Johnny Irion On His Artistic Lineage Johnny Irion's family is rich in writing and music. His great uncle is John Steinbeck and his wife and collaborator is Arlo Guthrie's daughter. He talks with Scott Simon about his new album.

Johnny Irion On His Artistic Lineage

Johnny Irion On His Artistic Lineage

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Johnny Irion's family is rich in writing and music. His great uncle is John Steinbeck and his wife and collaborator is Arlo Guthrie's daughter. He talks with Scott Simon about his new album.


Johnny Irion is from a musical and literary family. Where to begin? His great-uncle was John Steinbeck. His wife and musical collaborator is Sarah Lee Guthrie. She is Arlo Guthrie's daughter, which makes her Woody Guthrie's granddaughter. No surprise then that Johnny Irion's new album, "Driving Friend," is full of stories and harmonies.


JOHNNY IRION: (Singing) To the stream the leaves will catch (ph) as our reflection's looking back. I wave to the trains' conductors as they go by.

SIMON: Johnny Irion joins us now from the studios of WAMC in Albany, N.Y. Thanks so much for being with us.

IRION: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What comes first to you, the story or the song?

IRION: Oh, I think every song is different (laughter). I love melody, but every song is different. You know, every song has a story. You know, a song like "Fishin' Pole". My daughter, who I wrote that song for now, Olivia - she's now 15. She wanted to go fishing, and there was this fishing pole in the general store. And I just woke up that morning and sat down at the piano and just played it. And that one all kind of happened at the same time.


IRION: (Singing) As our reflection's looking back, I relish the summer.

SIMON: Your new album's on the Blackwing music label. Blackwing's a pencil company, isn't it?

IRION: They are. I'm holding one in my hand right now (laughter).

SIMON: I'm holding one in my hand. We all - and so is our producer and editor.

IRION: So, yes, they are a pencil company/music label. And they're also a beautiful foundation. And so - with "Driving Friend," too, every copy sold goes towards the Blackwing Foundation, which helps keep music programs alive in schools.

SIMON: We might explain the legend of the Blackwing. I'm holding the 602 - half the pressure...

IRION: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...Twice the speed, which, notably, was used by - or is used to this day by Stephen Sondheim. That's why I use one because, you know, I'm hoping to write like Stephen Sondheim.

IRION: Well, that's a good...

SIMON: But, John, your great-uncle did, too, didn't he - John Steinbeck?

IRION: He did. John would sharpen X amount a day, you know, while he was writing "The Grapes Of Wrath." And that was his day's work, you know, if he had plowed through 24 or how many ever it was that day.

SIMON: You and Sarah Lee Guthrie have been married, I'm told, for 18 years now.

IRION: Nineteen in October (laughter).

SIMON: My gosh. Well then, happy anniversary.

IRION: Thank you.

SIMON: You're both musicians. Tell me about this song, but let's listen to a little bit of it first - "Salvage The Day".


IRION: (Singing) What we need is a coastline view where the sun sets. I'm down with you. I'm there with you.

That song, I think, if you listen to it, and if you have been married 19 years, even if you haven't and you're planning on getting married today, there's validity in taking a moment to slow down before you react, and listen to what that other person has to say. So I love Sarah Lee very, very, very much. And I love that song. To me, that song is a perfect kind of morning for me. I got some coffee, and I went down to my grandmother Rubilee's piano in my basement in Massachusetts, just sat down and wrote the song.


IRION: (Singing) Please, don't walk away. Please, don't walk away. The songs already known (ph).

SIMON: You and Sarah Lee Guthrie, two daughters - 15 and 10. So you make music together. You have a family together. That's a lot of collaboration, isn't it?

IRION: You know, the last couple of years, Sarah Lee has been spending a lot of time with Arlo on the road.

SIMON: Performing with her father.

IRION: Yes. And it comes at a really good time for that father-daughter to be out there and experiencing those nights together. So we've been doing a lot of juggling the last couple of years. We've learned how to make it work, you know, and there's certain - some holidays we can't be together, and we've come to accept that.

SIMON: That's a good way of kind of introducing another song we wanted to ask you about. Let's listen to "Forever Wingman."


IRION: (Singing) There's a weekend every night but not at home. And my little league players are getting old. Count down the nights, say it my per diem (ph). Try and keep it light. Ten more shows till I see them. There's a weekend in every night.

Being on the road is hard. You never know what night it is sometimes (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah.

IRION: But, yeah, the little league players are getting older. You know, there's dance, there's softball, you have a couple yourself, I know.

SIMON: Just about the same ages.

IRION: Yeah. You see people, and they have the baby, and you're like, oh, it's such a cute baby. And it happens fast. And it's so true that...

SIMON: Yeah.

IRION: ...It's hard being on the road. And with FaceTime now and texting, it helps a little bit, but it's not the same.

SIMON: Are your daughters interested in music, or anything but, at this point in their lives?

IRION: You know, I think there's a 50-50 X-factor there. It's like anything but - you know, Olivia knows how to play guitar, and she sings. But (laughter) if I walk into the room, she's not going to do it. But she just, you know, she's like, can you get me on the guest list for this show?

And then, there's Sophia, who is pretty much the opposite of Olivia right now. She is playing ukulele, and she's kind of fearless. She will walk up to people and sing songs. And people are like, oh, my gosh, you have to get her on "The Voice."

SIMON: Yeah.

IRION: And it's fun to watch how they are both handling it because they grew up around shows. They grew up traveling. But they've also seen the stress. And as Tom Paxton said, there's hundreds of dollars to be made in folk music.

SIMON: (Laughter).


SIMON: Johnny Irion. His new album, "Driving Friend." Thanks so much for being with us.

IRION: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: And may all your pencils be sharp and beautiful.

IRION: I look forward to sending you a thank-you note.

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