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Guthrie, Irion keep legacy alive

By T.J. Simon, May 2005

To Sarah Lee Guthrie, the idea of carrying on a legacy is not simply an abstract concept. As the granddaughter of Woody Guthrie and daughter of Arlo Guthrie, the 26-year-old Guthrie recognizes the historical baggage she carries with her every night as she shares the stage with her husband and musical partner, Johnny Irion.

"When I started making my own music, I always got a lot of people wanting me to play Woody Guthrie songs and Arlo songs, but I think people understand that I need to be who I am," Guthrie explains in a phone interview while en route to the South by Southwest music festival in Austin.

She clarifies, "I do love that stuff, and I want to honor that tradition. So, I'm not too separate from it."

The couple are touring in support of "Exploration," a joint album of material they hope will establish them as a musical act distinctive from their previous individual work or the music of Guthrie's famous predecessors.

The New West Records release is a genre-hopping fusion of country, folk and rock that is as hard to pigeonhole as it is easy to enjoy.

For his part, Irion, 36, also grew up in a family steeped in musical traditions. "On my mother's side, my grandmother is a classically-trained violinist, and my grandfather was a singer," Irion says via phone. "On my father's side, there were also a lot of fiddlers. As a little tyke, my aunts were always into the Beach Boys, The Beatles, Carole King and the Rolling Stones."

As a young man, Irion participated in several indie rock bands with moderate success, most notably Queen Sarah Saturday whose song "Seems" was prominently featured in the 1995 film "Empire Records." And as a bit actor, Johnny also had a cameo in the movie "Ghost World."

Meanwhile, although Guthrie grew up on the road touring with her father, Arlo, she was a relative late bloomer when it came to following her own musical path.

"I didn't start playing music until I was 18," Guthrie says. "Of course, I always joined my dad on stage to sing backup, but I never took it seriously until I met Johnny."

As a youth, Guthrie gravitated to music that eased her adolescent angst. "I was into punk rock as a teenager - Minor Threat and The Exploited," she recalls. "I just liked the attitude really as a lot of teenagers do. It said what I wanted to say at the time."

She continues, "But at the same time, I hid away from my friends and listened to Bob Dylan. I had a lot of friends who were Deadheads, so I listened to the Grateful Dead and kept an open mind about music."

It wasn't until Guthrie and Irion met in Los Angeles that she was able to put a tune to her thoughts and feelings.

As Irion remembers, "She said she liked to write, and a couple nights later she came over with all her notebooks. I started putting chords behind her words, and she would sing. That got boring, so I handed her a guitar and taught her how to play some chords herself. She had no problem doing it."

Guthrie caught the music bug and began to hone her guitar skills. "I practiced six or seven hours per day while planning to go to college," she remembers. "A week later, my mom called and talked me out of going to school. She wanted me to join my dad on the road. Two days later, I joined my dad and made him teach me everything he knew for eight hours a day while we toured."

Many of Guthrie's lessons took place on stage during Arlo's shows. "I was thrown in front of a thousand people a night and messing up in front of them," she says. "For the first three years, I really worked hard at my guitar playing, my singing and my stage presence. My dad was really supportive by letting me learn like that. When you're thrown into the fire, you tend to learn pretty fast."

Irion and Guthrie married in 2000, and they decided to leave Los Angeles. They eventually landed in Irion's hometown of Columbia, S.C. where they simultaneously released individual solo records in 2001. This was followed by a three-year joint tour where the couple shared the stage nearly every night.

Guthrie explains, "That evolved into writing songs together and singing Everly Brothers-style harmonies."

Soon, the pair had enough original material to warrant a collaborative album showcasing the music they had created together as a young couple on the road. With loads of material in pocket, they needed a producer who could turn their songs into a reality.

The answer to this problem came when the pair met Gary Louris of The Jayhawks.

"We toured Holland about two years ago, and The Jayhawks happened to be playing in Amsterdam on our night off," Johnny remembers. "We went backstage afterwards to say hello, and we asked him if he'd be interested in producing our record, and he was."

Guthrie also felt that Louris was the perfect fit for the sound she and Irion developed while touring together.

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