Growing up Guthrie: Sarah Lee stakes her own claim in folk history
To call someone folk royalty may sound like a bit of an oxymoron. But if ever there were such a thing, Sarah Lee Guthrie is it.
Guthrie is the daughter of Arlo, the granddaughter of Woody and a folk force in her own right. Tonight, Thursday, she brings her legacy and talent to the lucky crowd at Saint Rocke in Hermosa Beach with the help of her husband, Johnny Irion. Irion is the other half of the folk duo. He also happens to be John Steinbeck’s grandson.
“It used to be somewhat awkward for me to be introduced me as Woody’s granddaughter,” Guthrie said on the phone from Portland where the couple played last weekend. “It felt awkward for a long time for people to make a fuss about it. I didn’t really understand it. Something finally clicked when we were celebrating his centennial. I started to feel more comfortable and started to embrace the fact that it was considered cool.”
Despite growing up in a tight-knit family under her folk legend father Arlo Guthrie, Sarah Lee didn’t start playing music until she met her husband.
“I met Johnny right after I moved to Los Angeles,” Guthrie said. “I didn’t really start playing my own music until Johnny. He just made it seem fun. He put a guitar in my hand, taught me a few chords. My family found out about it and I ended up on the road with dad week later.”
Guthrie became her dad’s tour manager. All four of the Guthrie children worked as part of Arlo’s team.
“I was planning on going to go to college, but ended up on the road with Dad instead,” said Guthrie. “That was my college. Dad has always been so generous with his career and he let all of us kids be part of it. Maybe just because we had a lack of better things to do, we all got involved and we are a very close family because of it. One of my sisters is his manager, my other sister handles the books, and my brother does all of the technical stuff. And I was guitar and backup singer.”
Sarah Lee and Johnny met in 1999 through mutual friend Chris Robinson of the Black Crows, who Guthrie had met during her father’s Further tour. Soon after, the couple started playing as a trio along with Tao Rodríguez-Seeger, grandson of Pete Seeger, under the name RIG.
“There was this moment Johnny and I realized we should be playing together,” she said. “Johnny and Tao were playing a show. I was in the audience and I realized I wanted to play, too.”
After touring with RIG and then releasing solo albums, Sarah Lee and Johnny realized they were better together than they were alone.
“We were fighting it for a while,” she said. “We were both putting out these solo records and then realized how silly it was. So then we released our first duo album in 2004.”
Last year Guthrie and Irion released “Wassaic Way,” an album they created with the help of Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. Tweedy has a history with the Guthrie family. He enlisted their help with 1998’s “Mermaid Avenue,” a collection of unreleased Woody Guthrie lyrics set to music by Tweedy and British singer Billy Bragg. The album brought to life unheard treasures like “California Stars.”
“I had already felt this kinship to Jeff,” said Guthrie. “Him working with Woody’s lyrics really brought him into the bigger family. And my Aunt Nora was really close with him. Our “Wassaic Way” record really came out of Johnny and me joining him onstage. We thought, ‘Okay, Jeff likes us and he can help us.’”
After writing and performing strictly folk songs, Guthrie and Irion were ready for a slightly edgier sound. Tweedy was the natural choice for producer, as a musician who has traversed the road from country to alt-country to rock.
“We wanted more guts and spirit in this album and had a vision for the songs that we knew Jeff could execute,” Guthrie said. “Wilco has such a well-oiled machine in their studio and practice space. We were so lucky to experience the way Jeff works and to be inside of that machine. It’s incredible the way he pulls things out of you and the arrangements he comes up with. He is so generous.”
Even a musician with a legacy like Sarah Lee Guthrie’s can get star-struck and she found herself intimidated at the thought of playing with Tweedy.
“I was so nervous when we first walked into that studio,” she said. “But Jeff was so cool. We started by singing ‘California Stars.’ Jeff just dissipated all my fears. He doesn’t just come down to your level, he goes to below your level so you are comfortable. He is so sweet to be aware of that. My dad has always done that, too. They make people understand that they are on the same level, that they are just a person. They don’t live on cloud icon.”
The songs from “Wassaic Way” will make up the majority of Sarah Lee and Johnny’s set on Thursday night, but the couple will be playing songs from their larger catalog, as well.
“We are just a duo, and our shows are really representative of who we are,” said Guthrie. “We will play songs from our first record and other albums. It’s really about what holds up. There’s a message to our performance. Something we want people to walk away with.”
And, after last week’s sad passing of Pete Seeger, the couple will pay tribute to the man who greatly influenced them, personally and musically.
“Pete was such a huge part of our lives,” she said. “We have been doing a few of his songs just to honor him in our own way.”
Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion perform on Thursday, February 6 at 8:30 p.m. at Saint Rocke, 142 Pacific Coast Highway in Hermosa Beach. Doors open at 5 p.m. and tickets are $10. Call (310) 372-0035 or visit saintrocke.com.