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."

I'd always had that socially conscious thing that makes you want to say something but you don't know how. Woody and Pete [Seeger] taught me how to do it without being too preachy-teachy.

-Johnny Irion


In The Think Tank

Arlo Guthrie with son, Abe, daughter, Sarah Lee
And her husband, Johnny Irion
Irion's sweet, keening voice steers Ex Tempore's cleverly sculpted, deeply human tempests in a teapot - signaled by the cover painting - with a rare sureness. As haphazard as Irion paints the sessions, each cut feels fully fleshed with little touches - sinewy guitar solos, consciously warped keys, etc. - that's very different from his work with Sarah Lee or the Guthrie family.

"There's not a lot of feedback or double guitar with the family [laughs]. It's a fun way to stretch out," says Irion. "When I get an idea for a tune I know what I'm looking for, and hopefully you get lucky and get it. Like 'She Cast Fire' was an acoustic kind of song then Zeke [Hutchins] and Jay [Brown] - from Tift Merritt's band, The Carbines, one of two rhythm sections on the album - came in and played it straight, almost like an indie rock tune. I was like, 'No, no, it can't do that! It wants to be like [Dylan's] John Wesley Harding!' So we listened to John Wesley Harding and Jay started bouncing more on the bass and the drums are little more fluffy. I know what I'm trying to do, and hopefully I can relay that."

A new track like "Roman Candle" builds on Irion's existing gift for taking the commonplace and generating something new.

"That was inspired by great Southern writer Pat Conroy [best selling author of The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides] who was giving a talk somewhere in South Carolina and said, 'She was going off on me like a freakin' roman candle.' I thought, 'God, I love that!' So I processed it. In my early twenties I started reading about The Beatles. I never had someone teach me to write songs, so I came about it in a whole crazy kind of way. I wish I'd heard some Woody Guthrie songs when I was younger - though I don't know if I'd write like I do now if I had. So, I'd read about how John or Paul got an idea - 'Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!' coming from a poster - taught me to follow the freedom of what gets you off, what makes your mind go."

Johnny Irion
"When you itch to make a record you just have to do it. After Exploration I wrote a bunch of tunes and I didn't know if it was gonna be a new band or just some weird outtakes. But with these guys - Zeke and Jay and Brian [Howard] and Dave [Johnson] - it started sounding really good and the pieces fell into the right places where suddenly I had this thing. Now that it's out I'm glad that it's over [laughs]. Hopefully it helps Sarah Lee and I with moving forward. It's so exciting to me that we could make this record, put it out and someone in Japan or anywhere else can hear it. It's always exciting for an independent artist to do this. I'm still very album-oriented, which could be a bad thing. They're all little movies to me, and I love the process. To go in and do one song is such a teaser [laughs]."

However, they are discovering the challenges of getting the word out about a record that doesn't fit into neat categories.

"That's one of the thing we're finding out, where we wonder if maybe we should have just made a folk record or a rock record or a singer-songwriter record. It's gotten so freakin' genre-fied. If you want to take people on a ride it's even harder," laments Irion.

Fragile Humans

A standout on Ex Tempore is the unvarnished lullaby "Brush Yr. Teeth Blues #56."

Sarah Lee, Olivia and Johnny in the studio
"It was inspired by Olivia [his five-year-old daughter] but also other people who have kids who wear pirate suits," Irion explains. "I'm at the age where this is what's happening. It's great, one of the best things in the world. You look at the world TOTALLY different. With everything that's going on you wonder about what you can do to help maintain things. It fires you up in that sense. There's the Dylan tune on New Morning ["Sign On The Window"] where he sings, 'Build me a cabin in Utah/Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout/Have a bunch of kids who call me Pa/That must be what it's all about.' I just love that whole thing, a song about a day or a vibe."

Like a lot of his catalog, "Brush Yr. Teeth" captures moments and not so much freezes them but lets them live on. It's a lot like what happens with children in a way, where our timeline doesn't so much stop as fade into theirs. Johnny and Sarah Lee just welcomed their second little girl into the world recently, and one wonders at the complications a growing family places on touring musicians.

Sarah Lee and Johnny
"It's totally doable. I think the orbit that Sarah Lee and I are touring in is sometimes a little more feasible than hitting the rock clubs," says Irion. "We play folkier rooms and festivals, which are just more kid friendly in general. Usually there's somebody there who wants to watch them. At a club it's just the bartender! I was talking to Sarah this morning and she said, 'You know what they say? One is one and two is twenty.' I just groaned."

And there's the matter of sharing a creative life with his wife as well as raising a family.

"We're constantly in the bubble," Irion observes. "We just got off a year-long tour with the family. That was a great tour, and in the midst of that I was doing the mixing and some of the recording on [Ex Tempore], which was so great. We'd do like two weeks with Arlo and Abe and the rest of the family where we were doing 4-5 songs a night. Then I could go to the studio and work on this weird stuff [laughs]. Which is not that weird at the end of the day but when you're playing 'Union Made' and other old, very traditional folk songs 'Roman Candle' can sound like Sonic Youth."

When you're playing "Union Made" and other old, very traditional folk songs "Roman Candle" can sound like Sonic Youth.

-Johnny Irion


The Family

Woodie Guthrie
It's not often one marries into a cultural phenomenon but Irion did just that when he joined the Guthrie clan. Spend a little time with the man and his music and you see it's a natural fit but just mention Arlo Guthrie and his name has a connotation in our culture that's way different than saying Ted or Bob. Being a Guthrie means participating in a legacy that Woody started in the 1940s.

"If it had not been for this family I don't know what I'd be doing in my life. I think all this happened for a reason. Sarah Lee is everything to me. It changed my life meeting her. I fell in love, and I never thought about having a family. That was the furthest thing from my mind when I moved out to L.A. in 1997. Meeting her is the best move I ever made. I think it's fate," offers Irion, his voice achingly sincere.

"I'd always had that socially conscious thing that makes you want to say something but you don't know how. Woody and Pete [Seeger] taught me how to do it without being too preachy-teachy," adds Irion.

"As far as the legacy now, well, even people who book us say, 'We were looking for something a little more rockin'.' Well, did you listen to the records? It's a dull edge sword. You constantly feel you're proving yourself to those kind of people. We like it all. We play Rhodes piano. Is that folk? Is that rock? We like to sit down and play acoustic. We like to play with bass and drums. We might even throw on a drum machine, and it's like Dylan plugging in."

"I would hope if people have any preconceptions they'd put them aside. Some people think they know who Woody is - the guy who wrote 'This Land Is Your Land' - but they don't really know. He was also an unbelievable artist. He wrote books, he wrote freakin' plays and he wore it on his sleeve and he really cared. That's been a huge inspiration to believe you can do anything you want with hard work. He tells us, 'You can do what you want to do and who says you can't?'"

Johnny Irion
That indomitable spirit infuses Irion's decision to make the sophomore solo album he wanted and put it out himself. "We've had to really do it ourselves. We'll see how this one goes, guinea pig ourselves on this one. And who's to say this was the proper one to do that with," laughs Irion.

In defiance of this vinyl killing age, they just released a 7" single of "She Cast Fire" b/w "Eyes Like A Levee," which should be a staple of every jukebox in every honky tonk if there's any justice.

"This music thing is a crazy thing," muses Irion. "We've been building a house, and building a house is a lot like producing a record. We picked a really good crew, and we were able to come up with some money [pause] from the bank [laughs]. Though with construction you can actually see where the money's going [laughs]. It's an obtainable goal but for me, solo, it's a long road. It's not the easiest thing in the world to do but most things worth doing usually aren't."

I know our goals were all mixed up
Its hard to drink from an empty cup
The way it was we knew we couldn't last
But now there's nothing that we can't get passed

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‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^› {¬¿¬} starstarstarstarstar Wed 8/29/2007 05:40AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^›      {¬¿¬}

this is a palatable album. its kinda folk acoustic in nature.

its simple and straight forward. quite ok.

of course its not a jamband, any more than Rilo Kiley is or jason isbell.

I really do not mind jambase writing about everything in the music world, even if some of it may be irritating to us. I like to keep up on music, even if I am not a fan of certain artists.

snappy Wed 8/29/2007 08:06AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


Milesgone, appreciate you trying to be open minded. It matters, not only to us at JamBase but also in a cosmic sense. We try to keep things diverse here and more so all the time. With certainty, you won't like everything, no one will, but we wouldn't include an artist review or feature if we didn't believe they have merit. My goal in writing about Johnny Irion was to expose this community to a great singer-songwriter whose admired by his peers, tied into a great folk legacy AND tours regularly, thus living up to our motto of "Go See Live Music." It might not be Bisco or Phish but it's good music and at a bottom line that's what we're about at JamBase. We dislike any genre straight jacket or unhealthy limitation. That's something we learned from our love of jam artists and have carried into new realms over time. Again, thanks for working with us towards the future of this place.

bristone starstarstarstarstar Wed 8/29/2007 06:01PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


i have decent expectations from this guy since i love his album "exploration" with Sarah Lee Guthrie - which i highly recommend if you're a fan of guy-girl harmonies a la whiskeytown, etc... rock on johnny and thanks for coming to charleston - see you at the pour house!