[1/11/02] Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion make their stand
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 10, 2002) – It’s easy to make much of Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion’s lineage when talking about their rootsy brand of country-folk music. Guthrie is the youngest daughter of Arlo Guthrie, which of course makes her the granddaughter of folk music icon Woody Guthrie. And besides having married into the first family of American folk music, Irion boasts his own hereditary connection to Americana – his grandfather, Fred Knight, played the lead the traveling version of the Broadway musical Oklahoma and his uncle, Thomas Steinbeck, is the son of Grapes of Wrath author John Steinbeck.

But with the simultaneous release of their solo debut CDs, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Irion are ready to stand on their own as performing and recording artists, albeit ones steeped in the tradition of their forebears, family and friends, several of whom are expected to be on hand tonight when they celebrate with a dual CD release concert at Club Helsinki (528-3394) at 9.

Because they are husband and wife and because they sing country harmonies, Guthrie and Irion have already drawn plentiful comparisons to romantically-linked country duos like Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons and June Carter and Johnny Cash. And there are certainly plenty of tunes spread out across Sarah Guthrie’s eponymous CD and Irion’s Unity Lodge -- both released on Arlo Guthrie’s Rising Son label – that fit into that tradition.

But there are also plenty of surprises on these two deep albums full of musical and lyrical treats, from Guthrie’s piano-based country ballad, “Livin’ by the Open Door,” which reads like a tribute to her parents, Arlo and Jackie Guthrie (“In 1969 you swept her from L.A./You brought her to these hills/And you made a home”), to Irion’s “Poker Face,” an adventurous bit of Motown-style r&b.

Guthrie gets downright experimental on several tracks, including “All Filled Up,” featuring her voice in front of the soundtrack of a booming thunderstorm, the raga-folk of “River,” and “Tarantula,” a jazzy, psychedelic, odd-metered instrumental based on a simple piano riff that bounces from childlike innocence to ominous, neo-surf music. She combines Indian modulations, jazz breaks and country steel guitar on “Rainbow.”

As a lyricist, Guthrie manifests the influences of her father and grandfather. In songs like “Rainbow” and “River,” she shares her father’s spiritual search, but in the directness of her prose and its faux naivete, she echoes her grandfather.

A varied cast of characters provide instrumental support on Guthrie’s CD, which was recorded by engineer/musician Bobby Sweet at Derek Studios in Dalton. All the Guthrie family members make appearances, as do a bevy of local musicians and singers, including David Grover, Kathy Jo Barrett, Steve Ide and Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, and, of course, Irion, who shares producer credits with Guthrie.

Unity Lodge won’t do much to stem the comparisons between Irion and mid-‘70s period Neil Young. His guitar-based country-rock, his piercing tenor that fades in the upper register, and mid-tempo minor-key melodies like “Stationary Woman” have “Harvest” written all over them.

But Irion brings a distinctive stamp to his songs. Like Guthrie, he has a gift for lyrical economy and catchy phrases: “I’m in a think tank/And I’m thinkin’ all day long,” “I came to the City of Angels/And found an angel,” “I’m just another frontage road off your highway.”) Many of his songs deal with life on the road – Irion’s been a touring musician for the better part of the last decade -- and when he sings about Greyhound bus stations, Beale Street juke joints and truckers’ tans, he is totally convincing.

Irion churns out some chunky, electric-guitar drenched alt-country on “Frontage Road,” and some bluesy country-rock on the pointed protest song, “Tempest in a Teapot Blues,” co-written by Guthrie and presumably based on a true incident a few year’s back when an animal control officer in the town of Washington shot and killed the Guthrie family’s puppy.

Irion has assembled a sympathetic core of country-rock musicians to back him on his solo debut, and Guthrie lends an occasional harmony vocal. Irion’s album was also recorded at Derek Studios, where it was produced by Irion and Ryan Pickett.

Critic’s picks

Nationally-known singer-songwriters Louise Taylor and Denice Franke were a late addition to Club Helsinki’s January schedule, but the two will perform next Wednesday, January 16, at 8:30. Vermont-based Taylor will perform songs that blend Irish and Appalachian influences off her latest album, Written in Red (Signature Sounds). Franke is a Texan whose album Comfort (Certain) contains a selection of her haunting, soulful, country-influenced ballads.

The next night, acclaimed up-and-coming Boston singer-songwriter Kris Delmhorst – an alumna of Williams College – will unleash songs from her new CD, Five Stories (Catalyst), at Helsinki. The recording features an all-star cast of Boston folk and rock talent, including producer Billy Conway and guitarist Dana Colley, both members of the band Morphine, as well as fellow singers Catie Curtis, Jennifer Kimball and Lori McKenna.

To Delmhorst’s credit, she isn’t overwhelmed by such a stellar cast. Rather, the
intimate acoustic arrangements – featuring mandolin, banjo, cello, accordion, saxophone, bouzouki and trumpet -- only enhance the haunting quality of Delmhorst’s vocals and her dark melodies.

Stephanie Corby and Trina Hamlin are at the Railway Café (664-6393) at St. John’s Church in North Adams tomorrow night at 8. Hamlin’s Living Room (ModMusic) shows her to be a rootsy, rock-based singer-songwriter in the Joan Osborne or Melissa Etheridge vein. The Minnesota native and Berklee College graduate plays a mean blues harp and boasts a powerful, versatile voice.

In Albany, the annual Mid-Winter Blues Festival at the Egg (518-473-1845) kicks off tomorrow night with a double bill featuring pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph and the Family Band plus the Sean Costello Blues Band. Upcoming shows in the month-long festival include Shemekia Copeland and Olu Dara (January 19) and the James Cotton Blues Band and Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson (January 26).

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on Jan. 11, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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