On the phone, Sarah Lee Guthrie’s voice bubbles with cheer. The youngest daughter of Arlo Guthrie has been doing a lot of interviews because her father no longer will. Constantly talking to reporters, she says, makes her nervous, but she needs to get good at it one of these days.
Guthrie’s approach to interviews is not unlike her approach to music. At age 12 she sang on one of her father’s children’s albums, then at 14 she went on tour with him singing back-up. As a teenager she says she got into punk rock and trouble, and never imagined being a folk singer. Then, at 19, she met her future husband, Johnny Irion, backstage at a Black Crows concert. When her father found out that Johnny was teaching her how to play guitar, Arlo insisted she join him on the road.
"I didn't know how to tune my guitar, and I didn't know how to sing hardly,” she says of her first show, which happened in Albuquerque. “I remember very vividly—it was the KiMo Theatre—my dad and my brother laughing so hard at me, and I was absolutely horrified.” She says it was gracious of her dad to put her on his stage, and after that she practiced religiously.
These days, when not residing on the 100-acre plot which sits next to those of her father and siblings in bucolic western Massachusetts, the 31-year-old makes her home on the road. Traveling with her father, husband, two daughters and a handful of other relatives—there are 13 in total this time around—the family carries on the Guthrie tradition of inspiring people to care and encouraging them to think. She explains that home is wherever they are because the family is complete.
"I don't know if it's physical or emotional or spiritual, but I've got it, and I love to move, and get down the highway, and go to different places," she says of the traveling bug with which she’s afflicted. “I'm just loving all of the different people that we meet and the different cultures that we encounter. To bring my kids to that and know that they're getting this amazing education of world culture—my kids will eat anything! They're so adaptable."
Guthrie says this tour feels like the Carter Family—the influential mountain-country group that recorded between the late ’20s and ’50s, sired June Carter and influenced both Arlo and Woody greatly. In addition to the similarity of a traveling band of kinfolk, Arlo is even playing the autoharp, an instrument made famous by the Carter Family.
When asked what it’s like having her husband as her artistic partner, Guthrie laughs. “Well, I don't think you’s want to ask me that this morning! It's a fine balance, it really is. We've been married and on the road together for 10 years, so we've overcome hopefully most of the bugs that you'll encounter,” she explains. “We know how important it is to send positive energy out. That's what our music is about: uplifting spirits. ... Any emotional struggle that we might have had that day, we know how important it is to put that aside and put our best foot forward for the show.”