Arlo Guthrie reached a career crossroads in 1983 when Warner Bros. Records dropped him from its roster along with a number of other folk and roots-rock artists from the late '60s and early '70s, such as Gordon Lightfoot and Bonnie Raitt.
The not-so-subtle message: They all were passe amid Michael Jackson, Culture Club and the rest of rock's splashy new generation of video-friendly performers.
But even if the son of legendary folk pioneer Woody Guthrie was no longer hip, he was no idiot.
Soon after his departure from the ranks of the corporate rock scene, Guthrie--who sings tonight at the Coach House--formed his own label, Rising Son Records. In 1986, he unleashed his first independent album, "Someday," and procured the rights to nearly a dozen of the albums he had recorded for Warners. Today, at 48, he seems thoroughly content in his role as untethered troubadour, playing wherever he wants and recording whatever he wants.
"None of the stuff we've done over the last 10 years has been really commercial," he said during a recent phone conversation. "One of the great things about having your own record company is that not everything needs to be commercial. You can make these special project records for people who love them.
"I did a record of cowboy songs ['Son of the Wind,' in 1992]. I was out in Wyoming a couple of years ago, and an old rancher came to the show. Somebody had sent him the record, and he came with tears in his eyes and said, 'Thank you for making records like this. Nobody sings these songs anymore.' These are the people we make these records for."
The same year that he recorded "Son of the Wind," Guthrie helped put together a project featuring the extended Guthrie clan--Arlo, his brother Joady, his sister Nora and all of their children--singing along to old tapes of Woody, much the same way that Natalie Cole and Hank Williams Jr. had recorded with their late fathers.
The album that resulted, "Woody's 20 Grow Big Songs," is based on a book of children's songs by the elder Guthrie that had been lost for 40 years before it was discovered on a library shelf at Sarah Lawrence College in 1989.
In the process of making the album, Guthrie and his siblings discovered that their father's voice sometimes had been captured inaccurately on tape.
"We were playing along in the studio and we couldn't figure out what key [Woody] was playing in," Guthrie recalls. "I suddenly realized that you can't tune a harmonica, and he was playing a harmonica on some of these things.
"We were able to locate the original tape machine and discovered it was probably running a little fast, sometimes as much as 12%. His voice sounds a little low and slow. So we tried to get the song in pitch by speeding up the tape. We sped it up to the next key that the harmonica could possibly be in, and all of a sudden my sister and I looked at each other and said, 'There's Dad's voice!' "
Guthrie said he immediately alerted the Smithsonian Institution, where many of his father's original recordings are kept, and was told that technicians there would remedy other recordings that need it.
There has been one significant drawback, however, to his participation in the business side of music: During the first several years of Rising Son's existence, he found that he had little time to write songs. He'd been too busy learning how to run a record company and how to market music independently, which he describes as an art in itself.
Eventually, Guthrie--who also is a husband and father of four, ages 16 to 25--"had to say, 'What do I really want to do?' I had maybe 15 really creative moments a day. I was either going to use that figuring out how the [merchandise] catalog should look or how to talk to the distributor, or putting it into a new song.
"So I've just recently been handing off all the business stuff to other people, and I started writing songs again."
This week he will release his first album of predominantly original material in a decade. He is calling it "Mystic Journey," as the songs tend to reflect his internal, spiritual state rather than the external, political world on which he used to focus. These days, he says the key to a more harmonious planet is simply for people to stop playing artificial roles and to start being themselves.
"We're constantly being barraged with images of somebody else to be; images of ourselves that are not us: We should be thinner, healthier, smarter, be making more money. One week the TV shows will be saying we should be [concerned about] the whales. The next week it will be that we have to take care of the ozone layer. We keep jumping from thing to thing without realizing that if we all did what was in our nature, all of these things would get done."
Along these lines, he has started the nonprofit Guthrie Center, a kind of spiritual meeting place that encourages community activism. It is near his home in western Massachusetts, in the church that was featured in his "Alice's Restaurant" film.
"We laughingly call it a bring your own god type of church," he said.
* Arlo Guthrie sings tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $17.50. (714) 496-8930.