ROBIN AND LINDA WILLIAMS in Concert
Ruth Taylor Rowland Hall
California State University - Chico
I'm prone to cynicism about the state of country music in
America; we've listened to too much insincere, formulaic music: Millions stampede to spend their money on mediocre entertainment in this country while some of our best talent and most creative music goes ignored. But my faith was restored by the Robin and Linda Williams concert sponsored by the Butte Folk Music Society and KCHO - FM.
With "Their Fine Group" (Jim Watson, bass guitar and Kevin Maul, dobro),the Williamses are in their 20th year together; this was their second stop in Chico in as many years. The recently released a live album on Strictly Country Records, and I was familiar with their music from their appearances on Austin City Limits and A Prairie Home Companion, but this was the first time I'd heard
them in person. I heard singing that angels would envy, stories that touched the heart and humor that warmed the soul, plus some mighty fine old time banjo flailing. This show held the audience spellbound for its entire length.
"Rhythm of Love," an autobiographical song about their music and their relationship best described by the line, "Walkin' in perfect time, Talkin' in perfect rhyme," kicked off the show. Then we took a trip back in time via the Delmore brothers song from the '40's, "Pan American Boogie," showcasing the connection between bluegrass and rock'n'roll with hard drivin' guitar licks and freight-train blues harp provided by Robin Williams, and "hound dog dobro" added
to the mix by Maul. By the time they got around to "Seventeen Years Old," a haunting ballad about the beauty of young love, the Williamses already had convinced me of their sincerity. They followed through with an old Merle Kilgore song, "Baby Rocked
Her Dolly," recalling sentimental memories of an older generation- all while harmonizing as well as can be expected by mere mortals. They'd barely begun and I already had my money's worth.
The Williamses spiced up the menu with a medley of dance tunes and a few people were inspired to clap along, but thankfully, that died out. The audience seemed to really want to hear each note and just savor the music-I know I did. I was really glad to hear "Herding Cattle"(from the repertoire of Grand Ol' Opry star "Stringbean:), partly for the notion of "herding cattle in
Cadillac Coupe de Ville," but mostly because I learned the song once upset an audience of animal rights activists in Boston who actually thought the lyrics were "hurting cattle." In fact, an easy flowing humor underscored the whole show - in lyrics, stories and the way the musicians vamped while another took time to check their tuning.
Their repertoire covered a lot of ground, from traditional folk to
old-time classic country and bluegrass, featuring close harmonies and heartfelt storytelling as well as masterful pickin'-Linda's old-time claw hammer-style banjo playing was about as good as it comes. But the pair really shine as songwriters: The original song "Country of the Night," was introduced as "old-time music meets Twin Peaks," and for us night owls, the line "breathe the darker air" really says it all. Their haunting tribute to Hank Williams, "Rollin' and Ramblin'," which was recorded by Emmylou Harris hit the nail on the head with lines like, "He sang with whiskey on his breath, his heart broke like a child's."
Add an encore of a capella singing that was simultaneously powerful, beautiful and as harmonically precise as a Swiss watch, and I'd have to say that the Robin and Linda Williams concert was superb from start to finish. At one point, a member of the audience turned to me and said, "Why, these guys could have a career doing this." Seeing his tongue in his cheek, I couldn't resist a typically cynical response: "No, they're too good for that." In fact, they've succeeded by folk music standards and are very well known among musicians, but really should be at least as famous as Reba or Garth. Judging by their friendly attitude, their love for performing and the fact that they have been playing for 20 years, I'd say they've made a fine career out of making great music.
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