Classic Tracks: Arlo Guthrie's "City of New Orleans"

Sometimes, a so-called "career record" can affect more than one career. When Arlo Guthrie's cover of the late Steve Goodman's paean to America's fading railroads, "City of New Orleans," came out as t 7/01/2003 8:00 AM Eastern

Sometimes, a so-called “career record” can affect more than one career. When Arlo Guthrie's cover of the late Steve Goodman's paean to America's fading railroads, “City of New Orleans,” came out as the single from Guthrie's Hobo's Lullaby LP in 1972, it gave the folk-singing son of America's own hobo poet laureate, Woody Guthrie, his first bona fide chart hit. Arlo had already become known for his cult classic, talking-blues epic about draft-dodging, Alice's Restaurant, which launched his recording career in 1967. And his drug-joke tune “Comin' Into Los Angeles” in 1969 showed that Guthrie could straddle both the rock and the folk idioms. But “City of New Orleans” left the adolescent humor of both of those earlier tracks behind, giving Guthrie a song for the ages rather than of the moment.

It also was a turning point for Lenny Waronker, who, in 1972, was in the midst of building multiple careers: as an A&R man at Warner/Reprise Records, where he signed Little Feat, Rod Stewart and Curtis Mayfield, among others; and as a producer, where he handled the likes of the Doobie Brothers, Maria Muldaur and Rickie Lee Jones, among others. But Waronker credits “City of New Orleans” with making him a better record producer. “That was the record that taught me to get the hell out of the way of the song,” states Waronker, now a partner at the DreamWorks SKG label. “If you have a great song, let it be. Learn when to let it be itself.”

“City of New Orleans” was recorded, along with a few other tracks from Hobo's Lullaby, at Amigo Studios, a North Hollywood facility owned at the time by Warner Bros. Records. Waronker had helmed Guthrie's previous LP, which spawned “Comin' Into Los Angeles,” and the producer understood the depth of Guthrie's desire to establish himself as a rock artist. “He wanted to separate himself from the family [folk-music] legacy, and that was understandable at the time,” says Waronker, who, at the same time, had a busy production schedule underway, producing records for Gordon Lightfoot, Ry Cooder and Randy Newman.

The ace up Guthrie's sleeve was a song he and co-producer/guitarist John Pilla were holding by Steve Goodman, the esteemed Chicago singer/songwriter and recording artist, who had already been diagnosed with leukemia. Guthrie and Pilla recognized that “City of New Orleans” was a special song and invited Waronker to hear it in a concert Guthrie was playing in San Jose, Calif.

“The plane was late and I got to the concert just as Arlo started playing the song,” Waronker remembers. “I didn't realize it was the song that they were talking about till they were halfway through it, but you could easily recognize it as a very unique and beautiful song. It was almost like watching a movie, it was so cinematic. The three verses were a play in three acts, united by the soaring chorus.” Guthrie had created a rock arrangement for the song, which Waronker and Pilla were less enthusiastic about. “John and I sensed the song being done in a sort of pop version of a Johnny Cash approach,” he says.

The first tracks for Hobo's Lullaby were recorded at Sun West Studios in Hollywood, where Guthrie's arrangement of “City of New Orleans” was recorded along with several other tunes. Waronker and Pilla continued to nudge Guthrie toward another less-aggressive vision of the track, “but Arlo was adamant at the time,” Waronker says. “He didn't want it to be like Goodman's own version of the song, which was folkier, the kind of thing he was trying to get away from. But Arlo also liked a good argument. He knew we were trying to finesse him on the song to see it our way, and that just made him dig in harder about it. He is a great guy with a big heart, but he did like to take part in a benign conflict.”

On another session, this one at Amigo, hunched over the console that was custom-built by engineers Lee Herschberg and Al McPherson, and listening over the Westlake monitors, Waronker and Pilla saw their chance. They had assembled a killer crew of musicians, including Cooder, Burritos bassist Chris Ethridge, drummer Jim Keltner and Jim Dickinson on piano. Toward the end of the evening, around midnight, when fatigue was setting in and Guthrie's resistance was a bit lower, Waronker and Pilla prevailed, stressing that this particular crew of players could get their idea of the song across.

They did. It was the simple, uncluttered and laid-back arrangement that Waronker had envisioned, and Guthrie soon agreed. The problem, however, was that take late in the night resulted in an even more laid-back tempo. “We had rushed to get it done before it got too late, but we didn't really think it out in terms of tempo,” Waronker recalls. “It was way too slow.”

So engineer Donn Landee, who had worked on many records with Waronker, tweaked the multitrack deck's VSO, speeding up the song at least a semitone higher, just barely getting to a tempo that Waronker thought would work. Because overdubs were done to the sped-up multitrack, it meant that Guthrie's vocal range was stretched and that tunings for overdubs had to be done to the track which is always a tricky business. The good news, though, was that the VSO'd track covered up some of the rough edges of the late-night recording session; Waronker says there's still a guitar clam or two on the record. And as it turned out, testing Guthrie's vocal range worked positively, bringing out new aspects of him as a singer. But most of all, Waronker reports, it gave “City of New Orleans” its ultimate charm. “It had a kind of rickety sound to it sped up,” he muses, “like toy musicians were playing it. It was a technique we used to use a lot; we used it all of the time with Harper's Bizarre. It was a way of tightening things up on a track and it smoothed out pitch issues. But this time, we did it because it was a way around what was becoming a depressing tempo. And we didn't reach that conclusion the first night; we were just so happy we got the track. It took us a couple of days to realize and then admit that the tempo wasn't where it should be. So we sped it up for very different reasons than we had used that technique for in the past. But we really got lucky, because it gave the track the charm.”

Waronker and Pilla wanted to stay with the vibe of the accelerated track so instead of strings, they had Nick DeCaro play accordion on it, using a reedy register for the verses and a fuller, more mournful sound on the choruses. The choruses also had a choral effect achieved by triple-tracking singers Clydie King and Venetta Field, and then adding stereo delay and reverb and double-tracking Guthrie, a technique that the singer apparently was not fond of. “We wanted an angelic sound, but not too much church,” Waronker explains. “So we told them to back off on the vibrato, and we built up at least three tracks of background vocals, plus Arlo's vocals, and they really took the chorus to another place.” Another aspect of the record was the fact that overdubs were done in real time, in contrast to the sped-up basic track; quite an effective juxtaposition it turned out to be.

But it was during the overdub process that Waronker had his epiphany about producing songs, not just artists. “There were a lot of things we could have kept adding to the track,” he says. “It was becoming so magical. We were all still young and still learning how to make records. But I had this moment of clarity at one point, and said, ‘That's enough!’ It felt good, because I had been having this internal battle about how far to take the track. It felt good to let it go, and that's when I realized about getting the hell out of the way of the song. It's a lesson I took with me from that day on.”

“City of New Orleans” made it into the Top 20 in the summer of 1972 and was ubiquitous on both AM and FM radio for months: Everywhere, people seemed to be singing that impossibly catchy chorus: “Good morning, America, how are you?/ Don't you know me, I'm your native son/ I'm the train they call the City of New Orleans/I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.” And though neither Guthrie nor Goodman ever scaled such heady commercial heights again, they created a slice of Americana that has become an undeniable classic, likely to be remembered decades from now.

Arlo Guthrie's "The City of new Orleans" was released in 1972. Although it never made it to Number One on the charts, it broke the Top 20, peaking at number 18. Take a trip down memory lane with this look back at the top hits of 1972..

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