Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion "Wassaic Way"

Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion team with members of Wilco to tread a broader musical path.

Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion have been honing their combined sound through several records. Their latest, Wassaic Way, finds the couple moving down the path toward a more rock oriented sound, guided by the astute oversight of Wilco members Jeff Tweedy and Patrick Sansone. The change is immediately apparent as the opening track, “Chairman Meow,” opens with a Tweedy electric guitar riff and an upbeat pop tempo. Even on the mellow tunes the production sparkles with pop precision and rock arrangements. The album’s title, Wassaic Way, according to Sarah Lee Guthrie, is derived from an Indian word meaning “the land that’s hard to access.” Guthrie explains that Tweedy and Sansone could take the recording to a place that was unexpected and hard to access.

Irion and Guthrie traveled to Chicago to record at The Loft, Wilco’s home studio. Tweedy is becoming a go-to producer for roots artists who are looking to expand their musical reach. Mavis Staples has been a beneficiary of Tweedy’s guidance winning her first Grammy Award for the work she created with Wilco’s front-man. Here again he brings just the right element to the Irion/Guthrie sound, respectfully acknowledging their harmonies and delicate melodies while easing the pair into a richer tapestry of accompaniment. The title track is a fine example of this, with Guthrie’s lacy vocals rising above jingling bells, tinkling piano followed by a distant harmonica. Irion’s background is based more in rock music and this comes through in the choice of material he takes lead on, including “Not Feeling It” and “Lowest Ebb.”

Jeff Tweedy working with Sarah Lee Guthrie feels like a natural choice. He’s worked with her family before in creating the Mermaid Avenue albums which featured Wilco and Billy Bragg creating music for Woody Guthrie lyrics. Sarah is Woody’s granddaughter. As Tweedy’s son Spencer pointed out, his dad is practically a Guthrie at this point. It’s a great addition to the family.

Rosemary Welsch (Afternoon Mix)