Hard Travelin’: Hittin’ the Carolina highway with Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion
Saturday is one of those gorgeous Carolina days when the air warms and spring is imminent. Doors open to air out houses and the feel of the sun on your bare arms is a rarified pleasure.
I drive two wheels of my car onto the lawn of my front yard and my Trinidadian friend Ryan drags out a duffel bag of tools so we can jack up the car and remove the alternator. I plug the boom box up on the front porch and blast Los Lobos. It feels good to be alive, and to have all five senses jolting me out of a winter depression.
Meanwhile, somewhere on the Carolina interstate, Johnny Irion is sleeping off a hangover in a sleek and spacious black Dodge van. He’ll explain later during a quick midday stop in Greensboro with his singing partner and wife Sarah Lee Guthrie that he reunited with an old friend after last night’s gig in Wilmington, and it was better to keep drinking and relish each other’s company than wind it up at a decent hour.
‘“We stayed up ’til five a.m.,’” he says. ‘“I had this much in [my bottle] and he had this much in his, and we said let’s just finish it ‘– and all of a sudden it’s four hours later. It’s just one of those things.’”
Sarah Lee and Johnny straggle into the High Point Road Border’s bookstore a half an hour late, guitar cases in hand. Tuning up, Johnny ruefully sips from a paper cup of coffee provided courtesy of the house. He’s dressed in a denim jacket with a giant ‘Farm Aid’ patch sewn on the back, and sunglasses that never leave his face. Sarah Lee, a petite and pretty woman with curly long brown hair who is the granddaughter of the legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie, waves at the patrons and mutters: ‘“Sorry we’re late.’”
Kevn Kinney, front man for the renowned Athens, Ga. Southern rock outfit Drivin’ n’ Cryin’, works the soundboard. He’ll open for Sarah Lee and Johnny tonight at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro. Since this is an acoustic gig, drummer Dave Johnson and bass player Brian Howard enjoy a respite by browsing the music magazines in the racks. Jill Miller tends to the Guthrie-Irion couple’s 2-year old daughter out in the van.
The pair’s first full-length recording, Exploration, hit stores in the United States two days earlier. They started their tour in their hometown of Columbia, SC, hit Wilmington, swung through the Piedmont, and are due in Nashville, various towns in Texas, and parts beyond in the next couple weeks.
Sarah Lee handles much of the singing, and a lot of the storytelling to boot (storytelling comes pretty naturally when your granddad is Woody, your dad is Arlo, and you grow up hanging out with a lot of Seeger and Elliot kids). Johnny seems most comfortable backing Sarah Lee with deft lead guitar picking, trills of dobro, songbird harmonica or his capable vocal harmonizing. After a couple songs, he whispers a request to Sarah Lee that she sing one of her songs, ‘“49-49,’”which she doesn’t think is very good.
She sings it anyway, and explains: ‘“Johnny just woke up three minutes ago.’”
Later, as they unplug their guitars and head over to a table to autograph their CD, Johnny apologizes for the quality of his voice. He’s fighting a cold and trying to preserve his pipes for the show tonight in Carrboro.
Hardly anyone would have known the difference.
The first song they play, ‘“In Lieu of Flowers,’” is a timeless-sounding folk-country number that conveys the plaintive desire of a lover with more than enough faults trying to find a way to make amends. Johnny Lee’s guitar picking traces out the melody. His wife sings ‘“What would it take to make you smile?’” in the kind of clear, caressing voice that carries easily over the clink of beer bottles in a Saturday night bar. Only here, the clear plastic cups filled with iced lattes don’t make much noise. Johnny’s voice is warm and relaxed, with just the hint of a rasp, as it wraps around Sarah Lee’s. Their harmonizing unmistakably evokes the country soul of a young Emmylou Harris and a road-weary Gram Parsons during their Grievous Angel period.
The two of them have definitely come a long way and attained some hard-won satisfactions. In broad strokes, Johnny first gained notice playing with a Durham trance rock band called Queen Sarah Saturday that was supposed to become huge, but abruptly imploded. Then came an alternative country band called Dillon Fence. Sarah Lee decided to forego a college education to manage her dad’s music career.
She and Johnny both ended up in Los Angeles, where they met each other and got married. They moved together to Columbia, SC, where Johnny was born. It’s a town not known for its folk music scene and it’s certainly nothing like LA.
‘“It’s because they need us there,’” Sarah is fond of saying.
A music career. A family. It’s almost perfect harmony.
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