Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion spring from families of art royalty. Ms. Guthrie is the daughter of Arlo, granddaughter of Woody. Johnny’s Grand Uncle is legendary American writer John Steinbeck, his uncle, writer/photographer Thomas Steinbeck. There are other luminaries in the family but one need look no further than these two to recognize the continuation of the families legacies.
Guthrie and Irion began working as musical partners in 2000, one year after their marriage. In 2005 they released their debut Explorations, which was produced by Jayhawk founder Gary Louris. Following its release the couple toured relentless in support of the album. They also took part in the “Guthrie Family Rides Again” tour, teaming up with Guthrie’s father, Arlo, and recorded a children’s album for Smithsonian Folkways. Guthrie and Irion also became parents during this period. The experience of being away from home while starting a family inspires the atmosphere of Bright Examples.
For their second release Guthrie and Irion traveled to Woodstock, N.Y. to record at Dreamland studios. Once again Louris joined the couple but this time only as backing vocalist. (Fellow Jayhawk member Mark Olson also contributes vocals.) This time out the production is shared between the duo and Andy Cabic, songwriter and frontman of the psychedelic folk/rock band Vetiver, and Thom Monahan. Cabic rounds up his fellow band members as the backing band for the recording.
Most tracks were recorded live in the studios with all musicians playing together in one sitting, creating a sense of camaraderie and immediacy. “Ahead of Myself” sets the tone of the release with its down-tempo arrangement and dreamy harmonies. The album has a nostalgic feel. Guthrie and Irion’s first release leaned toward country harmonies, aka, Gram Parson and Emmylou Harris. Bright Examples introduces harmonies that are reminiscent of pop/rock classics of the 1970s, aka, Mamas and Papas or Seals and Croft, and even though he isn’t producing, Louris’ influence is heard on tracks that carry strong Jayhawks inspired harmonies and melodies, namely “Target On Your Heart.” Clearly Guthrie and Irion aren’t looking to recreate the sound of their first album. New territory is breached with electric guitar, funky keyboards, and spacey arrangements but you’ll still hear pedal steel guitar and plenty of acoustic instruments.
Guthrie and Irion trade off on lead vocals while intertwining their voices on tight harmonies; their lyrics are plaintive, straight forward, and come directly from the heart. This is an album about nesting, about settling into relationships and creating interconnected lives. That sentiment is exemplified on “Never Too Far From My Heart.”
Perhaps the song is directed to their home in South Carolina. Bright Examples is the type of album that is a touchstone for the homesick, with songs that celebrate the quiet elements of family and home.