Settling into a rhythm: Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion
WASHINGTON -- A day shy of a month ago, local musicians Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion released "Wassaic Way," the couple's third studio album together and probably most acclaimed.
Direct Current calls it, "a major new development in the duo's sonic development The pair's most cohesive and appealing album yet." Entertainment Weekly, NPR and the New York Times also featured the album on their websites.
Released on the couple's own Route 8 Records, "Wassaic Way" and its subsequent tour, which kicks off tonight, includes the sound of Guthrie and Irion and a full band, blending the tradition of folk and Americana with an experimental West Coast pop sound and catchy electric guitar.
Lyrics that range from pensive to playful, and vocal melodies that intentionally keep varied over the course of the album's 11 tracks, make it worthy of a start-to-finish listen. The first track, "Chairman Meow" is a catchy, upbeat Beatles-esque ditty that continuously wins critics over, while track 10, "Hurricane Window" is the album's revolution song paying tribute to neighbors, not the government, helping New Orleans survive Hurricane Katrina.
"It's a headphones record," says Irion. "We've never taken our time with an album until this one."
He and Guthrie said they're used to pushing an album out in two weeks, but the couple labored on this work for nearly two years.
"It was different because we weren't fighting the clock, we weren't worried about studio time. [Our producers] were like, ‘Don't worry about that.' It was more about, ‘Let's get together and make great music,' " Guthrie said.
This time around, Guthrie and Irion's latest release comes with a new association -- producers Jeff Tweedy and Patrick Sansone of distinguished contemporary alt-rock-country outfit Wilco; the same group that has brought the Solid Sound music festival to Mass MoCA in North Adams for the past three years.
As musical partners for more than a decade, Guthrie and Irion know quite well that such an association with high-profile musicians comes with both benefit and risk, in this case, being considered "a Wilco album" instead of an independent work.
As per usual, descriptions of the musical duo, and now of "Wassaic Way," place Sarah Lee's surname, "Guthrie," into prominence, inextricably linking her and, subsequently Irion, to iconic American folk music performers, Woody Guthrie, Sarah Lee's grandfather, and Arlo Guthrie, her father.
"We've always kind of embraced it. That's they way we've dealt with it, for better or for worse, though I'll admit sometimes, it's downright frustrating," Sarah Lee said.
Critics and reviewers have also noted how Tweedy ties to the Guthrie family as a producer of the "Mermaid Avenue" project, which, with the help of Billy Bragg, put Woody Guthrie's words to new music.
It's hard to strip the celebrity associations away.
The observers, however, who really stop to look at Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion and listen to what these artists say and do, will find this co-working husband-wife couple is quite competent and confident in holding their own.
As American Songwriter's review of "Wassaic Way" said, "the sheer songwriting quality and the craft of the production that occasionally adds strings, pianos and extra reverb is clearly the work of musicians who take their jobs seriously."
Their latest venture may also indicate that after 12 years of music making, Guthrie and Irion have only just begun to reveal to audiences their true potential and nature.
Over Labor Day weekend, Irion, 44, and Guthrie, 34, -- both self-described punk rockers at heart -- took time out of their pre-tour prep schedules to talk with The Eagle about reinventing themselves as parents, as promoters of their own record label and as partners with the Berkshire and global community, in their own style and terms.
Guthrie said her relationship, both personally and professionally, has been pleasantly dynamic and surprising since day one, in Columbia, S.C.
"I remember going over to Johnny's house on our first date," she said, "We were listening to a lot of country at the time -- the Louvin Brothers, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and the like -- when I noticed he had a Minor Threat album on the shelf."
Both she and Irion are big fans of the Washington, D.C.-formed hardcore punk band, and have been known to do punk-style renditions of their songs during stage shows.
"I was thinking, ‘Oh. OK. This is kind of cool.' I think it kind of sealed the deal," she said.
Irion has been in signed bands since age 18, and was working in a music store in Columbia in 2001 when he and Guthrie, decided to up and tour together. Guthrie, a 1997 graduate of Wahconah Regional High School in Dalton, was working as a secretary for her father at the time, and both she and Irion had their own solo albums out.
"We thought, let's try this thing. Let's do it. We've got plenty of pasta in the cupboards," said Guthrie.
"I can't believe it's been 12 years already, with two live albums, three studio records, a house and two kids. There's a lot of water under that bridge," she said.
With "Wassaic Way" album out and tour starting, the pair are navigating new waters with an expanded crew. The album was recorded in the couple's basement as well as Wilco's Chicago studio, The Loft.
Irion and Guthrie were both on electric guitars during their last tour, but this time around, they're bringing some of their supporting album artists on tour, including multi-instrumentalist Charlie Rose, Nashville bassist James Haggerty, Brooklyn drummer Steve Weiss, and Brett Long on piano.
"We've done some promotion with them and a few rehearsals. We're real happy with this group of guys. They're gonna be fun," Irion said.
"We're taking it to the next level here for sure," Guthrie said. "We're recreating the record to play on stage It's definitely a different show than if you've seen us in the last 10 years."
Before and after the album's Aug. 6 release, she and Irion rambled around the central Berkshire area performing "pop-up" shows. They mixed things up, by playing a 10 a.m. gig at Dottie's Coffee Lounge in Pittsfield; crooning at The Old Creamery Co-Op in Cummington, sweetening the scene at Patisserie Lenox and visiting one of their favorite hangouts, the Dream Away Lodge in Becket.
"They're all places we love that sell organic food. Like them, we're a small entity our own selves. We rely on local people to be successful too," Irion said.
"We have a lot of faith that our people will be behind us on this project because this is something that represents this area. This is the place where we create and get our inspiration," Guthrie said.
The duo, for example, partnered with Big Elm Brewing in Sheffield to create a custom craft beer, Wassaic Way Brown Ale, featuring the band's new album art on the label (also made in and around the Berkshires). They then played a tasting event at Kelly's Package Store in Dalton and at The Chalet at Mass MoCA in North Adams where the new brew was served.
They and their crew make their rounds not in a fancy tour bus, but in a Sprinter van manned by Irion. For the first two weeks of the tour, they'll be making late-night drives after gigs back to their home in Washington, which they built with the help of friends.
This year, Guthrie said they'll be trying their hand at homeschooling, with support from a new nanny, for their daughters Olivia, 11, and Sophie, 6, both of whom have Johnny's last name.
"It's exciting and really scary," said Guthrie, who has been working with Becket-Washington School Principal Leslie Blake-Davis to make the transition.
Both Guthrie and Irion are pretty hands-on parents. In addition to music and culture, they promote things at home like gardening.
"I swear, if I could not make it as a musician I would totally be a school lunch lady," Guthrie quipped.
The couple say parenthood inspired them to make their first kids' album, "Go Waggaloo" in 2009.
"We would have not had made ‘Go Waggaloo' if I was not a dad," said Irion. "I just thought kids' music was so uncool. But we sat down and wrote kid songs, and the kids kind of like it and the dog likes it, and we were able to keep up with that history of making music with the Guthrie family."
The album, by the way, was made at Guthrie and Irion's home, with the help of locally based musicians Bobby Sweet, Pete Seeger and Tao Rodriguez Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and others.
As much as she said she and Irion will continue to make their own legacy, Guthrie said she and her dad and their music will always be intertwined.
"Sometimes we'll have traditional folkies come up to us at shows and say, ‘You're not like your dad at all,' and you know what, I'm not," said Guthrie.
"At the same time, I'm here doing this because my dad is a folk singer because he was the one who took me under his wing and put a guitar in my hand and said here, try singing a song. I'm not going to pretend that has no effect on me, but this all wasn't handed to me either," she said.
Guthrie and Irion attribute their success to the fortune of meeting good people and trusting their own merits as artists.
‘It's a love. It's what we do," Irion said.
He and Guthrie say they hope to continue to work and tour in the process taught to them by Jeff Tweedy and Patrick Sansone, developing music slowly and carefully until settling into a rhythm.
"Both Johnny and I have grown in a place with [their] help," said Guthrie.
"We've worked really hard and learned a lot in the last 12 years," she said. "The world hadn't opened up to us yet in the way that it has now, and maybe it's the start of something."
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