Johnny Irion's solo debut CD, Unity Lodge, is a refreshing and unpredictable addition to American roots music. Triangle music aficionados will recall this North Carolina expatriate for his work with Queen Sarah Saturday in the early 1990s and later with Dillon Fence when they opened for the Black Crowes on a U.S.-European tour. But while his past achievements hint at his artistry, they don't reflect the soul of his latest creation.Fantasy is a loyal comrade to autobiography, and Irion indulges in both. His album is rife with tales of trials and travels, backed by restive melodies that follow the movements of his lyrics. Irion's influences are conspicuous but his synthesis is fresh. Flashes of Fleetwood Mac emerge in the eerily portentous first track, "Stationary Woman," while the album's brooding third track, "Think Tank," is reminiscent of 1970's country rock, sort of like a youthful Neil Young. Irion mixes in some comedy on "Truckers Tan," and adds a quick-paced, light-hearted swing to "DC Niner." Intermittent rolling banjo and crying pedal steel guitar suffuse the music with the unmistakable flavor of 1950's country crossover songs.
The Carbines' Zeke Hutchins (on drums) and multi-instrumentalist Greg Reading lend their talents, as does bassist Drew Lile and Irion's former Queen Sarah Saturday band mate Ryan Pickett. Irion's wife, Sarah Lee Guthrie (Arlo's daughter) also appears, contributing back-up vocals and autoharp to a revamped version of Mike Paxton's folk song, "Thirty Inch Coal," which also features Tao Rodriquez-Seeger (grandson to Pete Seeger) on 12-string guitar.
Irion is a gifted raconteur and an innovative musician. Unity Lodge is an unassailable indication of a promising solo career.
Unity Lodge is available at School Kids Records in Durham and Chapel Hill or online through Rising Son Records at www.risingson.com or www.milesofmusic.com.