Albums: Critics Pick the Best of 2000
Robin and Linda Williams
In The Company Of Strangers
Sugar Hill Records
For a quarter of a century now, Robin and Linda Williams have been making records that embody a winning combination of bluegrass, old-time, country and folk sounds with lyrics full of sharp, detailed observation and more than occasional humor. Long-time friends of bluegrass - they're frequent festival performers and regular attendees at the IBMA's World of Bluegrass - the Williamses just keep getting better and better. Logically speaking, that would make their new one the best yet, and so it is.
Backed by long-time members of their band, Kevin Maul (resonator guitar, slide guitar, pedal steel) and Jim Watson (normally their bass player; on this outing, Andy Waldeck handles the low end while Jim contributes vocals), and a well-selected complement of friends - Tim O'Brien, Stuart Suncan, John Jennings, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Stuart Gunter and producer Kevin McNoldy - the couple serves up a tasty restrained, lovely reading of Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart."
The originals, all written with collaborator Jerome Clark, have in common the quality of making you feel that you've heard them before; the melodies are both simple and striking, and the tasteful yet lively instrumental work - acoustic guitar, bass resonator guitar, drums are omnipresent, with fiddle, clawhammer banjo (nicely played by Linda), occasional electric guitar and otherr touches rounding our the backing - frames them perfectly. "In The Company Of Strangers" has an easy, comfortable feeling to it. Both Robin and Linda have distinctive voices that draw the listener in without showing off, yet behind the engaging, down-home quality lie vocal skills that should please and bluegrasser; on "Bar Band In Hillbilly Heaven," for instance, Robin and Jim Watson offer harmonies under Linda's high lead that are right on the money. The picking, too, is just right, eschewing hotlicks and virtuoso displays in favor of more subtle, supportive work that weaves around the singers' voices in a way that puts the spotlight where it belongs.
In short, this is an album that delights the ear and warms the soul. Listeners whose interests extend beyond bluegrass will find it well worth their time.