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Guthrie, Irion are right at home with a new sound

Johnny Irion and Sarah Lee Guthrie, with their daughter Sophia, 6, at their home in Western Mass.Yoon S. Byun/Globe staff/Globe staff

WASHINGTON, Mass. — “We’re just cleaning up after a bear,” Johnny Irion says, explaining the garbage bag he’s holding as he comes to his front door on a sunny, late-August afternoon. The spilled contents of a different trash bag, and the excited reports of the kids who tented-out in the yard the night before, attest to the uninvited visitor.

Irion and Sarah Lee Guthrie, husband and wife as well as musical partners, had their timber frame house built 10 years ago, not far from one of the two general stores in this sparsely populated town. The weathered-but-trusty Sprinter van in front, and a pink ukulele down in the basement studio, are among the signs that musicians of various generations live here.


The multi-generational approach has served this pair well. As the daughter of Arlo and granddaughter of Woody, Guthrie has a family tree ensuring her musical efforts will receive attention. A nephew of John Steinbeck, Irion has his own blood claim to the heritage of mid-century Americana.

But that musty patina of musical inheritance has gotten old. After a year spent playing on many gigs tied to Woody’s 100th birthday, the pair have a new album out with a sound that’s more rock ’n’ roll and less Dust Bowl.

Produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Patrick Sansone, the album mines territory reminiscent of late-’60s pop. It’s miles removed from their origins, a decade ago, as an acoustic duo. A songbook on the upright piano in the basement offers a clue to their latest inspirations: It’s opened up to a Beach Boys tune. (A pile of Barbie dolls nearby marks the boundary between home studio and play space for their daughters, aged 6 and 11.)

“We started from the ground level and it just so happened to be that Sarah has the last name Guthrie, so when we were playing coffeehouses people expected that kind of stuff. And we delivered on that level musically, because that’s where we were,” Irion says later, seated in the living room. “I think we’re to the point now where we don’t care. Let’s just make records that we’re proud of and work with people who inspire us.”


Guthrie offers a new aesthetic litmus test.

“I want to be able to dance to my own songs.”

The new record, “Wassaic Way,” is only the third full-length studio album under their shared billing, though they recorded a live EP and Irion wrote some songs for Guthrie’s 2009 album of kid-themed music. (Family friend Pete Seeger made an appearance there as well.) It builds from the hazy, mildly psychedelic pop that appears in spots on their 2011 effort, “Bright Examples,” recorded with members of Vetiver.

For their current tour, which winds its way to the Davis Square Theatre on Saturday, they’re backed by a full band: Charlie Rose (pedal steel guitar), Steven Weiss (drums), Brett Long (piano), and bassist Matt Brandau.

Guthrie never planned on entering the family business. Her brother Abe reached for that mantle first, gigging for years with his band Xavier and as a hired-gun keyboardist. She moved to Los Angeles after graduating from high school, and met Irion, who was in the process of relocating from Chapel Hill, N.C. She learned guitar with his encouragement, but was reticent to let the family know. “The moment my parents found out that I could play three chords was a big deal.”


Irion had found some success playing guitar in various bands, but tired of the LA scene and moved east with Guthrie after the two wed. For a few years they pursued separate solo careers, before teaming up onstage.

Irion does the bulk of the songwriting in their partnership. He says the recent sessions with Tweedy and Sansone offered “somewhat of a songwriting mini-workshop.” Guthrie pulls out a photocopy of her lyric sheet for new song “Hurricane Window,” dotted with revisions in red pen by Tweedy’s hand. Yet on other songs, the original demo tracks recorded in the basement made their way onto the finished album.

“The way they sing together is really the starting point for me. It's obvious the moment you first hear them harmonize that there is a real closeness and strength being communicated,” Sansone writes in an e-mail. “One thing both Jeff and I did want to do was to allow both Sarah Lee and Johnny some room to sing on their own, so that when they do sing together in harmony, it's just that much more beautiful.”

The two have followed their sound through, and then away from, the knotty roots of folk and country. But Arlo is prone to gather the whole gang, grandchildren included (that’s where the pink ukulele comes in handy), for periodic Guthrie Family tours. Sarah Lee and Johnny are happy to participate, but they have a lot more to say with their music.


“This is a 360-degree deal for me. It’s my whole life. My family, my kids, my dad, my sisters and brothers were all a part of this. It all feels right,” Guthrie says. “But I was definitely worried that I was maybe not going to live up to what the expectations were. And then at some point I guess I kind of dropped that.”

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.