Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion
There are kingdoms and then there are phyla and orders and then as you go down the ontology of modern music until you get to a species that really does it for you. For me, I am a sucker for the genus Alt-Countrius, species Couples Albumus. There is something totally heartwarming about this peculiar animal, the unabashed love, the shelter of each other allowing the flowers of song to blossom without regard as to being anything besides true to heart. Some recent sparklers in this recent resurgence of the style made famous by Johnny and June Carter Cash are the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers (Victoria Williams and the Jayhawks’ Marc Olson) or the valentine that is Stacey Earle (yes Steve’s lil sister) and Mark Stuart’s Never Gonna Let You Go are joined by this charming record by Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion.
Let’s get the pedigree issue out of the way; Sarah is the daughter of Arlo Guthrie, which is inconsequential to the album except that it has perhaps given her a insightful taproot into the tree of songwriting, but who knows. She and Johnny met after many divergent paths led them to the Further Festival and like all good love stories, they spied each other from across a field of heather and had that big screen kiss as thunderclaps erupted and torrents of rain fell. OK, I don’t know if it really happened that way, but the results of these two meeting has made for sweet music.
It opens with the sweet breezy ballad “In Lieu of Flowers” sounding as timeless as an old Loretta Lynn song, except the syrupy string section is replaced with the unstoppable slide guitar work of Eric Heywood, who could make an Elmo album transcendent. Glistening mandolins, that hazy brush of drums, the coyote yelp of dobros: it’s all there as it slides into “Cease Fire” with a sly silky folksy blues that the Prometheus that was Gram Parsons delivered unto us from Mt. Olympus. This whole album has that sweet back porch feeling to it, twinkles of an army of acoustic instruments all darting in like fireflies. A somewhat heavy handed Pete Seeger song “Dr. King,” a romping and strangely funky Grateful Dead sounding number (the good country rock Dead of American Beauty, not the bloated horrible corny Dead of, well, all the other Dead albums), does drop one off the lurve wagon for a minute, but it picks right back up and culminates in the rippling harmonica driven protest song “Mixed Blessing” and the I-traded-the-hard-life-for-you box of candy “Georgia Pine.” It majestically closes with the galloping banjo powered “Gotta Prove” that will get the toes tapping on even the most jaded among us.
To me, albums like this are what the Alt-Country thing is all about, not the overblown studio monoliths like Wilco (and I still really like Wilco though they are about as downhome as Emerson, Lake and Palmer now) and Ryan Adams produce, but these small intimate records that understand that not all in the universe is dark and obtuse confusing and stream of conscious bad poetry, and that there is still plenty to say on the subject of sweet old love.