Robin & Linda Williams: In the Company of Strangers
by George Graham
(Sugar Hill 1064 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/2/2000)
While the commercial country music scene has produced a great deal of bad music that tends to become hits, over the years, country has also been the source of many truly great songs. Nashville remains a hotbed for a bevy of very good younger songwriters, plying their trade and hoping to become known, or hoping that their songs will be recorded by one of the commercial artists. The stylistic zone where folk and country music meet has been the source of some especially good writing, going back to the 1960s with people like Ian and Sylvia, and up to today, with artists like Tim O'Brien and Lyle Lovett.
This week, we have the latest release by a long-running country folk duo who just keep getting better with great songwriting and a quickly identifiable personal style, Robin and Linda Williams. Their new CD is called In the Company of Strangers.
Robin and Linda Williams have celebrated 25 years of marriage and performing together. They originally met in Nashville, and began collaborating in songwriting in the early 1970s, and by 1975 had released their first album together. It was also around that time that they first appeared on Public Radio's A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor, then heard only in Minnesota. In the early 1980s, when the program went national, they became regulars, and their appealing songs and distinctive Appalachian style vocal harmonies have become known to millions of Public Radio listeners.
Based in Virginia for many years, Robin and Linda Williams have been releasing a long series of recordings, some featuring older songs, some with compositions by other up-and-coming songwriters, but many with their original songs. They also tour relentlessly, criss-crossing the country and doing a hundred or more appearances a year. The couple is best in a live setting, but in recent years, their studio recordings have begun the capture the energy and personality of their performances, due to the fact that they have been touring with a regular group they call Their Fine Band, and using them on their recordings. In the Company of Strangers also features their regular group, though bassist Jim Watson does vocal harmonies rather than playing bass. The latter duties were performed on the CD by studio bassist by Andy Waldek. Kevin Maul of the Fine Band plays his usual array of Dobro, slide acoustic guitar and steel guitar. Also appearing are special guests Tim O'Brien, who is heard on mandolin, Mary Chapin Carpenter doing backing vocals, and ace studio musicians Stuart Duncan on fiddle and John Jennings on guitar.
Their 1998 CD Devil of a Dream was a hard act to follow, but their new CD is probably the Williamses' best overall collection of original songs, with the classy, perceptive writing that makes for the best country and folk lyrics. The level of musicianship is also very high throughout. Though the instrumental style gravitates more toward the country than the folk, all the arrangements are tasteful and the quality of the performance has great honesty and a kind of breezy style that characterizes Robin and Linda's live performances.
Eleven of the twelve tracks are original pieces, co-written by the Williamses together with Jerome Clark, who has collaborated with them in the past. Like Devil of a Dream, In the Company of Strangers was produced by Kevin McNoldy, who also played various instruments on the project. McNoldy did an exemplary job in finding the right balance between a studio sound and the Williams' live performance style. They recorded in their home state of Virginia, rather than going to a Nashville studio, even though some of the guest musicians are based in the Tennessee capital. The album's tracks are nicely arranged, with the lead vocal alternating, more or less, between Robin and Linda Williams. The songs tend to be surprisingly philosophical, taking on issues like aging, love lost and found, and the country-music life.
Leading off is one of those lyrically profound songs, Hard Country sung by Linda. The title is a reference to a land -- or perhaps a time -- of adversity, while the arrangement is one of the most straight-out country on the album. <<>>
That is followed by a great song cleverly considering the passage of time, the accumulation of birthdays and all that entails. Robin is the lead singer in So It Go, a bouncy tune which features Tim O'Brien on the mandolin. <<>>
The CD contains a pair of consecutive tracks that look at two different facets of a relationship. Sometime Tomorrow, sung by Robin, is a sad song about trying to cope with the loss of a love. The Williamses give the song a sound vaguely like traditional Appalachian folk music. <<>>
So Long, See You Tomorrow, with its more traditional country sound, is about a relationship that manages to stay together despite some adversity. Mary Chapin Carpenter makes her appearance on the backing vocals. <<>>
A excellent song which could only be written by a husband-wife team is Allow It, which features the duo exchanging verses about the respective foibles of partners and how the marriage carries on, with each overlooking some of the things the other does. <<>>
Probably the most straight-out country song, in both style and lyrics, is Bar Band in Hillbilly Heaven, a story of an intrepid country musician looking for respect and fame. <<>> True to form, he dies in the last verse in a car accident. <<>>
On a similar subject is a track called The Perfect Country Song, which manages to put in a commentary about the country music industry, gently make fun of the subject matter of most country songs, and tell a story of another performer, this one achieving fame and falling into misfortune. <<>>
The one cover on the CD is a classic Hank Williams song Cold Cold Heart, sung by Linda, with a mostly acoustic arrangement that really captures the spirit of the sad song. <<>>
The album ends with its title piece, In the Company of Strangers a kind of travelling song, with Linda featured prominently on the banjo, playing traditional clawhammer style. <<>>
Robin and Linda Williams have been making music together for a quarter century, and have attracted a lot of fans from both their constant touring, and their frequent Public Radio appearances. In the Company of Strangers highlights their outstanding songwriting, with intelligent lyrics embodying the best of both the folk and country genres, in an appealing musical setting that also spans those two styles. These are songs that quickly draw you in, often with their wry wit, and also have the quality of being open to various interpretations, potentially revealing something new each time you listen. The musicianship is very tasteful with some excellent added players, and the Williamses' vocal harmonies are in fine form, though some of the songs do tend to lean more toward the country than the folk.
The sound quality is decent, though not quite audiophile. The instrumentation is well-recorded, but on some tracks, the vocals seem to lack a little immediacy, and the dynamic range could have been a little better throughout.
Robin and Linda Williams have been called "the most successful performers you've never heard of," though that can hardly be said among Public Radio listeners, through their long association with A Prairie Home Companion. Their new CD shows them at the peak of their form, with some of the best songs they have written. The result is a memorable album that should win them even more fans.
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