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TV Preview: Tom Smothers: 'QED taping of folk greats a real reunion

Saturday, September 14, 2002

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

For Tommy Smothers, the taping of WQED's "This Land Is Your Land" at Carnegie Mellon University in May was an extraordinary experience.

"For us older guys, seeing all these people again -- the Kingston Trio, Judy Collins, John Sebastian, the Brothers Four, the Limelighters -- it was just incredible," Smothers says. "These are all people who worked together in the early folk times."

"This Land Is Your Land"

WHEN: Tomorrow (Sept. 15) at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. on WQED.

STARRING: The Smothers Brothers, Judy Collins, John Sebastian, Roger McGuinn and the Kingston Trio.


He and brother Dick have seen the Kingston Trio on occasion, doing shows together, Smothers says. "But the guy from the Byrds, what's his name? Roger McGuinn, I haven't seen in 15 years. I haven't seen John Sebastian in many, many years. And Judy Collins I hadn't seen for four or five years. So it was pretty neat to see them all together."

Collins and the Smothers Brothers go back to the Smotherses' first job ever as a duo, in 1960. The show was in Aspen, and Collins opened.

As Smothers recalls the folk boom, "Every town had two or three little coffee shops or beer places where the folk singers would come in, just like they did in the '80s with the comedy stores. And everybody brought their guitar and you could line up, get your name on the list and go on."

And afterward, they'd all go back to someone's house and play some more.

"All these people," Smothers says, "would go to hootenannies, everybody swapping guitar chords and songs. Judy Collins would sing and everybody would kind of play along. And she would always sing the whole song, these really dark, ethnic type of hanging songs and stuff. And I remember getting a lot of material from that, making fun of it."

The times they were a-changing, though. And soon enough, the boom became a niche.

"We were known as the boys for the longest time," says Smothers. "It was Tommy and Dickie, the boys. And then it was Tom and Dick. Now everybody says Mr. Smothers. When I go to get out of the car, someone helps me. It's kind of weird -- 'cause you know, time goes so fast and you look back and say, geez, 43 years we've been at it."

They're still playing, too.

"We work about 100 dates a year," says Smothers. "It's as much as we want. Ten, 15 years ago, we were doing 200 dates. Now, we just work when we want to -- work in Vegas 12 weeks a year at the Las Vegas Hilton and then we do performing arts centers and do about four five symphony dates. I've got young kids. I've got a 6-year-old and a 9-year-old, so we don't go out that much. And Dickie's got some children."

A couple of years ago, in fact, he was asked what kind of music he likes to listen to.

"And I said, 'Well, I listen to the music from the purple dinosaur,' " he recalls with a laugh.

Although it's been a long time since the folk scene held the interest of the masses, Smothers says he wouldn't rule out another folk revival just yet.

He refers to The Highwaymen's chart-topping version of "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" in 1961 as a hit that came "out of the blue."

"And so you never know," he says, "when something's gonna happen like that that catches the air."

It the meantime, the PBS special should give the music a boost.

"To be on PBS," he says, "it's such intelligent programming, you know what I mean? It's so smart. Our favorite broadcast network, to be sure. And to be on it is a pretty good honor."

The latest installment in WQED's successful "American Soundtrack" series, "This Land Is Your Land" airs tomorrow night. But to avoid the undue competition offered by the season premiere of "The Sopranos," it's no longer airing at 8 p.m., as listed in tomorrow's TV Week.

Instead, it airs pre-"Sopranos" from 7 to 9 p.m. and then again, for those who don't know what they're missing when they don't tune in to "The Sopranos," from 9 to 11 p.m.

Ed Masley can be reached at emasley@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.

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