Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion Make Music Onstage And Off | KCUR

Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion Make Music Onstage And Off

Aug 6, 2013

Sarah Lee Guthrie grew up in a musical household — she’s the daughter of Arlo Guthrie and the granddaughter of Woody.

But as she tells Here & Now, growing up, music was something she avoided. With musicians coming in and out and staying for weeks, “I always felt like we were the Addams family, we were so weird!”

Then she met musician Johnny Irion. The two fell in love and began playing together, as well as well as marrying and having a family.

Today, Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion release their fourth album, “Wassaic Way,” produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone.

Guthrie said that even though she and Irion are husband and wife, the producers were able to, “kind of pull us apart in such a way that our hearts come through individually, and I think that was really masterfully done.”

Two songs from the new album:

“Circle of Souls”

“Chairman Meow”


  • Sarah Lee Guthrie, youngest daughter of folksinger Arlo Guthrie. She’s also a singer-songwriter and guitarist in an acoustic duo with her husband Johnny Irion.
  • Johnny Irion, guitarist and singer-songwriter in a duo with his wife Sarah Lee Guthrie.
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It's HERE AND NOW. Johnny Irion and Sarah Lee Guthrie have a new CD, their fourth. Let's see, Guthrie, Guthrie. Where have we heard that name? Actually, both have artistic connections. Sarah Lee is the daughter of Arlo, granddaughter of Woody Guthrie. Johnny's Aunt Gail married author Thomas Steinbeck's son John Steinbeck 20 years ago. This week, the pair releases "Wassaic Way," which was produced by a couple old friends, Jeff Tweedy and Patrick Sansone of the band Wilco. It was recorded at The Wilco Loft in Chicago.


JOHNNY IRION AND SARAH LEE GUTHRIE: (Singing) Standing in a hurricane window, watching the rain come down in a big old house on a sliver by the river, hoping that I don't drown.

YOUNG: That's "Hurricane Window" off of Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion's new album "Wassaic Way." And they both join us from the studios of WAMC, Northeast Public Radio in Albany, New York. Welcome.


SARAH LEE GUTHRIE: Thank you, hi.


YOUNG: So a musical pedigree, but, Sarah, we'll start with you. We read you really didn't pick up a guitar. They must have been all over your house. But didn't pick one up until much later in life?

GUTHRIE: Yeah. I kind of shied away from it. I was really on the path to be as normal and different from my family as possible until I met Johnny. And I met Johnny, and he was playing music. And I fell in love with him and ended up falling in love with music at the same time.

YOUNG: So when you say normal, so was it kind of embarrassing to you that your dad was singing "Alice's Restaurant" or...

GUTHRIE: You know, we come from a really small town here in Western Massachusetts, and we were like the center of town. Everybody seemed to be at our house. People like Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Hoyt Axton would come. And they would play music for weeks, nonstop, all night, bonfires, out in their tepees. It was a constant madhouse. And, yeah, I always felt like we were like the Addams Family or something.


GUTHRIE: You know, we were so weird, and I really strive to be invisible and not as strange as my family. So when I say normal, I mean like I was going to go to college and do things that normal people do, get real jobs. And that was kind of my goal.


IRION: I grew up with my crazy aunts playing me The Beatles and The Beach Boys and fell in love with rock 'n' roll and played punk rock in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and - but I met Sarah Lee in '97 when I moved to Los Angeles. My aunt was living out there. Gail was living with Tom, and it was one of the reasons I actually left the Carolinas to move to L.A. They were close by.

YOUNG: It's so funny that you're like a character in a Steinbeck novel, making your way out to California.

IRION: Pretty much.


YOUNG: But it's funny that you say that you listened to The Beatles because we just heard your voices together on "Hurricane Window," but I just love to hear a little of you. One song on the CD "Wherever She is It's Spring," a beautiful song. You sound a little like Arlo.


YOUNG: Yeah.


IRION: (Singing) Wherever she is, it's always spring.

YOUNG: And then on this one, a little John Lennon, "Probably Gone," let's listen.


IRION: (Singing) The light at this hour of day makes you want to cry. I've been on my way now, baby, for a long, long while.

That was a co-write that we did Jeff. That song was totally different. It was called "Probable Cause."


IRION: Jeff kind of leave it out there, and we all laughed, "Probable Cause." And the next thing we know, it's "Probably Gone."

YOUNG: Yeah. He has a way, doesn't he? Jeff Tweedy - both Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone also play on your CD. Tell us more about this Wilco influence and where do you feel it in your music, Sarah?

GUTHRIE: They pushed us beyond limits that we thought existed and really kind of pulled out of us a lot of stuff that was always there but maybe not seen. And instead of always singing harmony, for example, or something like that, Jeff was, like, no, I really want to hear Johnny on this part, or I really want to hear Sarah on this part, you know, and kind of pulled us apart in such a way that you can really - our hearts kind of come through individually. And I think that was really masterfully done.

YOUNG: Can you suggest a song we should listen to hear that?

GUTHRIE: "Lowest Ebb." Johnny was actually singing the verses, and I'm singing the chorus.


GUTHRIE: (Singing) (Unintelligible) nothing acting crazy while you're gone. Forget about the words that are sad (unintelligible) bridge for your soul. I'd be there, baby, (unintelligible). I really need a drink, but I've got no cash, you know the car won't slide. It's rolling back.

YOUNG: So musical partners may be stretching a little on this new CD but also married, two children. And, Sarah, I'm going back to how you said, no, we're going to have a normal - I'm going to be a normal person, and here, you're probably doing a lot of what your dad did - touring.

GUTHRIE: It's a challenge. But, you know, I was raised a little bit on the road, and my mom gave me great advice once we started having kids and getting, you know, being on the road all the time. And just I think having that in my pocket and knowing that it's possible was very encouraging,

YOUNG: Yeah, well, you know, I just want to say I know your mom passed last year so...

GUTHRIE: She did, yeah.

YOUNG: ...yeah, very long marriage. And sorry about that.

GUTHRIE: Well, you know, I think that, you know, this record even was such a highlight and even through I think some of the hardest times of my life with my mom passing and everything, it really put things into perspective. That paired with this album and this kind of threshold of the rest of my life, our lives, became something very significant.


GUTHRIE: (Singing) We were dancing (unintelligible) we can see (unintelligible) at all.

GUTHRIE: I think I have a pretty amazing angel now.


GUTHRIE: And I feel like we're pretty blessed to have such a powerful soul, being my mom, looking after us now, and those are the people I've always prayed to. You know, I've always prayed to my grandfather and our ancestors that have come before, and they exist still in my heart. And so I pray to them, and that's pretty awesome.

YOUNG: Well, you know, the only difference, though, is that there are a lot of people who pray to your grandfather...


YOUNG: ...he being, again, Woody Guthrie. And how is your dad? So I was reading up some things and was reminded that, you know, longtime anti-war activist and he became a Republican recently because he said he wanted there to be a loyal opposition, and he supported Rand Paul. So Arlo Guthrie is still in interesting. What does he think of your music?

GUTHRIE: He's always been really supportive. I mean, I don't think I would be doing this if it wasn't for my dad. He was the first one to say, hey, you know G chord. Why don't you come up on stage with me? He now is like paying attention, and he's like really been...

IRION: Very supportive.

GUTHRIE: ...very supportive. You know, we get together as The Guthrie Family, and we do a lot of shows together like that. And that's been really awesome for us and our kids and everybody. There's 14 of us now that get together and carry on something that was one of my grandfather's dreams, you know, to travel the country with his kids and family and make music. And we're living out that dream.

YOUNG: That's Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband and musical partner Johnny Irion. Their new album is "Wassaic Way." It's their fourth. Just thank you both for talking to us.

GUTHRIE: Yeah. You're welcome. Thank you.

IRION: Thank you. Thanks for having us.


GUTHRIE: (Singing) Dreaming of the miracle mile. Yes, she's going to go really far.

YOUNG: And this is "Chairman Meow"...


YOUNG: of the new album. It's not about China or cats, but you can hear the entire song at


And we actually dedicate this song right now to kitties two and three, Robin's two cats who are in the hospital recovering after eating some lilies.

YOUNG: It's a cautionary tale. Do not follow in their paw prints. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.