Robin and Linda Williams
Over the past 30 years, singers and songwriters Robin and Linda Williams have assembled one of the most daunting, emotionally honest, and brilliantly crafted catalogs in American music. Their now trademark tapestry of bluegrass, traditional mountain folk ballads, Southern gospel, country, and hillbilly blues is singular.
With Deeper Waters, the album that marks their debut on the Minnesota-based Red House label, and their 30th anniversary as a recording and touring unit, the Williams have issued what amounts to nothing short of a masterpiece and perhaps their most inspired recorded moment.
Once in a while, it is possible to glance at a cover to know that what is contained within its folds is special, something so completely out of the ordinary, it seems to speak before it is placed in the box and played. Deeper Waters is just such an item, from the sleeve with photography by Michael Wilson and a gorgeous design by Carla Leighton to its phenomenal players, who include Mike Auldridge, Jimmy Gaudreau, Mark Schatz, and Rickie Simpkins, to its guest vocalists: Iris Dement, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Schuyler Fisk, and actress Sissy Spacek.
The true wealth of any recording by the Williams is in the songs, of course, and this batch is glorious. The pair wrote or co-wrote all but one track here. The pair co-wrote with Dave Hull Jerome Clark, Tim O'Brien, Jimmy Fortune, and Jim Watson. There's the pastoral melancholy of "October Light," the shimmering dobro and mandolin that entwine with Robin's guitar and vocal of haunted bygone love in "Whippoorwill," and the hunted, devastating dislocation of "Leaving This Land," where the grain of Linda's voice carries within it the weight of every dispossessed, locked-out refugee from across the history of the American landscape. Interestingly enough, it is followed by "Home #235," a banjo-driven song that looks across a life spent traveling and wrapped in the anchor of love for a wandering soul, holding a few possessions as the evidence of personal history. On "Annie," there is more drift and dislocation, where once more, love proves to be the demarcation of home in both the spiritual and physical senses of the word. It is in love that the heart finds its home is what many of these songs seem to say. In the mirage of terrain and landmarks, there is always the presence of the beloved Other to measure the years and distance by.
In this manner, Deeper Waters is nearly a timeless collection of Americana; it could have been recorded 100 years ago (as the traditional songs such as "I'll Remember You Love In My Prayers," with its spooky banjo and mandolin lines, slinking through the foreground of the mix suggest), or last week (as evidenced by "I'm Just Glad You're Gone.") The album closes full circle with "Lost Children," a ballad of familial separation, migration, and the kind of truth that can only be borne out in the hope of reunion.
Deeper Waters is a testament to the stories that are seldom told yet lived in every community, era, and household. This is the place where love, grief, loss, endings, and beginnings are given utterance: to whisper, weep, laugh, and reflect as they move through lives both ghostly and grand.
__ Thom Jurek