Eyes closed, Johnny Irion stands at the microphone with his hands in his pockets and croons the same line over and over: “Always…Lookin’ out…Got your back…Always lookin’ out for you.” He’s the only one in the studio who can hear the accompanying music, which is being played through his headphones. So it’s only natural that Olivia, Irion’s 2-year-old daughter, should take it upon herself to back up her dad’s a cappella vocal. Olivia enters the room, sits down at a set of bongo drums behind him and begins pounding away.
Irion is so caught up in recording his vocal overdub that he doesn’t even notice. His wife, Sarah Lee Guthrie, walks in, pausing just long enough to smile at the scene. Then Guthrie scoops up her daughter before she ruins the take.
“Can’t tell me she’s not musical,” Guthrie says with a laugh. “It might be the 80 shows we played with her in the womb. It got to where she was kicking in time with the guitar.”
Olivia’s grandfather, Arlo Guthrie, calls his granddaughter “a phenomenon her ownself,” noting that she refuses to sing unless she gets her own microphone. But she seems less interested in microphones or guitars than the percussive arts. Knocking around the studio while her parents work, Olivia does a passable Keith Moon impersonation on a toy drum. Then she incites laughter all around by turning on a metronome and kicking into “Mary Had A Little Lamb.”
You could say she’s right on schedule when it comes to music, the family business. Her mother was the same age Olivia is now when she made her first on-record appearance, in the children’s chorus of a song on Arlo Guthrie’s 1981 album Power Of Love.
Family and friends are an unavoidable topic with Irion and Guthrie, who have blended their lives and their music in ways befitting their backgrounds. At 26, Sarah Lee is carrying on the tradition of one of the most famous families in American music. Her father has been a star since the anti-draft anthem “Alice’s Restaurant” in 1967. That year also marked the death of her legendary grandfather, Woody Guthrie, as iconic a figure as the American folk tradition ever produced.
Irion, in turn, has always kept up with his friends, especially the ones he grew up with in North Carolina. On this day, he and Guthrie are up from their home in Columbia, South Carolina, to record demos with Ryan Pickett in the garage studio of the Durham house where Pickett grew up (and where Pickett’s mother still lives). Pickett and Irion have been playing music together for more than twenty years, and once made up half of a rock band called Queen Sarah Saturday. The drummer in Queen Sarah was Zeke Hutchins, who still backs up Irion when he can spare the time from his main gig playing with Tift Merritt.
Last year, Hutchins found time to play drums on Exploration, due out March 8 on New West Records. Irion and Guthrie’s first full-fledged duo record, it was produced by Jayhawks leader Gary Louris and longtime Minneapolis veteran Ed Ackerson, with contributions from other Jayhawks and former members of Son Volt.
It also brings together supporting musicians from the orbits of both principal players. Hutchins and Merritt’s former keyboardist Greg Readling turn up in support roles. So does Guthrie’s longtime friend Tao Rodriguez — on a song written by Rodriguez’s grandfather, Pete Seeger, no less.
Exploration is one of those records that seems almost impossible to date because it combines so many different elements. Guthrie and Irion’s voices fit together perfectly, recalling the harmonic blend of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. “Gervais”, Seeger’s “Dr. King” and the title track evoke the sort of have-guitar-will-agitate troubadour politicking that Woody Guthrie made famous. The music, meanwhile, is west coast country-rock of the sort that emerged from the hills of Laurel Canyon circa 1972.
At the same time, Irion and Guthrie both bring a broader, quirkier pop sense into play. “Holdin’ Back”, the album’s first single, glides along on a pedal steel hook reminiscent of a classic George Harrison guitar figure, while “Mornin’s Over” recalls Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe”.
“The two of them have a real interesting mixture of influences and sounds,” says Louris. “Johnny can do Neil [Young] almost better than Neil, but he’s also got this Todd Rundgren/Beach Boys/Beatles side. That can make for some very strange songs, a lot of which didn’t make the record because of time constraints. There’s so much there to tap into with them. I don’t think there’s a dog track on the whole record.”
Most of all, Exploration sounds as effortless as Guthrie and Irion make everything look, whether they’re handing off a vocal or the baby. It balances personal and professional issues of love, life and music seemingly without breaking a sweat — even though songs such as “Cease Fire” and “Swing Of Things” hint at just how hard such a balancing act can be.
“Before we had the baby, I was wondering, ‘How the hell are we gonna do this?’” Irion admits. “My background growing up was you go to college, you do this, you do that. But in another time, I probably would have been in a gypsy band. I always had that mentality. She equals me out, and I can do both. I never thought I’d be able to have that. She’s really laid-back, so that’s how that happens. She doesn’t freak out about stuff, I do. It works.”
Before she met Irion, Guthrie wasn’t all that interested in music, at least not the folk music associated with her family name. She was a lot more into punk rock, even sporting a mohawk at one point.