Interview with Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion

Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion
Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion

Interview by Scott Preston

On October 27, 2009 Smithsonian Folkways released Go Waggaloo a 13-track disk from Sarah Lee Guthrie featuring her husband Johnny Irion, their two daughters, and a host of other family and friends, including Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Tao Rodriguez Seeger.

A gifted singer-songwriter from a legendary family, Sarah Lee Guthrie brings charm, freshness, and feeling to this debut family music release. Go Waggaloo features thoughtful yet playful recordings of traditional songs and new compositions, including three songs with Woody Guthrie lyrics never before put to music and seven original songs written by Sarah Lee and family. Go Waggaloo continues the Guthrie family chain of song making forged by Sarah’s grandfather, Woody Guthrie. The cover art is a painting created by Woody himself. (1)

Cincy Groove: I’m very happy to see that you put out a children’s album, what can you tell me about “Go Waggaloo”?

Johnny Irion: Sarah Lee and I probably wrote about 80 percent of the record. There are only 3-4 cover songs on it, the songs being Woody Guthrie lyrics that we put music to. If the song was an original it was inspired by just hanging out with the kids. We normally would just come up with some kind of chorus and then we would sing it with the kids and then we would kind of put it away. Then when it came time to make the record, all those ideas materialized into songs. We had always thought about making a kids record. It was kind of a where do you start kind of thing and when Smithsonian convinced us to do it, it made everything a lot easier.

Cincy Groove: I was noticing you had a lot of family members on the record, including your daughters.

Johnny Irion: Yeah, it was a family affair, the record turned out great and we are really happy. People of all ages seem to like it. My friends that don’t have kids who might turn their noses up at a kids record are telling how much they like the songs.

Cincy Groove: Was that the first time your kids did something “official” with Sarah Lee and yourself?

Johnny Irion: For the most part, Olivia, our oldest daughter appeared on a live dvd that we just put out, doing some singing with us. She really has grown up so far with us, going to shows and being exposed to the music. Sophie our youngest is starting to get used to it as well.

Cincy Groove: The “Folk Songs” cd/dvd you just released, where was it recorded?

Johnny Irion: It was recorded at a show we did in California. The tapers and video people were already set up to go, when we started. It wasn’t something we had planned to do, so we didn’t think much of it at the time. If it turns out, it turns out, if not no big deal. But it turned out really great. They sent us the tapes and said that we should really watch it. Normally I don’t particularly care to watch myself performing, but we did watch and I was very impressed with the sound quality. The video was a 3 camera shoot and Henry Dilts was on one of the cameras. He is infamous for the Morrison Hotel shot, Crosby, Stills, Nash, Neil Young. The more Sarah Lee and I watched it the more we realized that we are going to have release the material.

Cincy Groove: Is Sarah Lee and yourself working on any other projects?

Johnny Irion: Yes actually, we just finished a record with a band called Vetiver. Hopefully it will be coming out in the fall of this year. They are a band out of San Francisco and I was introduced to them through Chris Robinson (Black Crowes). Vetiver also backed up Gary Louris from The Jayhawks on his last tour.

Cincy Groove: When did Sarah Lee and yourself start performing together?

Johnny Irion: We started when we first met in Los Angeles. I was playing in a band out there after moving from North Carolina. I was on this country kick odyssey when I moved there, influenced a lot by duet style singing. I was at the time singing with a guy named Mike Stinson. Sarah Lee and I met and just started hanging out and singing together. Then a couple years after that we decided to get married and ended up moving back east. In the interm we had did a couple solo shows. She joined me on stage for one of my solo gigs and the crowd absolutely loved it. They told us that we really need to start playing more together. We never really had any plans to start playing together, it developed organically.

Cincy Groove: What advice would you give to parents who are also touring musicians? I know you have a large extended family so I’m sure that helps.

Sarah Lee Guthrie: It definitely helps. My mom’s advice to me when I first had Olivia was to not be afraid to ask for help. We have gone though all of Johnny’s cousins, my cousins, my sisters are a huge help. Being a touring musician and a parent can get quite crazy at times, but its also very rewarding. If we are going to Europe and will be gone for 4-6 weeks we will take the kids. We have found we can actually tour longer and harder with the kids because we won’t miss them. It’s a delicate balance, and I keep my kids on rock and roll hours so they goto bed at 1am and wake up at noon (laughing). We also have found out you don’t need to bring a lot of stuff for the kids. We try to be creative and come up with things for them to do depending where we are. Good food is also very important. When we stay in hotels we will bring an electric skillet with us so we can cook.

Cincy Groove: How is the Guthrie Family Tour coming along? How many family members are performing?

Sarah Lee Guthrie: It’s my entire family, there are 17 of us. It’s Johnny and I and our 2 kids, my sister, her husband and their 2 kids, my other sister and her kid, my brother and his wife with their 2 kids, and then my mom and dad of course. We have 2 buses, one bus is all of us then the other bus is for my mom and dad. We all know this is a once in a lifetime thing, it’s a financial disaster but we are having so much fun. We can’t really do the tour for too long just because their are so many of us. It has been a real treasure to be on tour with dad and everyone else. Everyone has a part in the show, even the 2 year olds. The tour is also a perfect time for our “Go Waggaloo” kids record, because everyone on stage also played on the record so we get to do a few songs from the cd.

Cincy Groove: What do Johnny and yourself like to do when your not performing?

Sarah Lee Guthrie: We are actually building a house from scratch up here in Massachusetts. It’s taking up a lot of our time, but its also been fun. We are working with some local timber framers as well. We were turned on to a whole different scene of people who use local wood and all have their own gardens. There is a lot of that type of thinking up here in the area we live in. We spend a lot of time seeking out good local food and local wood for our house.

Cincy Groove: Who are some of your musical influences?

Sarah Lee Guthrie: I am really influenced by everything. I actually listen to pop radio a lot just to gauge whats going on and why a certain song might be popular. It’s funny since I’m the daughter of a folkie but I even grew up listening to Minor Threat, Slayer, a lot of heavy metal through my teenage years. That’s one of the things I love about Johnny. When we first met I was going through his record collection and he had a Minor Threat record. So I thought “Hey this guy is kind of cool.”

I was even thinking the other day “What album could I now live without?”, and it would have to be Rainy Day Music by The Jayhawks. I’m a huge fan of The Jayhawks and knowing Gary and all the little nu-encases in his voice absolutely kill me. I recently have been listening to some really early Lucinda Williams as well.

* The Guthrie Family Rides Again Tour

15th Sudbury MA – Fox Run Concert Series
16th Norton MA – Cocoahouse House Concert For Kids
16th Mansfield, MA ~ Rose Garden Coffeehouse
23rd Canton CT – Roaring Brook Concerts

5th Cambridge MA – Club Passim
* 19th Alexandria, VA ~ The Birchmere
* 20th Princeton, NJ ~The McCarter Theater
* 21st Patchogue, NY ~ The Patchogue Theater
* 23rd Wilmington, DE ~ The Grand Opera House
* 25th – 26th Hampton, VA ~ The American Theater
* 27th Charlottesville, VA ~ The Paramount

MARCH 2010
* 1st Newberry, SC ~ Newberry Opera House
* 3rd – 4th Asheville, NC ~ The Diana Wortham Performing Arts Center
* 5th {info} Atlanta, GA ~ The Ferst Center
* 15th – 16th Stuart, FL ~ The Lyric Theatre
* 20th Bartlett, TN ~ Bartlett Performing Arts & Conference Center
* 23rd Houston, TX ~ The Miller Outdoor Theater
* 26th St. Louis, MO ~ The Sheldon
* 27th Overland Park, KS ~ The Carlsen Center Yardly Hall
* 31st Austin, TX ~ The Long Center

APRIL 2010
* 3rd Albuquerque, NM ~ The Journal Theater
* 8th Wickenburg, AZ ~ Del E Webb Center
* 9th Tucson, AZ ~ Centennial Hall
* 10th Mesa, AZ ~ The Mesa PAC
* 14th Escondido, CA ~ California Center for the Arts
* 16th Los Angeles, CA ~ Royce Hall
* 17th Irvine, CA ~ The Barclay Theater
* 20th Arroyo Grande, CA ~ The Clark Center
* 21st – 22nd Davis, CA ~ UCD Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts
* 23rd Berkeley, CA ~ Zellerback Hall
* 24th Modesto, CA ~ The Gallo Center
* 28th Grants Pass, OR ~ The Rogue Theater
* 29th Corvallis, OR ~ La Selles Center

MAY 2010
* 1st Kent, WA ~ Kent Events Center
* 2nd Mt. Baker, WA ~ Mt. Baker Theater
* 4th Spokane, WA ~ The Fox Theater
23rd {info} Old Town School of Folk Music

JULY 2010
8th {info} Winnipeg Canada -Winnipeg Folk Festival