Listen up: Sarah Lee and Johnny are interviewed on American Routes (CLICK HERE)
Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion "Speed Of Light" on YouTube.
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 Records, 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 colorful.” 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.”
The songwriting on Bright Examples reflects many of the experiences and emotions that Sarah Lee and Johnny have encountered over the past half-decade, and the production is crisp, consistently imaginative and captures the spontaneity of the tracks being recorded live with a full ensemble. Vibrant instrumental accents arrive via pedal steel guitar, accordion, piano, Hammond organ and a wall of guitars, and rich vocal harmonies abound, influenced by great duo acts like the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers. One track, “Seven Sisters,” features a reunion of sorts between original Jayhawks Louris and Mark Olson. The grooves range from funky New Orleans soul to ’60s-esque power pop to honky-tonk country, a feel-good vibe coursing throughout the tracks. “That’s our job,” says Guthrie. “There are definitely some dark moments but we still have to be positive. It’s hard for us not to be. We’ve tried.”