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.”
From the first notes of “Ahead of Myself,” which launches Bright Examples, it becomes apparent that Sarah Lee and Johnny are exploring new musical territory. Its dreamy, airy texture and easygoing pace provide an appropriate setting for Irion’s simply expressed sentiments: “That must be 5 AM light or we slept right through or it’s tomorrow night/Doesn’t really matter ’cause I’m with you.” Not surprisingly, it was his wife who provided the inspiration: “That was a time in my head when Sarah Lee and I were falling in love, living in California, and I just kind of went back,” Johnny explains.
“Never Too Far From My Heart,” which follows, is a shining example of the close harmony and emerging pop sensibilities Guthrie and Irion embrace. A sunny, mutual love letter, it was written when they were saying goodbye to South Carolina and preparing for their move north. Johnny’s words acknowledge that, like any lovers, he and Sarah Lee have had their moments but in the end, even when they are apart, “You’re never too far from my heart.”
Thom Monahan notes, "Prior to making Bright Examples I was away travelling for quite some time, and I listened to the demo of 'Never Too Far From My Heart' over and over again. I was horribly homesick, and that song was no small amount of comfort to me. I'd listen to those lyrics and realize how hard it is sometimes to recognize a love that's right in front of you. That song and those voices were my whole world. I'd feel a little better, a little less alone, every time I heard it." He also adds, "Johnny and Sarah Lee are pretty inspiring people (and parents) who live those melodies to their marrow. You can hear it when they sing. They're singing to each other as much as they're singing right to you. A moment of calm in a frenzied world, Bright Examples is like home to me. May it carry you through all the nights you're away from the ones you love."
“Speed of Light” turns up the beat considerably. A stomping, steady 4/4 rhythm frames an addictively melodic pop tune and chiming guitars meet up with soul touches. In an earlier era, back when AM radio was all about the perfect three-minute record, “Speed of Light” would have gone straight to the top. “I started that song on piano and it went through several different approaches,” says Irion. “Andy heard that syncopated piano part and the track took a turn for all the right reasons. There were no overdubs. That was just people on the floor playing together. I’m real happy with that track. I think the drums are amazing.”
Next up is Guthrie’s “Seven Sisters.” Another one cut live in the studio, it features a reunion between original Jayhawks Louris and Mark Olson. Taking her cue from its bluesy, gospel-tinted opening piano part, Sarah Lee delivers an impassioned lead vocal. Johnny’s harmony lines take the tune into Gram Parsons-Emmylou Harris territory and the band’s dynamic shifts give it a tension as it builds.
The inspiration behind the finger-pointing “Target On Your Heart” may be known to author Irion but neither he nor Guthrie are letting on. Says Sarah Lee, “There’s some good drama going on up here in Massachusetts to write about. That one took a while to grow on me. I didn’t like that song at first but Johnny kept wanting to play it. Finally we ended up doing it, and it ended up my favorite song on the record.” The song’s sweet melody and Everlys-like harmonies make for a stark juxtaposition with the sometimes dark lyrics.
“First Snow,” a true trio effort credited to Johnny, Sarah Lee and Gary Louris, eases in via a torrent of pristine harmonies worthy of late-period Beatles or the Mamas and the Papas. From the first lines—“First snow brings old love back into the picture again/Like when he calls you out of the blue and the ice you’ve been walking on falls through”—to the song’s end, it’s one of the album’s most affecting songs, its words emboldened by the classy interplay between the bold piano chording and sweet steel guitar.
Sarah Lee’s plaintive ballad “Butterflies”—with its opening lyric “Butterflies in the road/I think we should go real slow”—was inspired by, well, butterflies. “I wrote that just down the street,” she says. “There’s a road called Lower Valley Road and there are literally butterflies everywhere.” Building upon that vision, the gorgeous arrangement, highlighted by the accordion playing of Rad Lorkovic, elevates the tune into something of a psychedelic, nearly baroque dreamscape.
The title track, Johnny’s “Bright Examples,” recalls a somewhat Zen-like meeting of two hiking strangers brought together by fate on the Appalachian Trail. Its cinematic story continues after the initial introduction: “He asked to borrow my phone/I kindly obliged and I let him dial a friend in Boston/Nobody's home again/Seems it’s always when ya need ’em the most…” Reminiscent of an early Neil Young ballad, the spacious track is colored in with swirls of Rad's soulful Hammond organ playing.
“Hurry Up,” says Guthrie, “is one of my favorite grooves. It sits in a really nice place. I like the sound of it. I’m really glad we recorded that one.” Like several songs on the record, an effervescent melody and steadily pumping rhythm reveal great truths and solid advice: “Take a moment now to find you all the beauty surrounding/No matter how dark it gets don’t pull those blinds down friend.”
“Company I’m Keeping,” a ballad written by Irion and delivered by Guthrie in one of the album’s most poignant vocals, reminds us that—like many of the songs on Bright Examples—when it all comes to it, the one thing we can count on is love: “If the bottom were to fall out,” she sings, “I’d have no place to go/I'll be standin’ with my arms out reachin’/All I’m tryin’ to tell you is I’m happy with the company I’m keepin’.”
“Dupont Circle” serves as something of a tribute to New Orleans, even though its namesake location lies in Washington, D.C. Says Johnny, “It was one of the last songs we tracked. We met some kids from New Orleans and they were fun.” A drum machine sets the shuffling waltz-like rhythmic tone and the band soon falls in. Blues fans will notice the name-check of Walter “Wolfman” Washington, a Crescent City legend who’s impressed Irion several times in concert.
Finally, Bright Examples draws to an end with “Cry Quieter,” inspired, says Irion, by a book by Daoud Hari called The Translator, which deals with the tragedy in Darfur. While that might seem like a disheartening way to end the album, it’s quite the opposite, an uplifting tribute to the human spirit and our ability to triumph—along with an admonition to cherish what we have.
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.”