FOLKWAX sitting in with Robin Williams
April 15, 2004
By Kerry Dexter
Robin Williams was packing up clothes and sorting boxes of CDs as he and his wife and singing partner Linda prepared to head out on tour from their home in Virginia. Those boxes contained copies of the duo's seventeenth recording, Deeper Waters. "It's another step along the way," Williams observed in between receiving boxes from the delivery man and chasing after the couple's dog, Luke..."The whole secret is to keep the level high and learn to bring all the lessons you've learned over the years to the forefront and don't let anything slide, because life's too short to let anything slide!" he said, laughing.
That commitment to quality and to blending tradition with innovation has been a constant since Robin and Linda began their musical partnership thirty years ago. Emmylou Harris, Tim O'Brien, and The Seldom Scene are among those who have recorded the Williams' tunes, they've appeared on stages ranging from "A Prairie Home Companion" to the Summer Olympics in Atlanta to "Austin City Limits," and Iris DeMent, John McCutcheon, and Mary Chapin Carpenter have called on the pair for harmony work and as opening acts. Recordings from across their career remain popular and they maintain steady bookings around the country at clubs and festivals. This despite the fact that, as Williams points out, their music is hard to contain in a single category. "We're not a Bluegrass band, we're not a Country band, we don't play just old time music, even though Linda is a great old time banjo player. It used to bother me that no one group accepted us with open arms," he said, " but you know, we're really a part of it all. In fact, not long ago I was listening back to our very first record, and there are remarkable similarities in our approach, in our focus, in what we were doing then to our music now. We've gotten a lot better," he said, laughing, "but we're the same people."
For Deeper Waters, the couple chose a dozen originals, some of which they composed individually and several they wrote together. There's a strong Appalachian/hill country/old time flavor to much of the instrumentation, while the melodies and lyrics, though contemporary, also have a quality of timelessness. "These are our arrangements, that we worked up ourselves," Williams said. "The songs are strong, and the songs are personal. There is a sense of these songs being very much Robin and Linda. Songs like "Home" -- that's a true song. It's about a quilt, a quilt face actually, that Linda inherited from her great grandmother and then over a period of time made into a quilt." The couple made the idea into a song about the power of relationships evolving over time, framed in images from their home in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
Robin, from North Carolina, and Linda, originally from Alabama, met in the early 1970s when both were visiting family in South Carolina, and soon developed both musical and personal partnerships. They lived for a time in Nashville, but for more than two decades they've called the valley of Virginia home. It's a landscape that turns up often in their songs, both musically and lyrically, and includes neighbors such as Mary Chapin Carpenter, John Jennings, and Sissy Spacek, all of whom stopped in to add their contributions to a track on Deeper Waters about a group of musicians trading songs.
"Our songwriting process is an ongoing thing," Robin said. "We try to write as much as possible all the time, but life sometimes gets in the way of us doing it as much as we would like to do. We'll go through a period to time when we're just really feeling bad about ourselves because we haven't gotten to it. At that point, everything else stops and we just start writing," he explained. "When we write, we usually start with lyrics first, but once the process gets started we are both involved on everything. We often work on more than one thing at a time," he continued. "Consequently, Linda can work on some thing for while until she gets burnt out and then she'll turn it over to me and I'll turn over to her what I've been working on and we keep moving things along that way."
That's a method that has served the couple well over the years they've been together. "There've been no huge big giant steps in our career," Williams reflected, "but every year has been better. We go back and listen to early stuff that we did, and our focus was there, but we've gotten better at it. Much more relaxed about the whole thing that we do, about who we are. The songs we write are, as Bill Monroe said, 'true songs'."
Kerry Dexter is a senior contributing editor at FolkWax. Kerry may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.