Johnny Irion is probably best known as part of a duo with his wife, Sarah Lee Guthrie. They’ve spent most of the last decade releasing a series of melodic country-folk albums that spotlighted their yearning vocal harmonies and soothing acoustic melodies. But it was during the recording of their most recent studio album, 2013’s “Wassaic Way” (produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Patrick Sansone), that a friend of Irion’s noticed some of the fierce electric guitar that was popping up throughout the record and gave Irion some advice.
“He said I should probably think about putting my rock stuff somewhere else and not fusing too much of the rock stuff with the folk,” Irion says, “which is what we’d been doing. He’d always known that I had music like that in my head. Even though the Sarah Lee and Johnny stuff would fall into a more digestible folk platter, I’ve always loved electric guitars. But those kinds of things would’ve never made it on a Sarah Lee and Johnny record.”
And thus, after four records of bittersweet folk introspection, Irion formed a band called U.S. Elevator and recorded an album of rough-hewn roots-rock in the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers mode, heavy on wiry riffs and upbeat rhythms. The songs are catchy and full of layered harmonies, but the swaggering heaviness of songs like “Dangerous Love” and “Cry for Help” will surprise anyone who only knows Irion from his records with Guthrie.
“It was fun to take on those ideas,” he says. “It ended up not feeling as weird as I thought it was going to be. I had the sound of U.S. Elevator in my head, and it was an opportunity to explore the rock side of things. And at the same time, I met a bunch of dudes in Santa Barbara who were willing to set up and record to this two-inch tape machine with my buddy [producer] Tim Bluhm. I had a vision that I wanted to play some rock ‘n’ roll and have the songs to back it up. And we did it. It all worked out. It’s just creating a whole other movie to be an actor in.”
Irion is currently touring with U.S. Elevator, but he’s taking a break from those shows to play an acoustic in-store performance at Horizon Records with local singer/guitarist Niel Brooks on Wednesday. He’s planning to do songs from the new album in that acoustic format, but he says he’s not worried about the lack of amplifiers.
“If you have to have amplification or any other tricks to make a song sound like a good song, it’s probably not worth playing in any form or fashion,” he says. “That’s always been the deal with any record I’m a part of. I have to be able to unplug the electric guitar and play it sitting in a room with friends or family. It has to be up to snuff to play it that way. If I don’t feel comfortable sitting in that circle and playing it, I probably won’t record it.”
In fact, Irion might be playing some even newer songs at Horizon, because he’s got two more albums planned out. “I have a solo record coming out in the spring that I made with Dawes as the backing band,” he says. “And I have more songs for the project I’m doing after the solo album. I love stockpiling and constantly nesting songs and hopefully they have a home. I don’t like the pressure of having to go write a record all at once. I like touring, coming home, writing and then doing a record after that whole process.”
Artist: Johnny Irion w/ Niel Brooks
Venue: Horizon Records, 2-A W. Stone Ave., Greenville
Date: Wednesday Nov. 30, 7 p.m., Free
Info: 864-235-7922, horizonrecords.net