By all accounts, husband-and-wife duo Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion are happy in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, their home since moving from Columbia, S.C., in 2007. The two draw songwriting inspiration from the area’s major seasonal changes, friends in their small town (among them a highway department worker, a timber framer and an organic farmer) and the ghosts of Henry David Thoreau and Robert Frost. But they do occasionally miss aspects of the South.
“I’ll be taking a walk and it’ll hit me: I’m like, ‘Oh, I’d like to be in Beaufort right now looking at some Spanish moss or at the Hunter-Gatherer in Columbia on jazz night,’” Irion says. “It doesn’t happen a lot — but I do love Asheville. I’ve always wanted to make a record at Echo Mountain, so I hope to one day.”
The couple return to the area for a Thursday, Dec. 4, show at Isis Restaurant & Music Hall in support of their 2013 album, Wassaic Way. While Irion has called the sonically diverse collection “a departure from a folk duo,” he notes that he and Guthrie (the daughter of Arlo Guthrie and granddaughter of Woody Guthrie) have resisted branding themselves with that particular F-word, possibly to their own detriment.
“In that sense, we’ve never made folk albums. You would think with Sarah Lee’s last name that it might be in our best interest to be, like, ‘Hey, why don’t we do a Woody song?’ or ‘Sarah Lee, we should make a folk record and have your dad play autoharp,’” Irion says. “We’ve always had a DIY approach and do what feels right, and that’s how these records have been.”
The groundwork for Wassaic Way came about when Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy came backstage after one of Guthrie and Irion’s shows, said he loved their set and laid the foundation for future collaborations. Tweedy was already essentially an honorary Guthrie after adapting Woody’s unrecorded lyrics with Billy Bragg for the Mermaid Avenue albums in 1998 and 2000 — a project mostly overseen by Sarah Lee’s aunt, Nora Guthrie.
In 2010, Guthrie and Irion toured with drummer Greg “G. Wiz” Wieczorek, who also plays in The Autumn Defense, the side project of Wilco’s Patrick Sansone and John Stirratt. Soon Guthrie and Irion were opening for The Autumn Defense. In 2011, along with other bands in the extended Wilco network, the duo played Solid Sound, the Wilco-curated festival. There, Guthrie and Irion performed one of Mermaid Avenue’s most revered songs. “We got up and did ‘California Stars,’ and that’s what sort of gave me the courage to ask if they’d be willing to work with us,” Guthrie says.
Wassaic Way was produced by Tweedy and Sansone in The Loft, Wilco’s Chicago studio. Irion feels that the album’s production quality as a whole is comparable to that of a U2 record and that “Circle of Souls” should be up on the radio against Bruno Mars.
To help show their appreciation, when the time came last year for Grammy nominations, Guthrie and Irion submitted Wassaic Way to see if it could make the cut for Best Americana Album or Best Rock Album — “It definitely wasn’t Best Folk,” Guthrie says — and in the process put in for Tweedy as Producer of the Year. Under the strength of The Invisible Way by the Minnesota trio Low, Mavis Staples’ One True Vine and Wassaic Way, Tweedy earned the nomination.
“To find out that he’d actually gotten nominated was kind of a miracle, especially up with Pharrell Williams and the other guys. It was hilarious to see the list of Pharrell’s records. You know, it’s like 28 — and then Jeff’s three,” Guthrie says. “Of course, he didn’t win, but in our minds he won.”
The question currently looming is how to follow up such a successful experience. First, the couple will return to their DIY roots and focus on engineering and recording their own separate projects in their basement studio. But when the time comes for the next Sarah Lee and Johnny album, they admit that Tweedy and Sansone will be tough to top. Irion does have a dream producer in mind, though he’s not exactly getting his hopes up: “Well, Bob Dylan probably wouldn’t be able to hear what we’re trying to do,” he says. “Can he still hear? I don’t know.”
WHO: Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion
WHERE: Isis Restaurant & Music Hall, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Thursday, Dec. 4, at 8:30 p.m. $12 advance/$15 day of show