Miley Cyrus, Willow Smith — nepotism in the music industry has reached comical heights in recent years. Even the talented ones, like Solange Knowles, are a little hard to root for.
But in the case of Sarah Lee Guthrie — daughter of Arlo, granddaughter of Woody — and Johnny Irion, nepotism isn't quite the word. "Cosmic inevitability" seems more appropriate. The 34-year-old Guthrie didn't pick up a guitar until she was an adult, around which time she met Irion, a songwriter who also comes from an artistically influential family of the Dust Bowl era. (His uncle is author Thomas Steinbeck, and his great-uncle is John Steinbeck.) The two married in 1999 and have been making music together since.
Listen to their gorgeous Americana songs, and the idea that there are high-powered agents pulling music-biz strings for these cultural scions is immediately rendered ridiculous. Bright Examples, from 2011, is a dreamy folk-pop gem, all '70s AM-radio and Laurel Canyon tones. That one was produced by Andy Cabic and Thom Monahan of Vetiver, and featured guest spots from Gary Louris and Mark Olson of the Jayhawks. The pair's latest, Wassaic Way, was produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone. (Not to complicate matters too much, but on Wilco's Mermaid Avenue collaborations with Billy Bragg, the group recorded new music to unreleased Woody Guthrie song lyrics.)
If you're a fan of any of the performers mentioned above, there's a pretty good chance you'll cotton to Guthrie and Irion's music. In advance of their show Saturday at Davey's Uptown Ramblers Club, The Pitch dialed up the couple last week at the home they share with their two children in western Massachusetts.
The Pitch: I just recently discovered Bright Examples. It's so great!
Johnny Irion: Thanks! Yeah, I thought the Vetiver guys just did such a wonderful job with it. I met them through Gary [Louris] on his solo tour, and Andy [Cabic] and I hit it off. Vetiver was touring at the time, and they came over and hung at our house. I loved that [Vetiver] Thing of the Past album so much. It really got me excited about recording again. So it just kind of went from there.
You guys just released "Chairman Meow," a song from the upcoming album. It seems a little more upbeat and sunnier than some of the stuff on Bright Examples. Is that generally true for the rest of the album?
JI: I'd say the sunny songs are sunnier, but when it's stormier, it's a little stormier. Jeff was able to really accentuate the ebbs and flows of what we do.
Can you talk a little about the Wilco connection?
JI: Jeff had known of Sarah Lee and I prior but hadn't seen us play. Then we did a show in Three Oaks, Michigan, opening for [Sansone's band] the Autumn Defense. And Jeff was there. Luckily I didn't know he was there. I've thought of that several times, actually, how glad I am that I didn't know he was there. After our set, he came by and said he loved it. Then he asked us to play [the Wilco-curated festival] Solid Sound two years ago.
How much influence did Tweedy and Sansone have on the way Wassaic Way turned out?
JI: I mean, a lot. We had definite ideas about what we wanted to do, but there were also about two and a half or three records there to make, and it was kind of a matter of which record to make from them. So we brought in all these songs, and he [Jeff] and Patrick picked the tunes. So yeah, they were really instrumental in the process. Some songs we were surprised they picked. Others we were relieved because we were hoping they'd make the cut. With the sound — you know, with [2001 Wilco album] Yankee [Hotel Foxtrot] — Jeff kind of dissembled the Americana senses he's always had, and we were hoping he could bring a little of that to this record. So there's more drum machines, big swells, these kinds of soundscapes. We wanted an Americana record, but we didn't want every song to sound like Harvest or something. I think we can do that on our own.