By the time folk music legend Pete Seeger performed at their wedding, Johnny Irion had managed to comprehend the implications of marrying Sarah Lee Guthrie.
Irion, of course, recognized her last name when they were first introduced, but he admits he didn’t fully understand the attention surrounding the petite young woman who’s the daughter of Arlo Guthrie (most famous for the ’60s classic, “Alice’s Restaurant”) and granddaughter of Woody Guthrie (composer of “This Land Is Your Land,” among many other songs).
“I didn’t realize the enormity of it — which is probably a very good thing,” Irion tells CMT.com. “But I didn’t have any Arlo records, and I didn’t have any Woody Guthrie records.”
Since the March release of their New West Records album, Exploration, Irion and his wife have been touring almost constantly with their infant daughter, Olivia, and their band, the Corner Pockets. A highly accessible and mostly acoustic blend of folk, rock, country and other elements, Exploration was co-produced by Gary Louris (of the Jayhawks) and Ed Ackerson.
A native of South Carolina, Irion was a member of the indie rock bands Queen Sarah Saturday and Dillon Fence. “I’d done a tour with the Black Crowes, and [Black Crowes frontman] Chris Robinson mentioned he was producing a rock ’n’ roll band in Los Angeles that needed a guitar player. I figured I needed to get out of the South for a little while.”
Shortly after arriving in California in 1997, Irion met his future wife, who had just graduated from high school and was working as her father’s road manager during the Further Festival, a tour that also featured members of the Grateful Dead and the Black Crowes. After meeting at a Los Angeles club, the couple realized they shared a deep love of roots music.
Irion grew up listening to jazz and rock bands such as the Beach Boys, Beatles and Rolling Stones, but he later started exploring the music of the Louvin Brothers, George Jones and Hank Williams. A defining moment came when he first attended the Black Mountain Music Festival in North Carolina.
“I was there all weekend,” he says. “I knew I was kind of heading in that direction and loved it, but then I saw it live — Jerry Douglas and Del McCoury — and I started looking at the songs people wrote, and then I started buying those records. I got a shovel and started digging down.”
Folk music was a part of Guthrie’s life, although it took some encouragement from Irion for her to learn to play the guitar and to set her poetry to music. She says it never crossed her mind to play music, even though her first live performance came at age 12 when her father was appearing at Carnegie Hall in New York.
“Nobody really was shocked that I didn’t make music,” she says. “That’s probably why it never occurred to me. My parents just figured I was going my own way and wasn’t really into it, so they never bothered me with it.”
Guthrie says her father tried to keep his career separate from his personal life when she was growing up with her brother and two sisters.
“Early on, when I was younger, though, I can remember the Dillards being in our house and picking out a bunch of tunes all night long,” she says. “My mom has a video that helps me remember. As I got older, he was always out on the road.”
One thing she has inherited from her father is a willingness to mix musical styles to find a unique sound.
“I love all kinds of music, and I like to include everything and everybody,” she says. “It’s really satisfying when you can do all those things at once. For us to get pigeonholed into some sort of genre is kind of limiting, so it’s nice to keep all the doors open.”
Having Seeger perform at their wedding was a bigger deal for the attendees than it was for Guthrie and Irion.
“We didn’t even think of it,” she says. “It was everybody else that went, ’Oh, my gosh.’ You don’t think of it when you’re that close.”
Irion acknowledges that some of Arlo’s fans have certain expectations from Sarah Lee as she moves forward in her music career. And when the interviewer suggests that Arlo occasionally attracts some rather bizarre admirers, she just laughs.
“You’re telling me!” she says. “Yeah, weird people. But he’s kind of strange himself, you know. He’s a weird dude. We’re all weird. It’s actually a compliment when people say we’re weird.”
Setting the record straight, Irion interjects, “They’re not weird. They’re the most loving family I’ve ever met in my whole entire life.”
“I know,” she says. “But it kind of gives you the freedom. As soon as you kind of say you’re weird, you can pretty much do whatever you want.”