By Andrew Gilhooley / 411
Few duos can claim as strong a musical and literary heritage and Johnny Irion. Guthrie is, as her last name might give away, the daughter of Arlo Guthrie and the granddaughter of Woody. Irion, on the other hand, is the grandson of tenor Fred Knight who sang lead in the traveling Broadway show “Oklahoma!” In addition, his uncle is Thomas Steinbeck, son of John Steinbeck. With such a pedigree it is hardly surprising their music has drawn considerable praise in the two years they have been playing together.
Guthrie has been a performer from childhood. At age 12 she sang with her father on “Grow Big Songs”, an album of Woody’s children’s songs. When Arlo hit the road to promote it she came along and made her first public performance at 14 at Carnegie Hall with her father and Pete Seeger. Even so, she did not consider music -as a career.
Irion also started young. At 15, his rock band, Queen Sarah Saturday landed a deal with an alternative label, released a CD and toured nationally When it broke up, Irion joined Dillon Fence, which played as support on the Black Crowes’ U.S. and European tours. At the end of the tour, Irion wanted a change of scene and, encouraged by Crowes’ vocalist Chris Robinson, moved to Los Angeles where he met Sarah Lee Guthrie.
Guthrie had come to California to attend college but the chance meeting with Irion ended up steering her life and career in a different direction. “I Went to a bluegrass show soon after getting to L.A and was introduced to Johnny,” she recalled. “He asked me out, and we’ve been together ever since.” The couple were married in 1999 and have a 5-month-old daughter, Olivia.
Irion taught Guthrie how to play guitar and she began writing songs, putting some of her existing poetry to music. The duo signed to Arlo Guthrie’s Rising Son label yet decided to release separate debut albums. The resulting two albums released simultaneously display an interesting contrast between the two musicians’ styles.
In live performance Guthrle and Irion complement each other perfectly They alternate between singing lead and harmony playing songs written by each of them as well as traditional songs and Woody Guthrie compositions.
A critic from The Independent described their show as “a perfect balance of traditional music accompanied by original songs and stories making them a refreshing and unpredictable addition to American roots music.”
Guthrie and Irion play two dates locally this coming week. On Monday they play at San Jose’s Espresso Garden and Tuesday they visit Henflings in Ben Lomond.
First published in “411”, The Salinas Californian, January 9, 2003
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