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Exclusive Q and A: Sarah Lee Guthrie Talks Woody, Rock and the Guthrie Family Legacy

OurStage Exclusive InterviewsTalking to Sarah Lee Guthrie, daughter of Arlo and granddaughter of Woody, you’d never know she is folk music royalty. Even though her relatives have created some of the most enduring songs in the American music catalog”everything from “This Land is Your Land” (written by Woody in 1940) to “Alice’s Restaurant” (released by Arlo in 1967)”Guthrie seems perfectly comfortable embracing her own rock style of music while honoring her folk legacy.

Although Guthrie and her musical partner and husband, Johnny Irion, are in the midst of creating their next album, the two have halted work to join Arlo and the rest of the Guthrie family on the “Guthrie Family Reunion” tour that will wind its way to a dozen venues and music festivals. To honor what would have been Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday on July 14, the family will perform sets that include Woody’s songs, Arlo’s songs, and new material written by the Guthrie family. Sarah Lee and Johnny will sing their original songs as well as “Airliner” by Wilco, whose members Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone are producing the duo’s latest album due in 2013.

Sarah Lee Guthrie took some time out to talk about her family, her music and why she thinks her 9-year old daughter Olivia Nora Irion”known to the family as ONI”may well contribute to the family’s music catalog.

OS: Your own personal music”which you make with Johnny”is more rock than folk. Yet you also embrace your folk heritage. How do you balance the two formats?

SLG: It just comes naturally, really. Johnny and I love all kinds of music and we always put them all into the show. Johnny loves to rock but we also love to tip our hat to history. That is so important. But really, we just love experimenting and finding new voices. That is what [our career together] has uncovered. We really have a good time doing that and can’t wait to create more. It is very exciting for us.

OS: A lot of second- or third-generation artists talk a lot about the fans that come to their shows. Some find it frustrating that the fans are there more to embrace the past than to listen to the newer music. You’ve never really voiced displeasure about any of that.

SLG: I have to say that for the most part, actually the whole part, the fan interactions I’ve had have been very positive. They always talk about how much Woody’s music meant to them growing up and how much Arlo’s songs have changed their lives. There are moments where it worries me and I wonder what they expect of me. But they’ve been very positive and very gracious. It’s really been a great thing to have fans embrace the legacy.

OS: And now you’re out on tour this summer with the whole Guthrie family in celebration of what would have been Woody’s 100th birthday. Tell us about that.

SLG: We can’t wait, actually. Even Arlo is playing some songs by Woody that he never played [publicly] before. It really feels right now for all of us to celebrate Woody and pay tribute to the man that got us to where we all are today. And it’s a great time in our country’s history to play these songs as well. People all over the world are celebrating Woody and we want to bring his music to them.

OS: I understand that you and Johnny are close to releasing a new album  that is being produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco.

SLG: We are about half way through [recording] the album. It has been a very, very interesting, very unique experience for us. Wilco, in general, loves to push forward and they are one of our favorite bands so this whole experience has been tremendous. A real revelation.

OS: Your last album Bright Examples was so well received. Will this new album have the same type of rock edge? Is it the same type of sound?

SLG: It has expanded beyond that. Bright Examples is a very beautiful album. When I left the studio, all I could think is that the music is very beautiful. I love Jeff. He is the guy who comes in and will tell you if you’re delivering the message or not. That has really helped us make music that really exposes us. So while Bright Examples had a gorgeous sheen, this is a little more raw and exposed.

OS: I know you’re in the embryonic stages of making the album, but tell us what songs to expect on it.

SLG:  Some of the songs we’ve been doing a little while on stage. And a lot of the songs we’ve been writing in our basement. This is really the first time Johnny and I have sat down and cowritten a lot and it’s been great. We have been writing the songs and giving them to Jeff and Pat Sansone (also of Wilco), they are co producing the album, and letting them choose.

OS: So when can we expect the album?

SLG: We are planning for it to be released in 2013. I can’t be any more specific than that.

OS: I see in recent reviews of your shows that your daughter Olivia has been performing with you and Johnny.

SLG: Olivia has been our little starlet!  She has grown up on the road, certainly more than I did. She spent a lot of her childhood in a van [as her parents toured the country]. She loves performing on stage. She’s an old pro! We have been teaching her harmonies for the summer tour. She even wrote a song about the Fourth of July and cole slaw. I wish I could send you the recording of it! She’s very proud of it.

OS: So it sounds as if the next generation of Guthrie performers is already starting.

SLG: Definitely.When Olivia told me she wrote a song, Sophia (Guthrie and Irion’s 4-year-old daughter) said she wrote a song, too, and then just says some things off the top of her head. So they have these little songwriting competitions. It makes it a lot of fun.

Find out more about Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion and the Guthrie family tour on their website.