Sarah Lee Guthrie – We can ramble, hand in hand
That example illustrates how her life has been inevitably intertwined with her family’s musical history from the start. Though she didn’t pick up the guitar until she met Irion, Guthrie learned to play piano and read music as a child, and sang onstage with her family at Carnegie Hall when she was 12. She toured some with her dad when she was 14, singing backup on “City Of New Orleans” and her grandfather’s “This Land Is Your Land”, and taking a lead turn on Pete Seeger’s “Sailing Down My Golden River” (which ended up on the 1994 live album More Together Again, a Guthrie/Seeger collaboration).
Even so, she wasn’t envisioning herself following in the footsteps of her father and grandfather. Though she was inspired by the likes of Hoyt Axton and Bob Dylan and Joan Baez — “she was the one that I sang along with all those years, even through those punk rock days,” Guthrie admits — she didn’t consider her writings to be musically oriented. “I didn’t think they were songs; I wrote poetry, or essay, even,” she says. “But I kept them all, just in the thought that maybe someday I could cut ’em up and make a puzzle or a book or something.
“So, when I went out and I met Johnny, I had a folder about yea-thick,” she says, holding her fingers about three inches apart, “and it was just full of my writings. And we got together at night and he’d just be playing a guitar in the background while I’d try and sing my poetry. And then he was like, ‘You need to play the guitar.’ I think maybe he just got sick of tryin’ to play with me. So, that’s when he put a guitar in my hand.”
Guthrie’s self-titled debut on the family-owned Rising Son Records draws largely from those writings she’d saved over her teenage years. And if her lyrics occasionally sound a bit wide-eyed and naive as a result, she feels no need to hide from that youthful perspective.
Furthermore, such simple sentimentality often works in her favor. The opening cut, “Big Square Walking”, is ostensibly a children’s song, but at a show in Charleston, South Carolina, in June, a theater full of grayhairs cheerfully chimed in on the chorus. “Find That River” is lyrically uncomplicated as well, but casts an entirely different spell with its trancelike, Indian-inspired instrumentation.
Indeed, the breadth of Guthrie’s musical palette should make it clear that she’s determined to branch out from her folkie family tree. Her childhood experiences on an ashram in Florida singing traditional Hindu religious chants have lent a worldly quality to a few of her songs, while an interest in classic Broadway musicals helped lead her to flesh out some arrangements with horns.
And yet she’s not seeking to disassociate herself from her heritage, by any means. Arlo sings with her on a touching rendition of Hoyt Axton’s “Young Girl’s Mind”, and she occasionally performs songs from her father’s and grandfather’s repertoires at shows.
“The other night, somebody asked me to do ‘City Of New Orleans’, and it’s like, jeez, I could go two ways with this,” she explains. “I could say, ‘No, go to an Arlo concert’ — but at the same time, the guy just truly wants to hear Arlo’s daughter singin’ an Arlo song. And I sang it, and I looked out while I was singin’ it, and there were about three people just crying.
“These are the moments that make it really important to sing those songs. And if I can bring that to somebody, then, yeah, I’m gonna do those songs, I’m gonna honor that tradition. And that’s what folk music is anyway — singin’ your grandpa’s song, no matter who your grandpa is.”
Irion’s solo debut, Unity Lodge, makes a nod to the folk tradition as well, resurrecting an old miner’s tune called “Thirty Inch Coal”. Mostly, however, Unity Lodge is remarkable for the strength of Irion’s own songs, and for the sweetly rolling, late-’60s/early-’70s vibe it captures with seemingly effortless ease. It’s little wonder Arlo became so enamored with the recording that he offered to release it on Rising Son (although the fallout from redirected plans caused a rift with a longtime friend).
Though they decided to keep their albums separate from each other — “the records are kind of what our past was like, leading up to that point,” Guthrie says — they’ve been performing together since the beginning of this year and plan to tour as a duo to support the discs, with a collaborative recording likely to follow. They’ve also been writing together; one particular new song, “Cease Fire”, plays perfectly to the synergy of their vocal interplay, Irion’s unusually high whine waltzing in and out of the melody and harmony with Guthrie’s sweet singing.
Audiences at their gigs clearly notice the natural compatibility. “People really like it, and I think that’s cool,” Irion acknowledges. “I have more fun playing with Sarah than playing by myself.”
“Johnny brings a lot to the table as far as I’m concerned; obviously he’s a great player,” Guthrie adds, referring to Irion’s versatility on various string instruments. “And it’s good to be able to tour together, because if we didn’t, we’d be on our own separate ways and we’d never see each other. So, it’s a good excuse.”