For most of her folk-rock career, Sarah Lee Guthrie has been identified primarily as the granddaughter of Woody Guthrie and daughter of Arlo Guthrie. For most of his folk-rock career, Johnny Irion has been known as the husband of Sarah Lee Guthrie (and son-in-law of Arlo, etc.). Though they've been romantic and musical partners since 1997, Guthrie and Irion made their recording debuts as solo acts in 2001, which means that Exploration is the first album to show off what the duo's been doing as a touring act for the last half-decade. If there's any justice in the world, the album will make the pair more than footnotes to a musical legacy.
Guthrie and Irion come out of the gate strong with "In Lieu Of Flowers," a Gram Parsons-styled, steel-guitar-stroked ballad in which the pair's nasal harmonies add poignant twang to a tale of a lover who's more interested in worrying about how to make his partner happy than actually doing anything about it. On the song that follows, "Cease Fire," the second word of the title slides into the heavens as Guthrie and Irion swap ideas about how to stop bickering and relax together. On the song that follows that, "Holdin' Back," Guthrie tries on the light pop-country cloak of Caitlin Cary, and comes up with Exploration's third winner in a row.
Like a lot of folk-rock throwbacks, Guthrie and Irion rely too much on the word "ain't" and on lines like "freight-train whistle taught me how to cry," which would sound better if they hadn't been borrowed from someone else's songs and someone else's life. But Exploration's simple, smooth soundmidwifed by The Jayhawks' Gary Lourisis so gently unpretentious that the second-generation hicksploitation hardly grates at all. It also helps that Guthrie and Irion are more eclectic than a lot of their ilk, able to channel Harry Nilsson on "Mornin's Over," Lynyrd Skynyrd on "Gervais," and The Band on "Georgia Pine," all without losing the Parsons and Emmylou Harris dynamic that's their bread and butter. Exploration ends with the exultant "Gotta Prove," a twisted love song that doubles as a declaration of a job well done for a pair of singer-songwriters with a lot to live up to.