By Eleni P. Austin

Husband and Wife teams in Pop music are always a dicey proposition. As the professional relationship flourishes, the personal one is sometimes neglected. Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash were the exception to the rule.

Mostly, the music industry is littered with divorce casualties like Louis Prima & Keely Smith, Sonny & Cher, George Jones & Tammy Wynette and Ike & Tina Turner. Somewhere along the line, the couple’s chemistry and charisma recedes and all they’re left with is combustible resentment.

Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion became a couple in 1997, they have made music together almost as long. Like June, (who first gained recognition in the Carter Family, the first family of Country Music), Sarah Lee’s lineage is equally impressive. Not only is her father Arlo Guthrie, a 60s Folk-Pop icon, her grandfather was Woody Guthrie, the most important American Folksinger of the 20th century. Johnny’s pedigree is literary, his Great-Uncle was John Steinbeck.

Even though Sarah Lee had spent most of her life surrounded by music and musicians, she shied away from her legacy, hoping for a career in dance or the theatre.

Johnny started out in rock bands. In fact, his band, Queen Sarah Saturday was featured in the 90’s cult movie, “Empire Records.” The two met in Los Angeles through mutual friend Chris Robinson. (Front man for the Black Crowes). The couple married in 1999.

It was Johnny’s enthusiasm for music that finally ignited Sarah Lee’s passion. She provided backing vocals and played autoharp on his 2001 solo album, Unity Lounge. Johnny returned the favor on Sarah Lee’s self-titled debut which appeared later that year.

In 2004 they released their first record as a duo, Entirely Live. Less than a year later, their studio debut Exploration arrived. Deft production was supplied by Gary Louris of the Jayhawks. Singing together Sarah Lee and Johnny displayed vocal symbiosis that recalled Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.

They quickly followed up in 2009 with Folksong and again 2011 with Bright Examples. Their new album, Wassaic Way is named for the final station of the Metro-Harlem line in New York. The album is produced by Jeff Tweedy and Patrick Sansone of Wilco.

The album kicks off with the playful “Chairman Meow.” The tune is propelled by a jaunty handclap rhythm and guitar figures that echo the Beatles’ “From Me To You.” The lyrics gently mock an L.A. hipster, an “Industry” insider “with a crib in Koreatown and a pretty little kitty named Chairman Meow.”

Johnny has written the majority of the songs here, but Sarah Lee is responsible for two, “Circle Of Souls” and “Still Dreaming.” The former manages to be both breezy and delicate. The lyrics have a philosophical patina.. “How are we here, what are we made of/Now the dream is clear, so what are we afraid of?”

On the latter, a lattice of finger-picked guitar and tinkling piano runs support a countrified melody. Sarah Lee’s vocals are hushed and ethereal as she unfurls off- kilter koans like “Places to run to, vices to keep.”

The best tracks here are “Probably Gone,” “9 Outta 10 Times” and “Hurricane Window.” Co-written with Jeff Tweedy “Probably Gone” matches dour, downcast piano fills with gritty guitar chords. Spare and desolate, Johnny’s anguished falsetto echoes Neil Young, Harvest era. His pleas for romantic reconciliation are undercut by a fractious Crazy Horse -style guitar solo.

“9 Outta 10 Times” blends submarine bells percussion and Spaghetti-Western guitar riffs. Sarah Lee and Johnny’s vocal harmonies feel spooky and ominous. The lyrics are an oblique treatise on mental health.

Anchored by a high lonesome harmonica, “Hurricane Window” matches an effortless, hook-filled melody with Dylan-esque reportage. A sober denunciation on the snail’s-pace progress made in New Orleans following Katrina.

Up close and personal.. “Standing in a house on a sliver by the river,” the devastation feels palpable…”The Big Easy ain’t that easy anymore/You gotta give ‘em hell, before you get any help.” Rusty roots guitar, dobro and serpentine pedal steel solos take some of the sting out of indignant lyrics.

Other stand-out tracks include “Sleep On It.” Tentative and hushed, it offers some sage marital advice… “Wait until dawn to discuss any love that’s wrong/ You’ll find it wise, close your eyes rest your head, sleep on it.”

“Not Feeling It” is a jittery and caffeinated take on the push-pull of sexual attraction. On the flipside, “Wherever She Is It’s Spring” is a lush paean to marital bliss. The slightly saccharine sentiments are leavened by a prickly guitar solo.

Finally, the title track is a sun dappled delight. The lyrics explore the vagaries of romance…”Love has a way of making you crazy.” The tune is accented by wistful harmonica fills.

The album closes with “Lowest Ebb.” Initially, it feels like a whimsical take on life as a traveling musician. That’s Johnny’s point of view. But, Sarah Lee chimes in, dreamy but formidable, adding a cautionary undercurrent… “Don’t do nothin’ crazy while you’re gone, or forget about the words that I say/ Sturdy as the bridge for your song, I’ll be there at your lowest ebb.”

Wassaic Way is less twangy than previous efforts. The album has a more cosmopolitan feel. Actually, it kinda recalls the long out of print debut collaboration from Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks entitled Buckingham/Nicks. A commercial failure when it was released 40 years ago, the album motivated Mick Fleetwood to ask the duo to join Fleetwood Mac.

Sarah Lee and Johnny may never reach the commercial peak of 70s era Fleetwood Mac, but their music is a potent combination of Rock, Blues, Folk and Country. As comfortable as a frayed jean jacket.