Feb 11, 2002

Robin and Linda Williams
Visions Of Love

Sugar Hill Records

The success of the 30-year career of married minstrels Robin and Linda Williams is founded on love love for each other, for their audiences and for classic American music. So it's fitting that this latest disc from a couple who lives in the Shenandoah Valley dwells on love in its many hues.

The Williams' last album, In the Company of Strangers, was a rangy and propulsive project that emerged as one of the best of that year. But where that record rippled with the giddy energy and wit that distinguishes the group's live shows, this is a more austere, old-time country vision.

Gone are the drums and electric-guitar touches. This is a Spartan, slightly prim and proper collection of cover songs, arranged around acoustic guitar, piano, barely there bass and a smidgeon of fiddle and mandolin from longtime collaborator Peter Ostrushko. This isn't altogether a liability, because Robin and Linda have magnificently burnished and heartfelt voices that step right up to the lip of the stage and sing their hearts out. But it doesn't make this the first R&L Williams album you might give to a newcomer.

Behind this stripping down is the work of first-time producer Garrison Keillor, who has over many years made the Williams virtual house-band members on his famous A Prairie Home Companion public radio show. You can tell he trusts their performances, wants and all. There's not a cut that doesn't move with polished, emotional grace.

The song choices reflect some stage material the couple has drawn from for years, some classic country from the Louvin Brothers and the Loretta Lynn/Conway Twitty dream team, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, plus standards from the old gospel house.

They begin with a more arcane version of the Carter Family's Wildwood Flower, titled I'll Twine 'Mid The Ringlets. Robin's plaintive on Ramblin' Man and Linda's lead on Merle Haggard's Hungry Eyes are typical of the couple's honest delivery. Wandering Boy features the ancient intervals of the Virginia high country in a track as stark as an old, bald mountain in winter. More swingy and upbeat is Rodger's Mississippi Delta Blues.

There's nothing remotely lackluster about any part of this album, but whether a listener responds depends on chemistry and expectations. For me, Keillor may lay on the Lutheran austerity a bit thick. One of the Williams' greatest assets is the laughter and the mirth they share with their crowd. As fine as this work is, it can feel like music you should listen to in a straight-back wooden chair.

__ Craig Havighurst