Croatian-born artist follows gypsy life to Woody Guthrie Folk Festival

By Brandy McDonnell / The Oklahoman

Published July 12, 2013

 Despite his mother’s best efforts to protect him from gypsies, Radoslav Lorkovic relishes his life as a ramblin’ man in the spirit of Woody Guthrie.

“My mom, I remember I was about 3 years old, and we were walking around in Zagreb, Yugoslavia — this was before it was Croatia — and I remember hearing, ‘Gypsies, gypsies, careful, hide the kids, hide the kids.’ They were always trying to shield me from the gypsies,” Lorkovic said with a laugh Thursday during a visit to the Okfuskee County Historical Society.

“I think here I came to America and the gypsies finally got me. … There’s something in the blood because I’m the happiest when I’m traveling.”

A mutual passion for music and movement helps explain how a Croatian-born piano and accordion player became a regular at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, which takes place annually in the folk icon’s hometown of Okemah.

“Your rock ‘n’ rollers, your country stars, your singer-songwriters, he was the first one,” Lorkovic said. “And he was just a guy with some stories and a guitar and he changed the world. He dramatically changed America … and it just keeps unfolding.”

WoodyFest continues through Sunday, which would have been Guthrie’s 101st birthday, in various locations around Okemah. The free event is marking its 16th year. Lorkovic, known to most everyone there as “Rad,” played his ninth WoodyFest this week.

“Rad’s a great player, but he also has achieved the highest level you can achieve in music, which is to make others better by what you can contribute to them, which is also the highest thing you can do as a person,” said renowned jazz musician and composer David Amram, a fellow WoodyFest regular.

WoodyFest regular

Lorkovic, 54, was born into a family with two disparate musical traditions: Antonija, his maternal grandmother, sang him Croatian, Slovenian and Czech folk songs. His paternal grandmother, Melita Lorkovic, was an acclaimed classical pianist.

“No accordions were played in my house. My grandma was the premier pianist of Yugoslavia. It was classical music,” he said.

“So I came from this world as a proper pianist and I landed on the accordion … and it became the perfect instrument for me because there was so much expression there. The piano’s amazing, too, but the accordion, I think it’s one of the most versatile instruments out there.”

From the boogie-woogie ditty “Doin’ It” to the pain- and Tex-Mex-flavored “Mexican Cafe,” the Chicago-based musician stuck with the keyboard but proved his own versatility during his solo set Thursday at the Brickstreet Cafe.

He showcased songs from his 1990 debut album “Clear and Cold,” which he recently remastered for rerelease with the help of LaFave and his Music Road Records.

Ramblin’ life

“Jimmy LaFave brought me to WoodyFest,” Lorkovic said of the Stillwater-bred folk musician. “He said ‘You know, I’ve written songs about this festival,’ and I just thought, ‘OK, whatever, sounds good.’ … And then I got here, and I was like ‘Oh my God, I am home.’”

“I started out loving rock ‘n’ roll, and then I discovered the Grateful Dead. And then I discovered the blues and then I discovered Bob Dylan. You just keep working your way backwards and then you discover the guys that influenced Bob Dylan: Woody Guthrie. And then here we are,” he said with a laugh.

After hugging fellow musicians and signing CDs for fans, Lorkovic made an uncharacteristic early departure Thursday from WoodyFest. The ramblin’ player and actor-turned-folk-singer Ronny Cox (“Deliverance”) were bound for British Columbia, where Lorkovic was set to play his first Vancouver Island MusicFest.

“Rad is the best, and not only is he the best player, he’s the best guy to be with. I mean, he’s a great guy to travel with, just a great human being,” Cox said.

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