By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion
Is Lucinda Williams a tad too Texas for you? Do you quickly weary of Gillian Welch's dour, morphine-soaked songbook? Has Natalie Merchant gone a bit too far "out there" for your taste? Bring it on home with Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband, Johnny Irion. On their latest and best collaboration, the duo sews up pop, protest, folk and fun into neat little packages that are AAA — Americana, alt-country, aw-shucks — without suffering authenticity or intellect.
With this couple's pedigree, there's no need for posing: Sarah Lee is the granddaughter of Woody Guthrie (by way of daddy Arlo); Irion counts John Steinbeck among his ancestors. You couldn't arrange a more dynastic pairing than that, and you could almost forgive someone with those bloodlines for resting on laurels. Both of these singer-songwriters, however, have shown dogged determination to craft their own identifiable personalities. Together they are an arresting harmony — sometimes delicate, sometimes raucous, always purposeful and focused.
On "Exploration" (deftly produced by Jayhawk Gary Louris), Sarah Lee effortlessly saunters through songs of love, personal convictions and reverence for nature. She harmonizes with a knowing lilt through Irion's golly-gee love ballad "In Lieu of Flowers" and warbles defiantly through her own well-armed "Cease Fire." Her voice is strong and piercing without being harsh, as if she were Victoria Williams reined-in and trained. She has the urge to ramble and take it easy ("Mornin's Over," "Holdin' Back"); Irion has the urge to cut loose and rock ("Gervais"). When they come together on a cover of Pete Seeger's "Dr. King," they make a serious subject even more profound by making it a knee-slapper.
It's a wonderful mixture of social awareness and rollicking fun — tailor-made for a "Sesame Street" appearance (Woody would be so proud) and indicative of their combustible chemistry together. Proof that the occasional alt-country combo can "keep it real," too.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.