When Johnny Irion began putting together a collection of songs for Wassaic Way, his third studio album with his wife, Sarah Lee Guthrie, he knew he wanted to write a song with Jackson Browne. “I had this song called ‘Probable Cause’ that had this kind of ‘Lawyers in Love’ thing going on, and I thought, ‘Jackson could really take this one to another level,'” Irion says. The plan worked out, and the pair sat down at Browne’s L.A. studio.
At that point, Irion didn’t realize that the creation of Wassaic Way would come together far differently than the first two collections he’d recorded with his wife; 2005’s Exploration (produced by the Jayhawk’s Gary Louris) and 2011’s Bright Examples (produced by Andy Cabic and Thom Monahan of Vetiver) were both recorded over a period of two weeks.
But for Wassaic Way, Guthrie and Irion opted to call on their friends in Wilco, Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone. It was a natural partnership. Wilco worked closely with the Guthrie family on Mermaid Avenue, a three-volume collection of songs written by Sarah Lee’s grandfather Woody Guthrie and performed by Wilco and Billy Bragg. When Sarah Lee and Irion, the grand-nephew of author John Steinbeck, arrived at Wilco’s Chicago studio, The Loft, Tweedy’s son even joked to his father that he’s “practically a Guthrie.” Thus began an eight-month-long collaboration that eventually produced the 11-track Wassaic Way.
In the end, Irion says the experience was worth the wait, even when Tweedy inadvertently scrapped all of Jackson Browne’s parts in “Probable Cause.”
“Sarah Lee kind of brought it to his attention, and he was like, ‘Oh, whoa, I’m sorry.’ He was being funny about it,” Irion recalls. After agreeing to the changes, Irion held his course on wanting the song to have a ‘late-night, rock ‘n’ roll’ feel instead of being a ballad.
“We had some beers, started having fun, got a vibe, and started cutting the track around 11 o’clock,” Irion says. “The next morning, Jeff’s sitting on the couch, and he’s like, ‘Johnny, you’re going to kill me. Don’t punch me in the throat.'”
After hours, Tweedy had taken the track and rewritten it again, shifting the chorus and title from “Probable Cause” to “Probably Gone.” Nobody got punched in the throat.
“We kept his demo in there,” says Irion of the final track on Wassaic Way. “Jeff went to town on that song. He was an advocate for it in a big way, and that’s what a great producer does.”
In the months since the album’s August release, Irion and Guthrie have toured the U.S. and Australia. On the road and at home in Massachusetts, Guthrie home-schools their two daughters while Irion puts in eight-hour days writing songs, as well as driving the van between shows.
“This fall has been our most concentrated effort yet to get our music out there,” Irion claims. “We’ve hunkered down and done all the nuts and bolts ourselves, and we’ve learned that to tour is to live. We’re living life as a family and looking at touring as a learning experience and a cultural endeavor.”
Irion admits that it’s not always easy, but with the help of family and talented musical friends around the country, the pair continues to push forward and carry on each of their family’s artistic legacies.
“There’s no charted course of how it happens,” Irion says. “Every day is just like a maiden voyage, artistically.”