February 16, 2002
Robin and Linda Williams
Visions Of Love
Sugar Hill Records
Sometimes, if you're lucky, you stumble upon an album that creates a sense of discovery usually found only in tiny off-the-path bookstores. Those kinds of shops with whiffs of ink and old leather. You linger in places like that, pulling unfamiliar books from the shelf. It's there you find the treasures, the book you crack open just a little and the first lines set hooks in you so deep that you have to stop what you're doing, sit down right in the middle of the floor and surrender.
So it was when I pulled a CD made by unfamiliar names set inside a blandly titled, sepia-tinged jewel case. Ready to consign it to the slag heap of ugly and ignored CDs, I was caught by this passage set above vintage pictures of couples on their wedding day on the back cover.
"I'm forever dreaming of what used to be and my darling precious boy, my dark-eyed angel _ he told me he loved me and I kept the home fires burning on this wild rocky shore, but the shadows creep about in the pale moonlight and he's running wild, leaving me, a rambling man who heard that old freight train and saw the open road. If I could forget his kiss _ Too late. Too late. The blues come around in the evening when the sun goes down."
Both a clever amalgam of the record's songs and an enigmatic draw, the words caught me. So I surrendered, pulled the case open and was captivated by the very first song, "I'll Twine 'Mid The Ringlets," (the original of the Carter Family's song "Wildwood Flower") on "Visions Of Love," an altogether lovely album by husband and wife Robin and Linda Williams (Sugar Hill; A+). A sense of discovery lingers throughout this humble collection of old folk and country songs, like finding a stack of ribbon-tied love letters in an attic trunk.
Once I saw who produced the album, I understood its draw for me. Garrison Keillor, writer and longtime creator of National Public Radio's "Prairie Home Companion," now adds "record producer" to his long list of accomplishments. Keillor edited 1998's "American Best Short Stories," one of the much-thumbed and deeply loved books in my library. He brings that same kind of simple, but emotional powerful aesthetic here. And because he is such a good storyteller himself, Keillor intrinsically knew how to pick the best story songs for the Williamses.
Keillor chose the music, encouraging the couple to look through their old vinyl-covered zip-up songbooks and work up demos for the ones they've never recorded. They sent him 30 songs, and from them, Keillor culled the 13 that appears on this, the couple's ninth album for Sugar Hill. Besides a long history of appearances on Keillor's show, the Williamses are veterans of the Grand Ole Opry, "Austin City Limits" and public radio's "Mountain Stage."
The Williamses expertly handle the material, proving that while the songs _ Jimmie Rodgers' "Mississippi Delta Blues," Merle Haggard's "Hungry Eyes," Hank Williams' "Ramblin' Man" and "The Blues Come Around" _ are old, the emotions are ageless. In their hands, the songs become like short stories of people overcome by grief and loss. People who use music to keep themselves from spiraling into despair. This mood reaches its apex on a spare but walloping dose of longing on "Keep The Home Fires Burning," an old chestnut made heartbreaking, yet hopeful with only a piano and Linda's smoky soprano. The duo harmonizes beautifully, especially on a cover of "After The Fire Is Gone," a country classic from Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, and the Louvin Brothers' "You're Running Wild."
This is an album for fans of the "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack who have a deep-in-the-bones love for Americana. This music, for me, is as irresistible and seductive as a soft bed at the end of the day.
I couldn't take it out of the CD player. Though most of the songs' subject matter is depressing, the vocals are so full of hope and faith that I came away from it completely soothed. The residual feelings are like the excited contentedness that comes from simple pleasures like towels hot from the dryer on a cold morning or the sight of a brilliant orange and red sunset.