Robin and Linda Williams
I've followed Robin and Linda Williams, sometimes literally around the country, for thirty years. In fact, in the very early 1970s, I saw Robin perform at the long-gone Orpheus coffeehouse in Rockford, Illinois. That was before he met Linda!
I fell in love with them somewhere around 1976, and listened to their first vinyl album easily a hundred times. To me, they were the ultimate romantics. A yankee at that time (lower-case y), I found their southern accents and rich storytelling-songwriting abilities, along with their Everly Brothers harmonies, to be aurally addictive.
When I count up all the music I've seen over the decades, I'm pretty sure that I've seen Robin & Linda more than any others. I've driven through midwestern snowstorms, over shimmering summer highways, once my husband skipped a day of work so I could see them, an unexpected treat, in Durango, Colorado.
So we have one of those musician-fan relationships whereby we just pick up the conversation after the show from where we left off. They've never been to my home in New Mexico, and I've never been to theirs, in Virginia. Occasionally we have shared food and spirits, in restaurants and bars. We've seen each other gain weight, lose weight, get cool haircuts, lose hair, I've seen them through several traveling dogs, and they've seen me through several geographical moves. In the time I've known Robin & Linda, they have both had their appendixes (appendi?) removed, and have celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary.
I adore them. When I first knew them, genius string musician Peter Ostroushko played with them, and later, Jim Watson from the original Red Clay Ramblers. I saw them a dozen times with Watson and Kevin Maul. I have yet to hear the band with mandolinist Jimmy Gaudreau, but I can't wait; the man's played with bluegrass legend J.D. Crowe for years!
The amazing thing is, they keep getting better and better. That should always be the case, but let's face it, often, it isn't. Robin's voice has gotten clearer and stronger, and Linda's clawhammer banjo skills have been perfected, their stage act is witty and smart, and the 20 years they spent as frequent guests on Prairie Home Companion hasn't hurt their spontaneity.
But they didn't quite, quite record as well as they performed. Almost, but not quite. I couldn't put my finger on it, but the real lively personalities of Robin and Linda; his humor, her strength, their amazing unity of perfect timing; didn't come across to me on my stereo speakers. Sometimes Linda's voice recorded a tad on the shrill side, which I've never heard live. I wondered if they were ever going to capture their unique chemistry on tape.
I'm happy to announce that, finally, they have..
Deeper Waters is their first record on Bob Feldman's Red House Records, out of Minneapolis. Feldman, over the past twenty-five years, has managed to put out some of the most important and memorable CDs in Americana music, starting with Greg Brown, Davy Moore, Prudence Johnson, now including Lucy Kaplansky, Pieta Brown and Bo Ramsey, Peter Ostroushko, Eliza Gilkyson and a raft of others.
Appearing as background singers on Deeper Waters are Iris Dement, Sissy Spacek and her daughter Schuyler Fisk (neighbors of the Williams'), Mary Chapin Carpenter (Robin officiated at her recent marriage ceremony) and guitarist Mike Auldridge. Impressive group! Also John Jennings plays guitar on "Old Plank Road," Ricky Simpkins contributes fiddle, and Mark Schatz plays acoustic bass.
Robin & Linda Williams seem like a perfect fit for Red House, and this new CD is unlike anything else they've ever done. Leaving the drums off was a good move! But there is more to the new sound than that. 11 of the 12 tracks on the album are original songs, though three have been previously recorded by the duo and their Fine Group.
I e-mailed them, asked them all kinds of questions about this fresh production, and here's what Linda had to say. (Robin was spending his cold morning making sure the pipes in their ancient Middlebrook farm house didn't freeze and crack in the sub-zero January temperatures.)
Me: Linda! Why the label change?
Linda: We'd been with Sugar Hill a long time and the company had gone through some changes in the last few years. In the past year or two, the Durham office became less and less included in decisions about artists and, even though our last CD, Visions of Love, was our best selling CD, the decision came from California that our contract would not be renewed when it came up a year or so ago.
At first we felt kind of sad, as we were comfortable with the label and had long term friends in the Durham office. But after about 15 minutes of that, we could see that it was a good opportunity for us to do something new. Change is often good, and we began to feel like we needed a change, but we were just so comfortable with Sugar Hill we didn't realize it.
After checking out several alternatives, we settled on Red House. We felt like we fit in with their roster, even though they don't have anyone exactly like us. They were very supportive and interested from the get go. The deal was sort of sealed when we did a show in Minneapolis last spring and almost the whole office from the label turned out to see us. They loved the show, which included some of the songs we'd recently written and planned to record on the next CD. They have been great to work with. Very involved and helpful, yet they always defer to us when decisions need to be made. A couple of people there are old friends too so it doesn't feel like a completely brand new relationship. There is an excitement and enthusiasm for us there and they believe in us and want to help us sell some CDs.
Me: On your past albums, I've felt like you were right in the room, but on Deeper Waters, it sounded like you are singing right to me. And the song selection is very intimate.
Linda: I wanted these songs to be very close and personal. I wanted them to be our voice. I wanted them to be songs I thought people would like to hear. I was pretty adamant about what was, and was not, included. I wanted them to be accessible. I wanted them to be good. The older ones were ones that we wanted to give another chance.. Just didn't feel like we got them the first time around and we had good ideas about how to change them. With "Whippoorwill," we wrote a bridge which we decided it was badly in need of, while working it up for a Prairie Home Companion show in North Dakota. After we got the bridge, it gave us a new interest in the song. I've always loved "Leaving This Land," and had my own ideas about how to sing it and Robin liked them, and let me have it. We have always wanted to make "Annie" a banjo song, and a little more introspective. In any case, the new ones fit the criteria that I had set out originally. There were songs that didn't, and we left them out. The new songs were also written and arranged with the current lineup of the Fine Group in mind, written to be good vehicles for performing as a band. I think we accomplished that, too.
Me: You've had, what, twenty previous albums? How does it feel to add one more? Is it still exciting to you?
Linda: Robin and I counted up 17 albums, but we could be wrong. I see this one as another chance to get it right. We try to build on what we've done in the past, you know, take what we liked from other projects and try to bring that to the new one, and try to eliminate what we didn't like from past projects.
It's never easy to record. It's not what we do professionally. We play live, and there is a difference in the way things sound live and on tape. Luckily, we have found a good producer, Kevin McNoldy, who helps us overcome the problems and settle into recording. Also, most of these were brand new songs, or brand new looks at older original songs. Sometimes it's hard to get the right feel. Again, Kevin worked with us and gave us a few second chances to help us get a feel on all the songs. We always have a time restraints, due to budget, and so you just have to move on after a while.
I feel we captured all these songs. I feel like the songs all hang together as a whole. I'm behind all of the material. I think when people come to see us who have heard this recording, it will sound like us, and vice versa. What I mean is, when people come to see us and then hear the recording, it will sound like what they heard live.
Of course, in many ways the CD is a jumping off point. The songs, arrangements, and performances will change and evolve from what's on the CD. But I can sit and listen to this one and not feel like we missed on "this" song or "that" song. I feel like we got them all. I felt like that on the last one too, but this one is different. There are more chances to miss when it's all so new.
Me: What's ahead for you this year?
Linda: A perfect 2004 would be good health, good gigs, good crowds, good traveling, time off to plant a garden and enjoy it, enough but not too much rain, and to get the buzz that money can't buy going for us in the world of music.
Me: In my opinion, you've just released the best album of your career. Will you tour to support it?
Linda: 30 years on the road is hard to fathom. But we know how to do it, and do it well. That much we have learned! The road comes with the territory when you play music for a living, so it's good that we do it well and can enjoy it when we're out.
Performing is the most fun. A closeness develops with the band, on stage and off, when we're out on tour and that's fun, too. Of course it's tiring. That's a given. You never seem to get enough rest, and that's something you just learn to live with. We've done some of our best shows on no sleep after driving all night.
It's a good thing it's easier now than in the old days, because, if it was as hard as we used to make it, we'd probably be dead. These days we have a good vehicle with plenty of room to stretch out and rest while we're driving, and the band helps with some of the responsibilities, like driving, navigating, handling the merchandise, etc, etc. Everyone has their little job and they do it well. And we are not gone for as many long periods of time as we were in the old days. We'll do one long trip to the west coast every year, but after that it's a lot of weekend work or a couple or weekends strung together with work during the week.
We are fortunate that we all get along and get to work together. So no matter where we go, there we are - sort of. And being able to bring our dog, Luke. A dog makes it all the more like home.