Jan.15, 2000

Robin and Linda Williams
In The Company Of Strangers

Sugar Hill Records

Augusta County residents Robin and Linda Williams have built their careers around talent, patience and persistence. Opting to live in the Shenandoah Valley because of it feels comfortable, they have steadily built a fan base and released a string of recordings that have earned them the respect of peers and listeners alike. With their latest effort, In The Company Of Strangers (Sugar Hill Records) due for release next week, the duo may have to get used to a bit more attention.

Their last several recordings have garnered critical praise and have done well on the Americana charts, but this effort could even see some cross-over to country music radio. Teaming with regular collaborator Jerome Clark, the Williams have penned some fine songs (there is only one cover tune) that showcase their usual vocal prowess and the tasteful instrumental accompaniment that fans have come to expect, highlighted by noteworthy contributions from band-mates Kevin Maul and Jim Watson and some special guests.

The opening track "Hard Country" shows Linda Williams in fine form on the lead vocals, on a bouncy number driven by guest Stuart Duncan's fiddle, about a down-on-luck character that sets the tone for much of the material on the album, which is informed by an acceptance of life's realities with a sense of weary optimism. Ms. Williams evokes the spirit of the Carter Family with the quiet "So Long, See You Tomorrow" a tune that benefits from guest Mary Chapin Carpenter's vocal blend and Maul's pedal steel guitar.

Following in the tradition of their previous albums, Robin Williams delivers "The Perfect Country Song," a tune that playfully manages to fit a full roster of country music cliches into a neat three-and-a-half minute package, one that is sure to a concert favorite for years to come. His vocal strength is also present in "Sometime Tomorrow." a swampy song about love gone astray. Duncan's fiddle and the dobro work of Maul lend an atmospheric background, and the banjo played by Ms. Williams also filters in to fine effect.

Although the Williams' trademark vocal blend is heard throughout, it's power stands out on "This Is The Real Thing", a song about pain and loneliness. The hard life of the country singer is examined in "Bar Band in Hillbilly Heaven", complete with lively fiddle by Tim O'Brien and honky-tonk steel guitar by Maul, and references to country legends Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams.

The set closes with the title tune, a song that opens with Ms. Williams' old-timey clawhammer banjo accompanying her husband's vocals about the "dreams and the dangers" of life on the road. The one cover is a sparse reading of Hank Williams" classic "Cold, Cold Heart". Respectful to the original, the simple arrangement shows the power of the voice-as- instrument that the Williams have come to embrace with as much confidence as anyone.

It seems that the varied strengths of the Williams makes them hard to pigeon-hole, something that radio and the music industry try to do to market recordings. While this disc will become a favorite of fans and is sure to make the Americana charts, one would hope that it gets the broad radio play it richly deserves.