In the spring, on the 20th anniversary of her first foray into a musical career—a solo live performance at 14 of Pete Seeger’s “Sailing Down My Golden River”—she was named to the Alternate Root magazine’s Top 30 Americana Roots Female Vocalists Right Now. Long-celebrated singers Emmylou Harris, Susan Tedeschi and Bonnie Raitt keep her company on the list.
In August, Guthrie and her husband, Johnny Irion, released “Wassaic Way,” a compact disc on their own label, Rte 8 Records. Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone— members of Wilco, an alternative modern rock band based in Chicago—produced the recording. Guthrie and Irion recently embarked on an 18-month tour promoting the CD Wassaic Way, named after a station in New York where they regularly catch the Metro North Train for the two-hour ride to New York City.
With their six-piece band, they play The Haunt in Ithaca on Tuesday, Sept. 10, and the Westcott Theater in Syracuse on Wednesday, Sept. 11.
Guthrie is the granddaughter of legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie and, at 34, the youngest daughter of his son, Arlo. Irion, 44, is the great-nephew of John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath. But Irion and Guthrie dismiss any ideas that they are artistic royalty themselves.
“I’m nowhere near an icon,” Guthrie said during an interview last week from her home in Washington, Mass., high in the Berkshires.
Although she is flattered by Alternate Root’s honor, she does not find the quality of her lilting voice to be stunning, as it has been described. Instead, she said she sings from the heart and sees herself as someone who loves to revel in the “simplicity of being the singer of songs.
“I have come so far,” Guthrie said about the first solo she sang “in front of people,” in 1993 during a concert with her family and Seeger at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, in Vienna, Va. “The journey has had its ups and downs, but I started on a high. I have had moments so generously handed to me.”
But not so with Wassaic Way, which Guthrie describes as a project that she and Irion conceived and executed without help from her family. It is comprised entirely of songs she and Irion penned.
“Johnny is the most prolific writer I know,” Guthrie said. “We had way too many songs we had been writing and holding for this project. We sent in more than 50 songs, and they got whittled down.”
After composing most in their “writing shed” on their property in Massachusetts, they taped them in their basement studio and sent them on to Tweedy and Sansone, who made the final choices.
“I was surprised about what they picked, and what they didn’t pick,” Guthrie recalled, noting that a ballad she wrote that she had hoped would make the cut, didn’t. “I think we set out to make a hardcore Americana album, but I think it’s got more than that. It’s more Wilco than anticipated.”
Take “Chairman Meow,” for example.
Irion wrote the eclectic, playful song after accompanying someone to feed a friend’s cat at her “crib in Koreatown” in Los Angeles. The lines just rolled around in his head and took on a life of their own.
“I didn’t really like the song right away,” Guthrie said with a teasing laugh.
“I mean, who is this about, really? But he got this hooked in his head.”
The cuts on the CD range from the catchy “Chairman Meow” to the contemplative “Sleep on It.” There is also “Hurricane Window,” a ballad about Louisiana in post-Hurricane Katrina days. Irion, Guthrie and her family did several benefits to help musical venues and musicians after the devastating storm in 2005.
Guthrie and Irion weren’t exactly unknown to Tweedy and Sansone, who as Wilco have recorded three volumes of unpublished Woody Guthrie songs since 1998 in the “Mermaid Avenue” series. Nora Guthrie, Sara Lee Guthrie’s aunt, was the producer.
But as Guthrie pointed out, that didn’t mean Tweedy and Sansone, who have also produced for the band Low and for Mavis Staples and given them artful, ambitious sounds, had to agree to produce Wassaic Way. They got up the courage to ask after the Wilco veterans stopped backstage at a show by Guthrie and Irion. They complimented Irion; Guthrie was out front at that point, selling albums and T-shirts and meeting fans.
Disappointed she didn’t get to talk with Tweedy, it also got her to thinking he would be her fantasy album producer.
“Stopping to see Johnny, it was a huge ego boost for us. So we contacted them later on, asked and, amazingly, they said, ‘Yes,’” Guthrie said, admitting to be “star-struck” at the beginning of the recording sessions in the Wilco loft studio in Chicago. “But Jeff just put in so much time and creativity. He just dove in and made it better. And he was entirely humble and down to earth.”
Of the four studio albums that Guthrie and Irion recorded during the past eight years, Wassaic Way is by far the most independent, which means that they have to promote it themselves.
The independence doesn’t come from any animosity toward her family; she said she and Irion and their daughters—Olivia, 11, and Sophie, 6—will perform with her father, brother, sisters and their children at Carnegie Hall in November and at other family shows here and there. All of the Guthrie siblings are musical and extremely close.
“It’s trudging through and seeing what Johnny and I can do with these songs,” she said. “It’s about living up to something and doing this on our own. People should know we’re not in a great big tour bus. We’re traveling around in a van.”