Music+Clubs » Features

VISITING ACT ‌ Johnny Irion & The Mattress

Americana Balladry: Johnny Irion finds his voice



"take care" from the album Ex Tempore
Audio File

It's been over a year since folk-pop duo Johnny Irion and Sarah Lee Guthrie (the daughter of Arlo and granddaughter of Woody) brought their modern take on traditional roots music to a local stage. This Sunday, Irion leads his latest solo project back this way for an intimate set of melodic Americana at the Pour House.

His latest material on the album Ex Tempore (Rte 8) is a mellower mix of piano balladry, pop, and folksy fingerpicking. Guest musicians on the album include Sarah Lee, members of Chatham County Line, Hobex, and Corner Pockets. Studio wiz Ryan Picket (My Morning Jacket's live sound mixer) co-produced and engineered the session at his Durham studio.

"You know what people say about finding your voice," says Irion. "I think I'm getting close."

Irion started working on songs for the album during a writing stint last summer at the Guthrie compound in rural Massachusetts. The tracks were recorded on vintage analog and tube equipment with the hope of emulating "the vibe and sound of the early Neil Young/Poco releases." With the spacious, reverby sound of Irion's harmonica, guitar, piano, and delicate singing voice, it seems he succeeded.

Irion's current touring band, The Mattress, includes bassist Jay Brown and drummer Zeke Hutchins, the bandleader's former bandmate in Durham-based band Queen Sarah Saturday. "Zeke's been playing with Tift Merritt and moonlighting with Portastatic and Hotel Lights (led by Ben Fold Five drummer Darren Jessee)," says the bandleader. "We've stayed in touch since our band days."

"I think we're coming from everywhere, musically," says Irion. "I love rock 'n' roll — from everything from Minor Threat to Wilco — and I love Mississippi John Hurt's finger-picking ... and I've even gotten into Antonín Dvorák! At the end of the day for me, it's gotta be a good song. I have to feel like I can sit in a room and feel proud playing this song in front of Willie Nelson or Neil Young, you know?" —T. Ballard Lesemann

Johnny Irion & The Mattress perform at the Pour House on Sun. Sept. 9. Cover is $6. Visit and for more.

Add a comment