From Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” to Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore,” Sarah Lee and Cathy Guthrie’s earliest performances at Sam’s Town Point in Austin, Texas radiated with a blood-is-thicker-than-whiskey bond on the small stage. The Ramsay Midwood-owned honkytonk’s stage sits only a foot off the ground—if that—but it felt like the duo stood 10 feet high every night they performed. Sharing a single mic, they unleashed hypnotic harmonies as they blended alt-country with folk roots—and a side of Texas honkytonk.
Though the band is just a year old, the magic between the Guthrie sisters is undeniable. Their weekly gigs as the Guthrie Girls began to attract more and more local musicians to the unassuming neighborhood bar, where the women had once worked as bartenders. And their talent stands on its own, though they come from high-caliber folk pedigree (Arlo’s daughters, Woody’s granddaughters).
The Guthrie Girls was born during a whirlwind of life changes for both women in a chaotic time, but it’s grown into a cathartic musical revelation. A necessity. Sarah Lee and Cathy agree that the project isn’t fleeting.
“It was in the middle of the pandemic, and nobody was going out, but suddenly we had this great group of musicians who just came out to jam with us,” Sarah Lee says.
The duo has yet to release any recordings, and aside from a low-quality video of a set they performed at SXSW this year, they hardly have any online presence. During our conversation, the sisters realize their dad, folk hero Arlo Guthrie, has yet to see or even hear them perform as the Guthrie Girls. They didn’t know about the SXSW footage on YouTube, so Sarah Lee tells Cathy to make a note to share it with their father.
“Yeah, we don’t have much out there yet,” Sarah Lee says. “We were just trying to figure out what we would do with our lives after Covid.”
In 2019, after more than two decades of marriage, Sarah Lee and her husband, singer-songwriter Johnny Irion, split. Their long and fruitful music career together, which included working with producers like Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, also ended. Sarah Lee already knew that she didn’t need Irion to carry her career; her songwriting talent is evident in her solo work. “Honey and the Dew,” a sweet and earnest tune based on what she had with Irion at one point, showcases Sarah Lee’s alto vocals that effortlessly emit a natural vibrato with an enchanting slight twang.
Meanwhile, Cathy’s band with Amy Nelson, Willie’s daughter, had been growing a following with Folk Uke, a ukulele duo known for humorous and raunchy lyrics. In addition to their songs appearing in films (Super Troopers 2) and television shows (Orange Is the New Black), Uke toured with everyone from the Jayhawks to X. When the band wasn’t traveling, Cathy toured with Arlo as a backup singer. When he retired a couple of years ago, she started bartending at Sam’s Town Point (Midwood is her ex) to make ends meet.
“I ended up moving [from Massachusetts] to Austin during the pandemic, because I had no other options, because I was so reliant on touring,” Sarah Lee says. “I started picking up shifts at Sam’s on the nights Cathy was off.”
One hot Austin night during Cathy’s shift, she felt like the joint was so quiet that she could hear the crickets chirping outside. On an impulse, she called her sister and asked if she’d perform.
“I was reluctant,” Sarah Lee says. “I’m not good at the bar scene. I’m a folk singer. I like people to sit and listen. [Cathy] was like, ‘Get over it and come to the bar’—that’s what big sisters can sometimes do.”
When Cathy joined Sarah Lee, she’d run back and forth from behind the bar to the stage. She’d sing a song or two at first, which evolved into three or four songs. It reached the point where both women didn’t have time to bartend.
“Everybody was talking about how we sound amazing and how much they love our harmonies,” Sarah Lee says. “We were having so much fun doing our favorite songs—the stuff we grew up on like Ramblin’ Jack [Elliott] and of course, our dad’s songs and some of Woody’s stuff, but moving them into a bit more of a honky-tonk country sound. Then, dancers started showing up.”
Adds Cathy, “All of a sudden, we were the Wednesday night show in Austin. That momentum happened within the last year. We decided that we wanted to try to release some tracks and take it on the road.”
Sarah Lee and Cathy have recorded a couple of tunes, including Goebel Reeves’ “Hobo’s Lullaby,” which their grandfather also performed. The Guthrie Girls’ rendition of Hoyt Axton’s “Lion in the Winter,” also driven by poignant harmonies, is given a fresh Texas two-step makeover. Both tracks will be released on the first day of the duo’s debut California tour that kicks off on May 20 at Michael’s on Main (with a four-piece backing band). From Soquel, the Guthries play San Francisco, then the boutique Big Sur festival, Hipnic, which is already sold out.
“We had sung together over the years as background singers from time to time, but really not that often, so we had no idea [that it would work],” Sarah Lee says. “It’s organic. We’re playing music for the sake of playing music and trying not to take it too seriously. For us to lighten up in that way is new and extremely satisfying.”
Adds Cathy, “Singing together enhances the experience of supporting one another in our hearts and voices in the way we want to present ourselves to the world. It’s just fun, Saturday night music.”
The Guthrie Girls play Friday, May 20, 8pm. Michael’s on Main, 2591 S. Main St., Soquel. $25 plus fees. folkyeah.com.