musical architecture into consideration, which is great.
Also, his films have been more score-heavy in recent years — especially with The Grand Budapest Hotel. How has that changed your role as music supervisor?
Well, we’ve always had original scores to work with, to be fair. I think that if there are fewer songs, you have to make sure that they’re as impactful as they can be without calling too much attention to themselves.
You’ve done music supervision for over a hundred films, for more than two decades. I imagine it’s a challenge to keep yourself fresh and keep that musical library ever-expanding. What do you do to sharpen your skills, having done this for so long?
A lot of the movies I work on can be very chronologically specific. So sometimes, I’m refreshing my musical mind with string band music from 1919, for instance. It’s not like I have to mind the daily hit parade all the time. But I work very hard to stay current, always talking to younger people about what they’re listening to, reading publications and social media, following the paths that YouTube lays out for me. I take it in any way I can, you know. Sometimes you’re in a store, and you hear a piece of music that you don’t recognize — thank God for Shazam.
Can you tell me anything about the soundscapes you and Wes are crafting for his latest, The French Dispatch?
Firstly, Alexandre Desplat created a really beautiful score that features the brilliant pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and there’s an eclectic mix of pop songs from a variety of places.
Is there a specific time or place you really focused on for those pop songs?
The timeline for the film isn’t exactly precise, but Wes and I have explored the worlds of French music on this and other projects, and I think we found some treats to share. I don’t want to say too much about it, but I think that people are in for a satisfying couple of hours — hopefully in a movie theater.
Home In This World: Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads Artwork: