Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion
“Authentic.” “Timeless.” “Harmonious.” “Exhilarating.” Any or all of these adjectives could describe the folk-rock sound created by Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion (eye-ree-un). The musical richness and psychological depth of their initial collaboration, the fittingly titled Exploration, is irrefutable proof that the disarming granddaughter of Woody/daughter of Arlo and the prodigious South Carolinian quite naturally bring out the best in each other.
The material – 11 originals plus a previously unrecorded Pete Seeger song – ranges from the stone country of “Swing of Things” and the high-lonesome folk of “In Lieu of Flowers” to the Burritos-style foot-stomper “Gotta Prove” and the rocking, biting social commentary of “Gervais.” Particularly striking is the title song, which looks out at an unsettling world from the sanctuary of a lasting relationship. The track builds to a crescendo of squalling guitars and thundering drums as Johnny and Sarah Lee sing, “Fear is what they want / Don’t let ’em get your goat… No risk can be plain / And the time is running off the clock.” At the other extreme is the gentle acoustic ballad “Mixed Blessings,” the incandescent capturing of an intimate moment in time. The distinguishing feature throughout is the couple’s caressing harmonies, which carry on the legacy of Johnny and June, Gram and Emmylou.
Johnny wrote six of Exploration’s songs, three are co-writes by the duo and two are solely written by Sarah Lee - “Holdin’ Back” and “Mornin’s Over” – which testify to her rich bloodlines, evidencing a contemporary take on the profound simplicity that distinguished the work of her legendary grandfather. The Guthrie legacy appears to be in good hands for decades to come.
Exploration was produced by Gary Louris (of the Jayhawks) and Ed Ackerson. It features, among others, Louris and his bandmate Marc Perlman, Son Volt veterans Dave Boquist and Eric Heywood, Irion’s childhood friend Zeke Hutchins (who also drums for Tift Merritt) and Tao Rodriguez Seeger, who guests on his grandfather Pete’s “Dr. King.” Tom Rothrock (Beck, Elliott Smith, R.L. Burnside) mixed the album and programmed the drum machine that crashes the hillbilly party of “Gotta Prove.”
Sarah Lee was two years old when she made her singing debut as part of a children’s chorus on Arlo’s 1981 album, Power of Love, but she had little subsequent interest in making music herself, although she was surrounded by it. “I think it was in me,” she says, “but I wasn’t ready for it.” After graduating from high school in 1997, Sarah Lee agreed to tour-manage her father, who was emceeing the Further Festival, on which members of the Grateful Dead were joined by the Black Crowes. She got on so well with the Crowes and Chris Robinson that, when the tour ended, she made what proved to be a life-altering decision: “I knew all these cool rock & roll guys, so I decided to move to L.A.”
Irion came out of the vibrant Carolina indie-rock scene of the early ’90s, first as a member of Queen Sarah Saturday and later with Dillon Fence. He, too, got friendly with Robinson while Dillon Fence was on the road with the Crowes. Robinson convinced Irion to come out to L.A. and join Freight Train, a band he was producing. That was in the fall of ’97, just after Sarah Lee arrived in town. Whether by serendipity or cosmic intervention, the two were on a collision course; they met at an L.A. club and began dating a week later.
Their relationship was musical as well as romantic, although tentatively so at first. Johnny provided melodies for Sarah Lee’s Dylan-influenced poetry and played guitar while she sang. One night in his Santa Monica apartment, he handed Sarah Lee an acoustic and taught her a couple of basic chords. As she strummed, he started playing licks over the top, “so that it sounded kinda good, for like a second,” Sarah Lee recalls. Noticing a growing smile on her face as she plucked the strings, Johnny turned to her and said, “It’s fun, huh?” Johnny’s words echoed in her head for days afterward. “I thought, ‘Gosh, it is fun,’” she remembers. “I’d never known that side of it; music was like a business to me.” It was then that Sarah Lee realized she’d discovered her true calling.
Sarah Lee had just applied for college when word of her musical epiphany reached the family; she got a call from her mother urging her to forget higher education and join her father on tour. So she went out on the road with her dad – “I’m the comic relief in the show,” she says with a laugh – but she always came back to Johnny. A year and a half into their relationship, he proposed. “It totally sideswiped me,” says Sarah Lee, “but I’ve always been a one-person person. He solidified me and believed in me and my art.” They married in 1999 and soon thereafter moved from hectic L.A. to Irion’s birthplace, Columbia, S.C.
Two years later they simultaneously released solo albums on Arlo’s Rising Son label. Since setting out on the road together in 2001, they’ve averaged 180 shows a year. The next step was obvious – it was time to make an album together. Louris was at the top of their producer wish list, and they double-teamed him in Amsterdam late in 2003, while the couple was on the Blue Highways tour and the Jayhawks were headlining one of their own. They convened last February in Ackerson’s Minneapolis studio; inspired and brimming with positive energy, the principals knocked off the record in 12 productive days. After New West’s Peter Jesperson caught an extraordinary live show in Ventura, CA, he offered the duo a deal.
At once timely and timeless, the album marks the intertwined coming of age of two vital and distinctive artists. The funny thing is, when you hear them for the first time, you’ll probably feel like they’ve always been there, singing in your ear. Think of Exploration as an introduction to your newest old friends.