My Morning Jacket's Jim James on 'Magic' of 'This Land Is Your Land'

"It’s so easy and beautiful that I feel like anybody at any level can make it their own"

Jim James, Tom Blankenship, Bo Koster, Carl Broemel and Patrick Hallahan at La La Land in Louisville, Kentucky. Credit: Eric Mayers

While My Morning Jacket continue to work on their follow-up to 2011's Circuital, the group has stayed busy taking on other people's material. The band recorded a trippy version of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" with the Flaming Lips for the latter's With a Little Help From My Fwends Beatles cover album. Next month, MMJ frontman Jim James, alongside Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford and T Bone Burnett, will release the New Basement Tapes, a new set of music set to Bob Dylan's lyrics that were never recorded.

Now, the group has teamed up with the Department of the Interior and The North Face for a twangy country cover of Woody Guthrie's ubiquitous folk classic "This Land Is Your Land." "The song’s almost like a magic spell and feels like it was born in your DNA," James tells Rolling Stone. "You hear it when you’re so young — long before you know who Woody Guthrie is or why he wrote it — but you usually don’t hear the original recording. You usually hear some camp counselor play it on a guitar or something. But that’s the cool thing about it: You can’t fuck it up. It’s so easy and beautiful that I feel like anybody at any level can make it their own."

Recorded in Louisville earlier this year, the song aims to help the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps (21CSC), a program that places young people and veterans in jobs protecting the country's outdoor areas. The song is available to purchase on iTunes, with more than half of each download going to 21CSC and the North Face contributing up to $250,000 to the program (My Morning Jacket has also agreed to donate 100 percent of their artist royalty.) 

"A lot of kids that were born with the Internet and a phone in their hand all the time, it’s like the Internet is bigger than what it should be," James says. "I love the thought of young people getting these jobs and taking pride in the land and hopefully being leaders to other young people. There’s got to be people who stand up when they want to put a pipeline through a park, or they want to blow it to pieces to take coal out of the ground, or frack it to get gas out of it. If we don’t fight and watch, these things can be stolen from us very easily and very quickly. There’s been so much beautiful land that's been just destroyed forever."

A commercial featuring the song will debut on Sunday Night Football on November 9th, a juxtaposition that is not lost on James. "I’m real torn on the idea of television, and, obviously, most people are torn on the idea of advertising and marketing," James says. "But I feel like the television should be a medical device that should be given out to people when they’re injured or bedridden to occupy [their] minds. The magic of this spot and hopefully of this song is the idea of somebody seeing this spot with all these beautiful images of people doing these crazy things outside and getting off the couch and experiencing the beauty of nature and the power of the real world."

This isn't James' first take on Guthrie. In 2012, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the folk singer's birth, James teamed up with alt-country veteran Jay Farrar for New Multitudes, a tribute album that found various musicians pairing new music with Guthrie's lyrics. James visited the Woody Guthrie Archives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where an original copy of "This Land Is Your Land" brought him to tears. "It was like looking at the wizard's original recipe for his magic spell to change the world forever," says James. "I don't feel any pressure. I try to let the spirits and the universe know how much I respect and love the songs and the people who made them."

For the singer, projects like these are more than just a creative outlet; they're a weapon in an ongoing war. "We’re getting more and more sucked into our phones and our computers, so it’s like this battle to just maintain our grip on the natural world because there are so many people that recklessly want to destroy the world, and, not only that, just remembering that it’s there," says James. "Hopefully, it will just be a trigger for people to go 'Oh, fuck, this park is here.'"