Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion: Making their own way

This lovely duo with a remarkable heritage (Sarah Lee is the youngest daughter of folksinger Arlo Guthrie and the granddaughter of Woody Guthrie; Johnny’s aunt is married to John Steinbeck’s youngest son) recently toured the UK, in support of their excellent Bright Examples album.

They will be back in the UK in January for a special one-off show at Celtic Connections, Glasgow on Wednesday January 25 celebrating the centenary of Woody Guthrie’s birth – ‘Woody at 100’, which will also feature Jay Farrar, Yim Yames, Anders Parker, and Will Johnson. We talked to Johnny at the end of the tour, and posed a few questions for him.

Raising a family, releasing a new album, touring, a kids record…how do you fit it all in?

It’s not easy! We are very lucky to have a very supportive family. Sarah Lee’s sister Annie Guthrie has been a huge help to us…when we do tours without the girls we never do over a few weeks. We just did a month in Europe and they went with us. Olivia, our oldest, has now been overseas 6 times and just got her 2nd passport.

Your heritage—millstone or proud lineage? 

My auntie Gail married Thom Steinbeck (John’s youngest son) about 16 years ago. Right around that time I moved to LA where they live. Thom became the history teacher I never had, so he is my uncle by marriage. I am proud of Thom’s work as a writer and have encouraged him over the years ….the only time it feels like a millstone is when someone thinks I am related by blood. I am not.

What was it like, working with Andy Cabic?

Hopefully every time you make a record everyone involved learns something—doesn’t matter what it is cooking: a 3rd part harmony/ a movie you’ve never seen. Hopefully you get turned on. Andy is a searcher, you learn from searchers.

Your latest album has some stellar artists contributing to the sound. How did their involvement come about? 

We have all been fans of each other for some time now. Neal Casal and I have been trying to sing on each others records for years…Gary Louris / Mark Olson…love ‘em…Charlie Rose is on tour with us right now killing a plate of chicken wings in Philadelphia. Charlie is one of the finest pickers you will hear.

You’ve been described as country rock, but your sound is far more diverse than that suggests. Try to describe the music you make for us.    

I love piano and harmony. I am from North Carolina and I love banjos and moonshine… I love to watch Thelonious Monk’s fingers…I love a great song…I want a great song, no matter what. I listened to Badfinger and the Pet Shop Boys today. I love playing LOUD rock and roll with my friends “Chatham County Line”…Foo Fighters/Minor Threat…The Nazz. Does that help?

Name 5 great works of art (book, film, poetry, painting, etc.)

JAWS (the movie)




SIBYLLE BAIER – the album  Colour Green (song writer/ botanist)

Vinyl, CD, or digital?

Vinyl, all day long.

Who are your primary influences?

Whoever I am loving at the time…Dvorak…Harry Nilsson

Tell us how your current tour has been going.

Up and down, as always.

What are your future plans (after a rest, I assume!)

To make a new record, in the spring, with some friends …and boy is it gonna smoke!!!!

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