For Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, their relationship was always destined to be a spiritual union. After being introduced to each other by Black Crowes’ frontman Chris Robinson in the late ’90s, the pair not only found themselves uninhibited emotionally, but musically as well. Irion enlightened Guthrie about such rock greats as the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys, while Guthrie introduced Irion to both the world of folk music and the considerable legacy of her musical family.
The daughter of Arlo Guthrie, and granddaughter of Woody, music was always destined to play a role in Sara Lee’s life. But it wasn’t until she crossed paths with Irion that she felt seriously enticed. The pair has been making music together now for eight years (only one year less than the length of their marriage). And while the duo might have sculpted a musical pairing as diverse and vibrant as the musical tastes that ignited their union, it is one that’s uniquely their own.
I recently spoke to Guthrie and Irion as they prepared to launch the upcoming spring series of Tales From the Tavern. I found that, for them, music and family are one in the same.
Johnny, how has the exposure to Sarah Lee’s heritage played a part in your own musical pursuits? JI: I had always had that itch to maybe say something more morally just, you know? In listening to Woody and Pete [Seeger] and getting to know their music, it has really helped me tremendously to find my own voice within that type of songwriting. I don’t set out to write songs like that daily but, when I do, or when I question authority, or the media, or our president, having that backbone as a kind of Songwriting 101 gives you a pretty good start.
How important to you is that tradition of taking songs out to the people? JI: Tremendously. It’s what we do. We’ll say we want to get off the road and then we’ll go home and two weeks later it’ll be like, “Okay-where’re we going?” We get the itch. It’s got to be in you somewhat to want to pursue this crazy business. It’s not the easiest thing to do. But I just love music and being able to make a living playing music is a dream come true.
What role does performing live play in shaping a recording? JI: We live by the songs. So if a song really doesn’t work in front of an audience, it probably won’t make it onto a record.
So the live arena is your proving ground for a song? JI: That’s what we have essentially done with a lot of them. But it works both ways. Some of the material will be played in front of an audience, while others work great on a record, but it may not be the best live song, per say. But it does what it needs to do on the record and works in that art form. Even though a lot of people aren’t even listening to records anymore, we look at a record as a whole piece of work.
Sarah, given your musical heritage, how important is the union between family and music? SLG: I can’t even imagine a world where they’re divided. It has never even occurred to me that music could be separate from family, because, not only has it been a part of the family with my father and mother, it has also been passed along to my children. And they’re so much a part of our music and our songs and our inspiration.
Given how intertwined your personal and creative lives are, is it difficult to keep both aligned accordingly? SLG: It is definitely a balancing act sometimes, having to share all of those moments together. But it’s so wonderful in the end, because the most important things to me anyway are my family and my music. So I am very grateful having them fit together and work so well.
Presumably you gained a little insight from your father on that? SLG: Yeah, my dad has really included us all. My brother and sisters, we all play together. It’s just something that is so much a part of folk music. We go to so many of these festivals where there are families playing and picking together, and I think one of the ultimate experiences is being able to share that.
What is it about music that fulfills you personally? SLG: Just being out there and sharing music and having a group of people gathered together in ways that nobody really does for any other reason. It is art that collects people together, and it’s that gathering that fills heart space and really heals. Some people go to church and create a community and a lot of people will find the same fulfillment in song and build a community around music.
And that must be a very satisfying thing to be at the center of? SLG: We are just a vehicle for some of those emotions that might be evoked during a concert. But, gosh, it feels so good to be giving our music to that and really sending out a positive message, which Johnny and I strongly try to do.
4•1•1 Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion kick off Tales from the Tavern’s 2008 season on Wednesday, February 13. Call 688-0383 or visit talesfromthetavern.com for details.