Tomorrow, Sarah Lee Guthrie (yes, of those Guthries) and her husband and musical partner Johnny Irion are performing at the Empire State Railway Museum in Phoenicia. The little train station should be a nice intimate backdrop for their sound: a rich, mellow blend of folk, blues and country.
Sarah Lee and Johnny are no strangers to the Catskills; the duo's latest album, Bright Examples, was recorded locally at Dreamland. (The converted church in West Hurley was one of the bright lights of the Woodstock music scene a decade or two ago, and was recently resurrected after years of gathering dust.) Sarah Lee and Johnny are in the middle of a nationwide tour to promote the new album – if you miss them tomorrow, they'll be at the Clearwater Festival on June 18 and 19, and Wilco's Solid Sound Festival the weekend after. We caught up with them recently in a moment of downtime at their home in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts.
Watershed Post: Tell me a little bit about the new record.
Johnny Irion: The record features the band Vetiver, which is I think one of the best pastoral psych-folk bands out there right now, on the backdrop for the vocals. And our friends Gary Louris and Mark Olson from the Jayhawks sang on the album. The record came out February 22, and it's been getting really good reviews.
WP: How did you start collaborating with Vetiver?
JI: We actually met them through the Jayhawks, at a show at the Town Hall in New York City. And they played in Albany one night, and I brought them back to the Berkshires after the show. They kind of fell in love with the area.
We were talking about making a record during that time. And it worked out really well, everybody's schedules worked out. We hunkered down in West Hurley for about two weeks, at Dreamland. Our buddy Neal Casal played on the record, he's on tour right now with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. He's a great guy. We had a few people like that kind of fly in, and be a part of an extended Vetiver family. We were really psyched that they were able to do it. We just got off a tour with those guys, about fourteen shows in two and a half weeks. And we're actually talking about making another record. So who knows.
WP: How long have the two of you been doing music together?
Sarah Lee Guthrie: This is our tenth year, I think we started officially in 2001. We both released solo albums and then hit the road together. And we did a kid's record. We've kept busy over the last ten years, touring. We've got two kids, we're raising them on the road. They're three and eight years old.
WP: Do they come to gigs with you?
SLG: They're going to come to Phoenicia with us. We bring them when we can.
WP: When did you actually do the recording?
JI: The summer of 2009.
WP: Wow, so it's been awhile.
JI: We had the record for awhile, and we found a home for it, a label out of San Francisco called Ninth Street Opus Records.
WP: Got any good stories from making the record?
JI: We really didn't venture off much at all, we were working really hard days. But I remember driving into the studio one day, pulling around route 28A, and a huge bear just ran across the road. And everybody in the car was like, 'That's a good sign, right?' And I was like, 'Yeah.'
WP: Ha! There's no shortage of bears around here.
JI: Most of those guys are from Brooklyn, so...
SLG: It was a real family feel there. There was a good crew, eight or ten of us staying there. We cooked dinner almost every night. It was just really fun getting to know those guys really well. Andy Cabic from Vetiver and Thom Monahan produced the record together – 'Captain Monahan' ended up being his name. He just had his pencil behind his ear and he was ready to go,
It turned out to be really magical, really beautiful. We had a great time.
WP: How do you approach the process of songwriting?
JI: On a good day, the kids get on the bus, and I sit down at the piano and have a cup of coffee and just see what happens. And then just go after whatever kind of pops.
SLG: We've collaborated on a few things, but mostly it starts with one or the other of us writing something.
JI: We both tend to help each other out, we don't pull the chairs up and look at each other and go, 'Let's write a song.'
SLG: I think it happens pretty organically in our house. The piano's right there, it's a pretty small house. It just happens pretty naturally.
WP: So you're Berkshire Mountains folks. What's your impression of the Catskills?
SLG: It's very much similar.
JI: We're all a part of the Underground Railroad, right? I'm a Southerner. I love these little towns up here. You don't have a lot of that in the South anymore, you have a lot more Wal-Marts. We've lost that.
WP: Sarah, where do you feel you fit in with your family legacy?
SLG: Last. [Laughs.] I don't know, I'm just a part of it. It's huge, right? Just a tiny little part. It's really neat now to see a bunch of young kids getting into folk music. For so long, for a lot of the last ten years, being named as 'folk' no matter what you do – and we are folk – but to be named that was not always great, until recently. But there are so many great bands reaching back to those roots. For me, that s great. I'm happy to be a part of that team, And I've got a lot of great songwriting friends. It's a good world to be part of. It was a lot of fun touring with Vetiver, seeing college kids come out for the shows.
Flying Cat Music presents Sarah Lee & Johnny, Sunday, April 3, 2011, Empire State Railway Museum, 70 Lower High St., Phoenicia. Doors 7pm, showtime 7:30pm. $18 door, or $15 with RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org. For ticket info, call 845.688.9453.
Below: A slideshow of Neal Casal's photos from the recording of "Bright Examples," set to the album's title track.