Sarah Lee Guthrie still vividly remembers the epiphany that struck her three years ago in Los Angeles when her husband-to-be, Johnny Irion, handed her a guitar and guided her through that first simple lesson.
“I was trying to play a chord and I was laughing so hard because it was just really hard,” Guthrie recalls. “I’m like, ‘My fingers don’t do that, Johnny!’ And he was just laughing, and he turned to me, in this most serious way, and he goes: ‘Fun, ain’t it?’
“And I was like — ‘Wow! It IS fun! It just like occurred to me, this stuff is fun.”
One could forgive Guthrie if she’d always considered guitars to be primarily an instrument of labor, not amusement. Growing up the youngest of four kids in the Guthrie household, she observed her father Arlo, son of Woody, going off to his job with his guitar in tow. From Sarah Lee’s childhood perspective, “Dad was out there workin’, he wasn’t out playin’ and havin’ fun.”
With the help of Irion — and also her dad, with whom she spent a couple years on the road just out of high school (first as his road manager, later playing and singing in his band) — Guthrie has come to understand the novel concept of enjoying one’s work. In the process, she and Irion, who married in October 1999, have recorded their respective solo debut albums, while serendipitously growing into a promising musical duo.
While it’s clearly Guthrie’s lineage that provides the marquee draw for their shows, Irion’s musical experience is the ace-in-the-hole that solidifies their potential to become a top-drawing act on the coffeehouse circuit (and perhaps much more, eventually). Irion was still a teenager when he and a couple of his boyhood pals started playing shows and parties in the late ’80s around their hometown of Durham, North Carolina, in a rowdy rock band called Queen Sarah Saturday.
In the early ’90s, the band got a deal with Sony affiliate Thirsty Ear, releasing an EP and a full-length disc that fit in fairly well with the alt-rock landscape of that era. Perhaps a little too well, actually; for every Candlebox or Stone Temple Pilots that ballooned in the wake of Nirvana, there were dozens of big-league contenders that faded away, and by 1996, Queen Sarah Saturday had become one of those casualties.
Irion briefly joined North Carolina power-pop band Dillon Fence, playing guitar with them on a tour opening for the Black Crowes. He became friends with Crowes singer Chris Robinson, who eventually encouraged Irion to move to Los Angeles in the fall of ’97 to play with a band called Freight Train that Robinson was producing.
As fate would have it, a kinship with the Crowes had brought Guthrie to Los Angeles only a few weeks earlier. Having just graduated from high school in Florida, she spent the summer on the road with Arlo, who was the emcee of that year’s Furthur Festival starring Grateful Dead alums Bob Weir and Mickey Hart, the Black Crowes and others. When the tour ended, she went to Los Angeles, largely because of friendships she’d forged with the Crowes camp on the road.
Meeting through common acquaintances, Irion and Guthrie soon became constant companions. Given their respective backgrounds, one probably would surmise that Guthrie was responsible for steering Irion toward more traditional music — but as it turns out, almost the opposite was true.
“He just assumed that I knew all these old guys,” Guthrie says with a sheepish smile. “He was like, ‘Oh man, this is so great, you probably know all these people.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, they were at the house the other day, but I’ve never heard their songs before.’”
On the flip side, Guthrie didn’t necessarily encourage Irion’s acoustic leanings. “Sarah would say, ‘You’re gettin’ too folky! You need to rock again! What are you doing?’ She heard the Queen Sarah Saturday stuff and was like, ‘Aw, I really liked you rockin’ out!’
“But I had always kinda been wanting to be able to just play an acoustic guitar and get away with that. I’d never really done it. I did it one time in Chapel Hill by myself, and I was a nervous wreck.…I mean, even up till probably like the last year and a half, I didn’t feel comfortable being onstage with an acoustic guitar.”
Yet Irion says those instincts were present even during Queen Sarah Saturday’s prime. “I’d always have these little acoustic ditties — you know, like, ‘Johnny, what are we gonna do with those?’ We got signed on being an alternative-rock band. And that was always our thing locally, was that we could never make up our mind what we wanted to be. And I was always like, well, why can’t we do all kinds of stuff?”
Irion was also becoming inspired by what he was listening to outside of the band. “Getting into Hank Williams, and hearing how those guys take a line and turn it into this whole thing in two minutes and 30 seconds, just opened the door for me,” he says. “I was moving toward that stuff, definitely.”
Guthrie, meanwhile, was on a totally different track at that time. “I was a big Minor Threat, Exploited, punk rock girl,” Guthrie reveals of her high school days in Florida. “I had a mohawk and everything. It was pretty intense. For years, gosh — until I finally met Johnny. He’s the one who turned me on to the music that I grew up with.”
And there was a solid foundation to return to. Before her rebellious punk phase, Guthrie had in fact done some singing with her dad. In our interview, she mentions the 1991 Grammy-nominated children’s album Woody’s 20 Grow Big Songs as her first appearance on record — but, in fact, there was one other that predates her memory: She’s listed as a vocalist on Arlo’s 1981 album Power Of Love, part of a children’s chorus on David Mallett’s “Garden Song”. Sarah Lee was born in 1979, so she couldn’t have been more than two years old at the time.