Robin and Linda Williams
In The Company Of Strangers
Sugar Hill Records
As veterans of Garrison Keillor's wry nostalgia show, "Prairie Home Companion," Robin and Linda Williams grab hold of the musical and lyrical cliches of Americana and twist them around for a fresh look. They share the critically aware reverence for the fire at the heart of "folk" tradition that gives spark to the likes of John Stewart, Guy Clark, and John Prine. Or Robert Johnson, come to think of it.
"In The Company Of Strangers" calls for a few listenings before it starts to reveal its depth. First go round, you might think it's just a set of sprightly newgrass by a cute couple, with great clawhammer banjo and dobro to boot. But hone in on the lyrics, and the harmonies, and you'll find they are something well beyond cute. Hellhounds and nightmares lurk along this trail, as is apparent on the title cut: "Drivin' straight on through the night/Sharp winds, rain and dark sky/Your highways full of dreams and danger." For a band that's been lauded in bluegrass gospel circles, the Williamses and their fine group (Jim Watson on bass and Kevin Maul on dobro), know a lot about damnation. In "Cold, Cold Heart," Linda delivers Hank Williams' (no relation) hopeless plea from a lover forever locked down by the memory of love betrayed: "Yet you're afraid each thing I do is just some evil scheme." And a harmonica and steel-string duet don't take the ice out of "Some Peculiar Beast." But this disc is not all gloom, by any means. The opening cut, "The Hard Country," suggests a love-will-keep-us-together attitude may prevail, even on the rockiest road. And Robin's "So I t Go" is bouncy and joyful almost to the point of self-parody.
Still, the real meat of this fine recording is on cuts like the despairing "This Is The Real Thing," a prison tragedy, and "Rumble," whose troubled narrator wakes and worries aloud, "Could be an 18-wheeler loaded down/Could be an echo of some of dream," but never know for sure. Whether singing about terror or joy, the Williamses have cut a fine, fine record.
__ Bill Nevins