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Parody is 'Mighty' form of flattery, relieved folkie Smith finds

Film spoof has ring of truth to folk singer

by Dave Hoekstra, Chicago Sun-Times, April 17, 2003

As Chicago's premier folk singer, Michael Smith has little to fear.

He wrote "Elvis Imitators" for Jimmy Buffett. He composed the music for the Steppenwolf Theatre production of "The Grapes of Wrath," performing with the play in the late 1980s as it moved from Chicago to Broadway to London. Steve Goodman recorded his deeply poignant "The Dutchman," which appears on the new Tom Russell album.

Smith, 61, had played every kind of club and coffeehouse in America. He had turn, turn, turned any typical folkie neurosis into a positive force. But Smith was nervous before seeing "A Mighty Wind" Tuesday at the Landmark Century Theatre. The latest mockumentary from director Christopher Guest is a spoof about three 1960s folk acts reuniting in a concert to honor their deceased promoter (loosely modeled after Bob Dylan's Albert Grossman).

Smith appreciates the work of Guest, who starred in Rob Reiner's "This Is Spinal Tap" and directed and co-wrote "Best in Show" and "Waiting for Guffman." Smith saw each of the films twice.

"I'm scared because they know how to skewer people," Smith said before the screening. "They are so right on. I watch a movie every day. They're funnier than Woody Allen to me."

But Smith has the expertise to size up "A Mighty Wind."

Between 1963 and 1968 he worked the coffeehouse circuit in Miami. In 1969 he opened for a comedy duo called Willard & Greco, which included comedian Fred Willard, at the Ice House in Pasadena, Calif. In "A Mighty Wind," Willard plays the bleached-blond manager of the New Main Street Singers, a pearly white takeoff on the New Christy Minstrels.

Smith is a member of Weavermania (along with Barbara Smith, Tom Dundee, Mark Dvorak and Al Ehrich), a tribute group to the Weavers (Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert). The nuance of the film is influenced by "The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time!," a documentary chronicling the Weavers' 1981 Carnegie Hall reunion.

Smith had quite a time watching "A Mighty Wind." He was most impressed with the film's musical integrity. The 17-song soundtrack (DMZ/Columbia) features the title track along with "Potato's in the Paddy Wagon" by the New Main Street Singers and "Skeletons of Quinto" by the Folksmen, a trio made up of Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer. T Bone Burnett is the album's exective producer.

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"The songs were well written and so clever," Smith said after the screening. "They really captured that era of folk music where people sang cute. The music was so thoughtful, with the key changes and the song topics.

"I loved the folk voice Christopher Guest uses. It's like a bray. It's adnoidal. I hear a lot of folk singers do that particular thing. It's an imitation of Dave Guard [the late co-founder of the Kingston trio] or maybe Peter Yarrow," whom Guest resembles.

In "A Mighty Wind," Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy move away from "Best in Show" and "Waiting for Guffman" with their sincere and often tender look at Mitch and Mickey (Levy and Catherine O'Hara), loosely influenced by Canadians Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker.

"That was the most emotional I've ever responded to anything in their films," said Smith, who also sings in FourTold, a traditional folk quartet. "He was a good gutiar player, and she was great on the autoharp. She sang really good. She has a way of seeming so sincere, you want to go aong with her.

"The Folksmen reminded me more of the Limeliters, working in tuxes and being so formal with the audience. It's much more Limeliter than Kingston Trio. It would be hard to satirize the Kingston Trio because they were so light-hearted out front in a certain way."

Smith has written his share of funny songs. He co-wrote "Talk Backwards" with Steve Goodman and "When Little Richard Gets Married (I'm Getting Married Too)" for the late Mike Jordan. He thought the respectful tone of "A Mighty Wind" was just right. "If you come into it with a benevolent feeling," he said, "It doesn't keep you from laughing. In fact, it make it more possible to laugh."

Smith said the movie's title track was a rip on the late Phil Ochs and Bob Gibson. "Phil was a big Bob Gibson fan," Smith said. "A lot of the songs he wrote were musically a ripoff of Gibson. The [chugging] rhythm and guitar parts were taken from Gibson tunes. It's a style."

Smith and Gibson collaborated on the hit 1986 musical "The Women in My Life." Gibson, who died in 1996 of a rare disorder of the nervous system, was a regular on "Hootenanny," the 1963-64 folk music TV show on ABC.

"Bob kind of set the style on that show," Smith said. "The New Christy Minstrels [who included original member Barry ('Eve of Destruction') McGuire] and others either flat-out did a Gibson song or they were using his chord progressions that he took from rock 'n' roll and made them work for folk music."

"A Mighty Wind" has a mighty fine eye for detail. Folk music historians wear tattered brown corduroy jackets. The New Main Street Singers (so named because only one of the nine members is an original) appear at noisy Glenwood Garden, a Florida amusement park that reminded Smith of Summerfest in Milwaukee.

"I had no idea people were that perceptive," Smith said. "It was great they were able to combine all those things that went on in the 1960s and made it work. What it showed me was that it didn't take that much to make that kind of music."

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