Singer/songwriter Lowry Hamner, a resident of Gulfport, Mississippi, joins a very select, privileged group of musicians who have been invited by Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, to write music to Woody’s original lyrics. The inclusion of the song Union Air in Union Square on the new box set My Name is New York –
Ramblin’ Around Woody Guthrie’s Town, issued on Sept. 23, 2014, is a success for Hamner that was many decades in the making.
A previous release by the Woody Guthrie Foundation, The Live Wire : Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949 won a Grammy Award in the category ‘Best Historical Album.’ Guthrie was again nominated for a Grammy in the same category with the 2009 release of My Dusty Road on Rounder Records. The new 3-CD Deluxe Audio Book includes two CDs that tell the story of Woody's years living in New York City, listing 19 historic locations where Woody lived and worked between 1940-1967. These stories are told by those who knew him best, in many different ways and through various encounters and circumstances by music partners: Pete Seeger; Ramblin' Jack Elliott; Sonny Terry; Bess Lomax Hawes; Woody's first wife Mary Guthrie; Woody's merchant marine buddy Jimmy Longhi; Bob Dylan; Woody's second wife Marjorie Guthrie; Arlo Guthrie; Nora Guthrie, and many others share their memories first-hand.
Lowry Hamner’s song Union Air in Union Square is on Disc. 3, the bonus-CD of Woody’s music. Grammy award winner Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter and director of Woody Guthrie Publications, gave Lowry Hamner the lyrics originally written by Woody in 1943, and the singer/songwriter set it to his own composition in 2010. On the new box set Lowry is in the company of some amazing musicians of the folk musicians of the past and present, with luminaries like Woody Guthrie; Cisco Houston; Sonny Terry; Del McCoury; the Almanac Singers with Pete Seeger and Lee Hays; Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; Billy Bragg & Wilco and more.
The song Union Air in Union Square is a testament to the long career of Hamner, originally from Terry, Mississippi, and the town from which bluesman Tommy Johnson also descended. Hamner is not new to music success. When he was a young man, in the early 1970s, he managed a music store in Meridian, Mississippi (which was also the hometown of country musician Jimmy Rogers). One day, he drove to Tupelo to see Sam Phillips, formerly of Sun Records, and his partner Ray Harris, of Hi Records fame. They had started a new production company, and Hamner pitched his songs and even recorded sessions for Sam Phillips, who also recorded Elvis Presley and many of the greats of blues and rock-and-roll. Phillips told Hamner, "You don't sing like Elvis, but you're the best songwriter I've heard in ten years."
It was in the vibrant Meridian, Mississippi music scene, among such compatriots as Chris Ethridge, Steve Forbert, and Paul Davis that Hamner founded the band, The Cryers. They moved to New York City's East Village where they played legendary clubs like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City and recorded a few critically acclaimed albums on Mercury. Hamner also produced two powerful singer/songwriter albums in the Americana genre, that musical place where blues, folk, rock roots and country intersect: Secrets Of The Heart in 1998, an excellent and critically acclaimed album that featured his singer/songwriter side, and was very much in the Americana/Alt Country direction. The album garnered significant airplay throughout the northeast US and Europe. Joining Lowry on Secrets Of The Heart was Jon Sholle, formerly a member of the David Grisman Quartet, Cary Brown, Dave Roufberg, Ray Anthony, and Joyce Andersen. In 2012, he released another excellent singer/songwriter record American Dreaming, a hard hitting, intelligent roots & blues, Americana album that had airplay on college radio. The album featured Jon Sholle, Clay Barnes,
Mark Murphy, and Pat Morrissey. One of the highlights of the album was
Ballad of Samson about a killing spree in Alabama. A review in the blog Dreamer’s Rise in Jan. 2013 stated, “… The song, co-written with the poet Jeanne Marie Beaumont, reminds us, even before Newtown, of the hard kernel of nightmare that's all too often wrapped up inside the American Dream…”
Equally versed as a fingerpicker and slide player, Hamner’s approach to songwriting is rooted in a lifelong intrinsic connection to Southern music, country and blues. He pays passionate, reverent homage to the old music of the region, and his own compositions are lyrically poignant and musically powerful and expressive, yet sensitive and heartfelt. There is an ethereal, gritty feeling and profoundly moving sincerity and authenticity to Hamner’s music.
Lowry Hamner explains his process of writing music to Woody’s lyric: “When Nora first gave me this opportunity I was humbled. Then I read the lyric ‘Union Air in Union Square’. It is a long song. Very intimidating, but as I read it I could almost hear Woody reading it. I saw instantly that it was Woody’s metaphor for all that was great about America. That’s what really excited me and opened it up for me. Woody was a real patriotic American who believed in freedom. I heard it in my mind as a talking blues, but not like a traditional blues, and I tried to set to a melody with a narrative like a preacher’s modulation. I tried all different things until I found the riff. The riff set it apart. It just opened the song up and it came falling out. Nora was delighted. She said, “Wow, you really did something original with this.” I have to say, it wasn’t easy, once it flowed I just knew it was right. It’s not just anybody handing you a lyric – it’s Woody Guthrie. No way would you want to mess that up.”