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Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion
Sarah Lee and Johnny haven’t been to these shores together since their successful tour in 2005. Now they return with a full band launch their new CD ‘Bright Examples’ – (check out the credits below). We love this record, as will anyone who enjoys West Coast music and we can’t wait to see the band live once more.
A lot can happen in five years, and for the husband-and-wife duo Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, the time between Exploration, their first album together in 2005, and Bright Examples (Ninth Street Opus, Feb. 22, 2011), their new, full-length collaborative project, has been one nonstop whirlwind of activity. Not only has the couple toured extensively both as a duo and as part of the “Guthrie Family Rides Again” tour (with Sarah Lee’s dad, Arlo Guthrie), they’ve also released the children’s album Go Waggaloo (Smithsonian Folkways), a live DVD entitled Folk Song, a solo album by Johnny (Ex Tempore), parented their two young daughters and moved from South Carolina to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, near where Sarah Lee was raised.
“We’ve been working really hard,” confirms Guthrie. “We even built a house. We felt very creative in South Carolina but we’re in a totally different space now. We had started another album together before we moved but it just wasn’t right. This one is.”
Bright Examples finds Guthrie and Irion taking their patented country-rock sound and tilting it in a direction Guthrie describes as “more atmospheric or psychedelic, sort of dreamy but colourful.” Recorded at Dreamland Studios near Woodstock, N.Y., the album features a dozen original compositions, chosen from more than 50 they’d accumulated over the past five years. “It was really great to have that many songs,” says Guthrie, “but at the same time, what do you do with the rest? They weren’t any less good. We just picked the songs that we thought went together well.”
Bright Examples was co-produced by Andy Cabic, the prime mover behind the San Francisco pastoral psych-rock band Vetiver, and Thom Monahan, who has also worked with Vetiver as well as Devendra Banhart, the Pernice Brothers and Jayhawks vocalist Gary Louris, who just happened to have produced Exploration for Sarah Lee and Johnny. Members of Vetiver provide the instrumental accompaniment on Bright Examples as well as special guest artists including Louris (vocals), Mark Olson (The Jayhawks, vocals), Otto Houser (Vetiver, drums), Neal Casal (guitar), Kevin Barker and Charlie Rose (pedal steel, flat picking guitars), and Rad Lorkovic (piano).
“I met Vetiver through Gary Louris,” explains Irion. “They were backing Gary at Town Hall in New York City. I took the train down for the show and Andy and I ended up backstage just talking about music.” They subsequently spent more time together when Vetiver passed through the Berkshires, and a bond was formed. “I fell in love with all their records,” says Irion, “and I just thought Andy was the man for the job. Andy had not done a lot of producing. When I asked him to do it, he said, ‘Me?’ What I really wanted was Andy and his band, and Gary Louris, and I wanted all of our new friends to make some music together. So we all met up in Woodstock.”
Monahan was recruited to co-produce after Irion heard Vetiver’s Thing of the Past album. “The acoustic guitars were amazing, the electrics were amazing,” says Irion. “I thought, if we could make a record that sounds that good, I’ll be happy. And that got me fired up about making a new studio album.”
Much of the album was recorded live in the studio at Dreamland, with up to 10 musicians playing simultaneously, a rarity in today’s recording world where a song is usually put together piece by piece assembly-line style. For Sarah Lee and Johnny, Bright Examples represents a marked evolution, apropos of the distance they’ve traveled together as a couple and as musicians. Practically since their introduction to each other in the ’90s, it was apparent their lives and music would become inextricably entwined.
They first met briefly in Raleigh, N.C., then, via a mutual friend, Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes, they ran into each other again in Southern California, where both Irion and Guthrie had gone to live. Johnny had gone to L.A. to join a band called Freight Train after his stint with Dillon Fence, a band who toured with the Crowes, and Sarah Lee was working in a record shop. Irion had also previously spent several years as an influential member of the nationally known act Queen Sarah Saturday. Upon Sarah Lee moving to California, a series of events led to her becoming first her father’s tour manager and then discovering her own latent musical talents. During a conversation one time, Irion recalls, they realized that despite an earlier shared interest in punk rock, they were now both drawn to the music of the late country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons and his band the Flying Burrito Brothers. Johnny taught Sarah Lee a few chords and one thing soon led to another.
“Sarah Lee and I tried to do a Gram song and we did it pretty good,” Irion says. “Then we decided to get married, which brought us to the South. Then there was a year of doing solo stuff and we did a show together, just kind of an impromptu thing, and it went really well. We decided to take it on the road. Then we had a baby and…”
And here they are, proud parents and a happy, prolific musical team. Exploration, their first effort as a duo, was met with glowing reviews—Uncut stated, "It's hard to recall two modern country voices that dovetail as elegantly as this husband and wife team… A dream"—and last year’s kids’ record, Go Waggaloo, which garnered press from such outlets as USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and People.com, was considered by many a breath of fresh air in a market that often finds adult performers underestimating their intended audience. Released by Smithsonian Folkways, Go Waggaloo included contributions from Sarah Lee and Johnny’s own kids, and guests including Arlo, Pete Seeger and Pete’s grandson Tao Rodriguez Seeger. Three of the songs on the recording were created from lyrics written by Sarah Lee’s late grandfather, the legendary Woody Guthrie, that had never before been set to music. “It was a lot of fun,” says Guthrie, “a very homespun record that took off.”
But now, their focus is squarely on Bright Examples and beyond. “We’re not going to wait another five years for the next record,” says Guthrie. “We’re on a roll now. We can’t wait to get back in the studio.”