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This Land is Their Land 

Singer-songwriters Johnny Irion and Sarah Lee Guthrie enjoy a partnership on and off the road

Johnny Irion and Sarah Lee Guthrie were married in October of 1999. Although he had just wed Woody Guthrie's granddaughter, the pressure that such an inheritance might exert on a lifelong musician didn't immediately strike Irion. At age 15, he co-founded Durham's Queen Sarah Saturday and later played guitar with Dillon Fence during their opening slot on the 1996 Black Crowes European tour. By 1999, he'd been living in Los Angeles for two years, playing sessions produced by Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson. Picking guitar with his father-in-law, Arlo Guthrie, and touring with his new wife felt comfortable to Irion, like part of a natural progression.

"I didn't think about it much at first," Irion says. "As far as a writer, it didn't really affect me. When we played Carnegie Hall, I felt the pressure."

In the 1940s, Southern folk musicians like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, who had experienced firsthand the Dustbowl days of the Great Depression, brought the counterculture of the South to New York City. Carnegie Hall, a decorous sanctuary for prominent orators and jazz musicians, ultimately chose to adopt this radical migration, hosting many of Guthrie's and Seeger's performances. It was also the site of the 1968 Memorial Concert for Woody after his death from Huntington's disease.

In 1991, the Guthrie family, including 12-year-old Sarah Lee, sang along to a compilation of Woody's children's songs, her grandfather's voice resurrected through the wonders of the studio. When the family decided to take to the road to perform the Grammy-nominated batch of songs, the first place they played was Carnegie Hall. It was Sarah Lee's first time onstage.

But no single venue or destination could aptly circumscribe Woody Guthrie's legacy. For Sarah Lee Guthrie, her grandfather's ghost has followed her across the same land that he rambled in his day. By the time she was 5 years old, she had toured the entire Lower 48 and Canada. Growing up on the road, she got so she could sleep through anything, with all the partying and picking that went on. "I used guitar cases as cribs," Guthrie says, "so the road life is just my home. That part is easy for [me and Johnny] now."

For a time, however, Guthrie had turned away from the musical expectations that haunted her nomadic childhood. While her siblings pursued musical endeavors, they didn't choose to succeed the folk throne of their iconic ancestor. "Dad followed Woody's footsteps, and everybody was kind of looking at who was next," Guthrie says. "So anytime I got near a guitar, they automatically assumed I was going to be the next in line. The expectations definitely scared me away for a while--I got into having fun and not thinking about music at all."

As with most teenagers, family life became routine for Guthrie, and she wanted to forge her own identity. "I listened to Minor Threat and punk for about six years," she says of that period. Descended from a stock of outcasts, activists, guitar slingers and high school dropouts, she rebelled the only way she knew how: She applied to college. Intending to go to school, Guthrie found a new world--and a new home--in Los Angeles.

"I met Johnny, who turned me on to my roots--all the bluegrass pickers and old folk guys that I'd always known of," she says. "I'd heard them my whole life, but I never appreciated it until I was in the midst of all these people who really did."

Moving to Los Angeles in 1997, Irion found that the familiar world he'd known in Durham was being rediscovered out there. The musicians he met in L.A. were all living in the city but playing bluegrass and folk, music cultivated in the small towns he'd left behind.

It was a musician friend who introduced Irion to Guthrie at a bluegrass show.

Actually, they'd run into each other backstage at Walnut Creek during the Further Festival the summer before, but she didn't remember him. "But she had a good excuse," Irion says. "She was walking out of the Black Crowes' dressing room as I was walking in."

Although Irion disagrees, Guthrie says that he taught her how to play guitar. "I was far enough away that I could learn the guitar in the closet, away from my family," she says. When her mother heard she'd been practicing on her own, she told her, "You're going to have to go back on the road with your dad," Guthrie says. "I was in L.A. and I was starving, getting ready to start school," she recalls, "so I said, 'Sure. Why not?' I had only been playing guitar for about four months. I continued to learn from my dad."

Back in Los Angeles, she'd play bluegrass into the early morning with Irion and their friends. "It was just like when I was 4 years old and my dad's friends were picking," she says. While Irion had experimented with playing unplugged music in rock bands back in Carolina, his record label never subscribed to his aspirations to write acoustic songs. Fueled by a shared excitement for roots music, the two of them started to make music together, ignoring the expectations, and inevitably carved out a raw, folk-country sound that seems to shine in a certain light, just like her grandfather's music.

Their country duet sound has evoked obvious comparisons to Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Certainly the "stitched up old star" in Irion's song, "Stationary Woman," could have fallen off one of Gram's Nudie suits, while on "DC Niner" the duo's voices mingle over a Fallen Angels-esque track featuring members of The Carbines and Collapsis.

But Guthrie points out that their influences are rooted more in the old-time duets, back before the music turned slick. "We always try to look at ourselves as June Carter and Johnny Cash," Guthrie says. "I'm not always trilling it up high like Emmylou, and sometimes Johnny will go up high. We kind of do this raw thing, more along the lines of Woody and Cisco (Houston), the Louvin Brothers, the Everly Brothers. It's not Nashville clean."

A scarcity of nurturing listeners eventually prompted them to desert Southern California and relocate to Columbia, S.C., Irion's birthplace. These days they prefer to play in quiet venues away from the smoke and sodden prattle of the honky-tonks they left in L.A. "If you live to play, L.A.'s not the place to be," Irion says. "In the South it's cheaper, there's more places to play and you get paid for playing. We're in a good situation as far as being able to go out and find these venues where they don't want a band. It's cool to go in these listening rooms and house concerts when you find out where this stuff is happening and people are really digging it."

"And people like you," Guthrie adds. "They don't like you in L.A."

With both Irion and Guthrie set to release solo records in the summer, the two seem to be growing into the shoes handed down to them. There are plans in the air for a set of duet recordings as well, with the pair writing songs together. "It's a cool thing that we can actually be together and play together; that's the most fun," Guthrie says.

For now, the legacy that follows them moves these young kindred spirits to wander, on and beyond the influence of their forebears. EndBlock

Irion and Guthrie will perform on Saturday, April 21, in a house concert at Pine Hill Farms in Duke Forest, as well as performing with Kevn Kinney this Wednesday, April 25, and Thursday, April 26, at Local 506 and The Berkeley Cafe, respectively.

More by John Martin


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