Johnny Irion: Always Lookin' Out

Listen to Johnny Irion on MySpace...

By: Dennis Cook

Johnny Irion
Johnny Irion makes good music, plain and simple. It's not strictly rock or country or folk or pop but encompasses all these things in a way that makes one love music's glorious possibilities a little more each time you hear him sing. There's a care and attention to fine details - a beautifully phrased bridge or smartly tangled introduction - that speaks volumes about how wanting and wafer thin most contemporary radio fare has become.

Sometimes Irion makes his good music with his wife, Sarah Lee Guthrie, daughter of Arlo and granddaughter of possibly the finest workingman's tunesmith ever, Woody Guthrie. He's buddies with premiere singer-songwriters like Neal Casal, Kevn Kinney and Jayhawks leader Gary Louris. And sometimes, like on his end-to-end great new album, Ex Tempore (released August 7 on Rte. Eight/RCAM), he makes great music with guys who work with My Morning Jacket, Chatham County Line and Hobex. There's tremendous songcraft on Irion's latest, strong imagery delivered in short, melodically charged bursts. Everything, from the scattered flute to the warm denouements that carry tunes out, is in its right place, rising up from a well thought out base.

"I'll build around something," says Irion. "Like 'Good Cry' was a tune inspired by a friend that worked at a coffee shop and was crying one morning. It was a great morning for me - I'd gotten a lot of good sleep and I was up at 7 a.m., ready to kick and toke and other things - and she was really crying. We were the only people in the store and I tried to get her to tell me what's going on, what was the matter. She says, 'Oh nothing.' I walk up to the counter and there's a big pile of onions she's cutting, and I just couldn't get it out of my head the rest of the day. She said, 'I do this every morning, get it out.' I work on songs for a while. I do an initial write and, as cheesy as it sounds, it can be like wine. I've gotten to the point where I'm not stressed out if I don't finish the song in that first sitting. It'll come. I know that now."

Frontage Roads

You keep tellin' me to call in sick
So we can have our fun
But baby this grey dog is under a gun
But when you're sleepin' in my arms
I sleep like a pharoah
It makes me feel good

Sarah Lee and Johnny
While frequently compared to Gram Parsons (the lazy man's country-rock touchstone), Irion is oddly closer to someone like Todd Rundgren or Steve Winwood, a natural talent that blossoms early and keeps evolving. Irion garnered his first taste of industry attention while still a teenager with the band Queen Sarah Saturday, who readers of a certain age will recognize from their track "Seems" on the Empire Records soundtrack. While that band fizzled quickly, Irion kept on, eventually putting out his 2001 solo debut, Unity Lodge, a road hummer full of trucker hymns and bruised heart ruminations, followed by Sarah Lee's solo debut in 2002 and 2005's Sarah Lee and Johnny (as the duo is most often called) Exploration, a polished, emotionally mature update of George Jones and Tammy Wynette with less twang and room for a nice revamp of Pete Seeger's "Dr. King."

Jump to 2007 and Ex Tempore, an album that'd sound swell in a CD changer with Elton John's Honky Chateau, Jackson Browne's The Pretender and Linda Ronstadt's Prisoner In Disguise. Nakedly out of step with most of what makes it onto commercial radio today, it would have kicked out multiple Top 40 hits in 1976, which inspires Irion's succinct response, "Oh darn, 30 years late [sighs]. You add somebody playing a little violin, some pedal steel and somebody doing harmonies and all of the sudden it's 'vintage.' I don't get it."

"The name of the record is what it is [the Latin phrase translates to "without preparation"]. Not to take anything away from [co-producer] Ryan [Picket, who does front-of-house sound for MMJ] but this was what we had. No, we didn't have a $50,000 ribbon mic they're using in Nashville. It was like, 'Is this what we've got? Can we find something better? Okay, can we at least order out for Chinese food? [laughs].' We had fun and that's the whole point. If we can all get together and do that we're just fine."

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