Folk and country-rock songwriters all straddle that loosely defined musical landscape of Americana. Collectively, with guitars in hand, the great lineage of tradition keepers and buckers alike have served as some of the nation’s longest documenters of the American story through their song. When the Lobero Theatre hosts Santa Barbara–based Johnny Irion and the Jay Farrar Duo (of Son Volt fame) on Tuesday, May 22, it’ll be a beautifully modern signpost to forward-looking frontiers along folk- and country-rock roads.
The pairing is a natural one. As cofounder of Uncle Tupelo, Farrar is one of the main limbs on the alternative-country family tree. Since the 1990s, he’s been a historian of the American weird, refiguring music by old greats such as the Carter Family in new ways. Recently, with Son Volt, he delved deep into the blues of artists like Skip James and Mississippi Fred McDowell with crunchy electric guitar and a rusty, rootsy tone.
Farrar and Uncle Tupelo affiliates Wilco have had a musical friendship with Irion for years. In that time, Irion has worked both solo and with others. He first nestled in local ears with his Wassaic Way collaboration with wife Sarah Lee Guthrie; he continued to amass appreciation with solo shows and group efforts such as the rocking U.S. Elevator (whose members will back Irion at the Lobero).
Irion’s newest album, Driving Friend, cruises into digital and physical stores just before the show, and it’s a lovely listen. The Neil Young comparisons continue, of course, with other songs recalling Beatles ballads and the more psychedelic tunes of The Byrds and Gram Parsons. Yet there’s an easygoing sweetness here that’s all Johnny, a swooning, laid-back tone that sparkles with wistful warmth.
Coproduced by Tim Bluhm, the album, which was recorded on an original 24-track Studer tape machine and features members of Dawes and Wilco, is a lush listen with a distinctive hue. Irion said that unlike his past records, which are generally well-liked, “this one you either love it, or you don’t get it. The people who love it really love it, and the people who don’t really don’t,” he said. “That’s cool, too.”
As with U.S. Elevator, Santa Barbarans will find some lyrical Easter eggs in Driving Friend, as the theme transports listeners to some familiar locales — e.g., “that scary Marcos Pass,” which gets a mention in the road-trip love song “Palm Springs.” Irion spends part of the year out east, in Massachusetts, but there’s a great spirit of California in his music. As a descendent of the Steinbeck clan and partner to the Guthrie tree, the legacy rolls and writes on.
For Driving Friend Irion has teamed up with the Blackwing Foundation, a music education program from Blackwing pencils, which is releasing his album on the stylish stylo’s new record label. As histories intersect, Irion now finds himself “addicted” to the pencil modeled in the spirit of his great-uncle John Steinbeck, who was a huge fan of the brand.
Irion, of course, is happy to have a little fun with that American mythos, as in his new video, “Cabin Fever.” First seen holed up in a wintry Massachusetts cabin, he soon helps unleash a party in a nearby pub, the Dream-Away Lodge, as fancifully masked partygoers dance around.
There’s a dawning quality to the new album, a sense of light peeking up the horizon, with Irion steering cheerily ahead. At the Lobero, with him in the opening driver’s seat and Jay Farrar following up, it’ll be a sweet ride for sure.
Johnny Irion plays with the Jay Farrar Duo Tuesday, May 22, 8 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). Call 963-0761 or see lobero.org.