Catherine Irwin has just arrived at the Chicago home of her old friend Janet Bean. Friends since middle school and bandmates for more than 20 years in the on-again, off-again alt-country group Freakwater, they instantly fall into the jokey, easygoing rapport they’ve shared since their youth in Louisville, Ky., where Irwin still lives.
They’ll spend a few days rehearsing with longtime sideman David Gay, then hit the road for their first tour in several years, which stops at Johnny D’s on Sunday. It’s the 20th anniversary, give or take, of the Freakwater album “Feels Like the Third Time” — as good an excuse as any to revisit their endearingly off-center brand of traditional country music.
“I’m the one who sounds like I have tuberculosis,” says Irwin over the phone, by way of introduction. Bean assures it’s no problem to get them to sit for an interview less than an hour after her friend pulled in from Louisville: “Settling in just creates all kinds of chaos,” she jokes.
Their conversation is a lot like their singing — two distinct voices, one high, one low, jabbering and colliding and enjoying the ramble, even when the stories get sad. Through seven albums, they’ve mixed their own timeless-sounding hillbilly originals (some mournful, more often joyous) with outstanding covers of country classics both traditional (“Rank Strangers,” several by the Louvin Brothers) and modern, such as Conway Twitty’s “You’ve Never Been This Far Before” and John Anderson’s 1982 hit “Wild and Blue.”
Given the natural compatibility of their singing voices, you’d think it would take little time for the two harmonizers to regain their groove.
“You’d think that,” says Bean, who is also a member of the long-running Chicago rock band Eleventh Dream Day, which she started with her ex-husband, Rick Rizzo. But having something like 100 songs in their repertoire, “all basically three chords, it’s hard to keep them straight sometimes.”
Irwin, who recently released her second solo album, “Little Heater,” is equally self-effacing. “The fact that I personally haven’t gotten any better helps me get right back where I was,” she says, only half-joking. “That’s part of the magic, really.”
“Feels Like the Third Time” was in fact the band’s third album, their first for the Chicago indie label Thrill Jockey. Listening to it recently as a homework assignment for this reunion, Irwin was “amazed to think I wouldn’t really do anything differently today.”
“We couldn’t do it any differently,” adds Bean.
Yet for all their apparently genuine modesty, the group was truly ahead of its time in terms of introducing the alternative crowd to the unironic pleasures of great American roots music. They started as a duo, opening dates for Eleventh Dream Day in the late ’80s to sometimes perplexed audiences.
“We were definitely early in trying to make people listen to stuff they didn’t really want to hear,” says Irwin with a laugh. “Sometimes it was hard to get people to believe we were being serious. With the limited means we had, it was difficult to convey that. That’s still one of the main hurdles of my life.”
For the tour, Bean sorted through hours of old recordings to compile CDs to sell. One will feature an assortment of outtakes and B-sides, including a BBC radio appearance, a Hazel Dickens cover, and their “deranged” version (with dulcimer) of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” The other is culled from old soundboard cassette recordings, many unmarked.
“There were definitely a few shows where it was hard to tell if it was live or in the studio, with absolutely no sound between the songs,” she says, clapping once to indicate the audience response.
“They were reverent,” interjects Irwin with another laugh. “The atmosphere was reverential. It was stunned awe.”
They have amusing memories of Boston-area shows: eating Chef Boyardee at T.T. the Bear’s Place, or the time a certain well-known local rocker asked for free stuff at the band’s merch table at the Middle East. Performing live on air at MIT’s WMBR, Bean says she got “soused on port wine,” and the group has a hazy
recollection of bowling with a frozen
turkey in one of the school’s hallways.
It’s all part of the ramshackle lore of an underappreciated slice of the Americana pie. Asked to name a few models for their two-part singing, they mention the Everly Brothers and Skeeter Davis, who got her start in the Davis Sisters with the unrelated Betty Jack Davis
“For me, the second voice is more of an organic thing,” says Bean. “I wish I had the ability to say, yeah, I want it to sound like Skeeter Davis or the Carter Family. Really, when I start singing with Cathy, I sing the way I would sing it. They’re not true harmonies. That’s where some of the oddness comes from.”
“I agree,” says Irwin. “I don’t think we’re able to analyze or dissect it enough to try to reproduce it.”
“Yeah, there’s no predetermined here,” Bean adds.
Their tendency to chatter spills over onstage, where most of the songs Bean has been listening to from past performances stretched to seven or eight minutes from all the “yakety yak” in between.
“I should have one of those bark collars on,” says Irwin. “Lots of times people will be screaming, ‘Play a song!’ ”
Sure, Bean responds, but then someone else will call for another story.
“They can’t be satisfied,” says Irwin with a sigh.James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.