It’s the season of lifetime achievement awards, and I’d like to propose one for Robin and Linda Williams. They were among the first eclectic Americana acts I became aware of in my life (long before the term was applied to our music), and for 40 years, they’ve been making some of the kindest, warmest and most bountiful folk/roots music that I know of. Their vocal blend is seamless and without pretense. Their songs – written or borrowed – have long been impeccable, and they’ve been rewarded for that with covers by Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tom T. Hall and many others. As a fan and an observer of what’s right and lasting in this world of hand-made music, I’m delighted that they’ll be opening our show this Wednesday night at the Loveless.
“We’ve been niche-less since the beginning,” Robin told me this week by phone from the Williams homestead in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. “There were a few years when we felt this is not really advantageous because people seemed to want a niche. But we kept persevering, and the years went by. And then the term Americana showed up, and we decided they were talking about us!”
Robin and Linda met in 1971 and honed their duo sound partly during a residency in Nashville. Their first album came in ’75, as did their first appearance on the then very new Prairie Home Companion. They’ve been virtual cast members of that show ever since, which spread their sound and empathic connection to millions over more than three decades. A great run of albums on Sugar Hill Records in the 1990s solidified their place in the acoustic folk top tier. For the past ten years they’ve been on the great Red House Records out of St. Paul, MN, right up to their current project, These Old Dark Hills.
The disc was made in Nashville, as it happens. Because, Linda says, it’s “recording heaven” with its myriad studios and guest musicians with whom they go back years. They engaged old friend Jim Rooney to produce and Al Perkins to play steel or dobro on every track. “We’ve really found a great way of recording,” Linda continues. “We’re basically live musicians. We get in the studio for a few days, but we play live. So the records (get) done quickly. To me that’s afforded us a way of recording that sounds more like us than trying to overdub and piece and parcel a record together.”
Coherence, clarity and honest delivery is the hallmark of the R&LW sound, and as many albums as they’ve made, the consistency has never translated to complacency. I’ve never heard the Williams not sound fresh and relevant to the moment. So you whippersnappers aspiring to a career in this folky terrain, take note of Robin and Linda because they’ve kept the van between the lines and their view over the horizon for a good long time.
There is of course a full, well-rounded bill at Roots that will follow this tough act to follow. Our gifted, stage-commanding friend Scott Miller returns from East Tennessee with a bundle of new songs a new musical partner in Rayna Gellert. This acclaimed fiddler and singer (formerly of string band Uncle Earl) and the former V-Roy have teamed up for a tasty and simple EP called CoDependents. We’ll hear some of that material on Wednesday.
The good-time newgrass trio Tiller’s Folly returns, and they’re always a joy in person and on stage. Years of live chemistry have honed these guys into a precise unit, and they’re likely to bring along a surprise guest picker. Then Dylan LeBlanc is a child, literally, of the Muscle Shoals scene. His dad’s role as a Fame Studios session musician and songwriter prepped him for his life as a country/folk troubadour. Also up will be The Whiskey Gentry, which has a great name, a big true country sound, lots of people and a silken voice gal singer up front whom I can’t wait to hear in person.
Then at the last minute, because it just came up, we’ve added a return visit by the lovely and amazing Tomi Fujiyama, the queen of classic country music in Japan. She’s a joyful person, a ball of energy and a really superb guitarist and singer. She might nail a classic Nashville tune or surprise with an original colored by Japanese folk music. Her visit also became a great occasion to dedicate this week’s show to Daniel Pearl World Music Days, an international network of shows held in honor of the Wall Street Journal correspondent and violinist who was murdered by terrorists in 2002. No fundraiser or anything – just a great way to affirm our belief that music eradicates all kinds of boundaries and distances.
See you Wednesday then? Good.