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Sarah Lee Guthrie, Johnny Irion duo forging their own musical identity

Sarah Lee Guthrie Johnny Irion

Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion

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Sarah Lee Guthrie, Johnny Iron, Song Preservation Society,10 p.m. Oct. 4, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport. $12-$15. (773) 525-2508; schubas.com

Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion’s new album “Wassaic Way” opens a new window on the duo’s music. It’s their most fully realized artistic statement to date and a departure from their usual folky harmonies and acoustic sound.

Guthrie and Irion met in 1997; they’ve been singing together for 13 years and have recorded three albums filled with folky harmonies and acoustic guitars that have firmly set them in the Americana category.

But now thanks to co-producers Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone of Wilco, the new album has a pop sheen edged with distinct eclectic, experimental touches. The sonic style of the songs is divided between sunny West Coast pop and a darker, more meditative style.

“I think the guitars are more jagged, there are soundscapes and a lushness to it and a pop quality that really comes together,” Irion, 44, says. “Jeff [Tweedy] really brings a lyrical aspect to the process. He has great ideas; he’s a big picture person.”

The duo laid down nearly 50 demos and left it up to Tweedy and Sansone to cull the songs. Guthrie sees the album, recorded at Wilco’s Chicago studio, as “a turning point that we have worked toward for many, many years.”

“We feel we’re presenting an album that is finally where we hoped to be,” Guthrie adds, “and everything before was just a learning process.”

Guthrie and Irion come from distinctly different musical backgrounds — she is the granddaughter of America’s greatest folk icon, Woody Guthrie, and the daughter of Arlo Guthrie; he is a product of the ’90s indie-rock scene out of Chapel Hill, N. C. They were introduced by mutual friend Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes and now live with their two young daughters in Washington, Mass., a town of 500 where Guthrie grew up.

Irion, who grew up in Durham, N. C., fondly remembers the “crazy aunts” who encouraged his interest in music and disparate melodies at an early age. He and Guthrie knew they had something together musically when they discovered their mutual love of harmonies.

The first song they learned to sing together was “Sleepless Nights,” which was recorded some years ago by another famous harmony duo — Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. “We discovered how much fun music can be on that level,” Irion says.

Growing up, Guthrie never thought she’d be included in the family’s next generation of musicians who would follow in her father’s footsteps. She really didn’t fall in love with music until she fell in love with Irion. “Then it all fell into place and started to make sense out of the fog of my rebellious adolescence,” Guthrie, 34, explains with a laugh. “I began to see I had something to contribute.”

Guthrie admits she has mixed feelings about the expectations that come with her grandfather’s legacy.

“At times I feel like it’s a light that shines down on me, and I can take a teeny bit of that dream and carry it on,” Guthrie says. “And then there are other times that I feel the expectations are a little bit much. My family heritage will always be a big part of me. But sometimes I feel the expectations overshadow and make us fall short of that dream we have of just being ourselves.

“Now with the new record Johnny and I have sort of come full circle. We’ve taken everything we’ve learned so far and combined it with Jeff and Pat’s ideas, and I think we have been validated by this effort. I finally feel satisfied with something we’ve created.”

Mary Houlihan is a Sun-Times freelance writer.



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