Robin and Linda Williams
It's been awhile since I interviewed Robin and Linda Williams for the 1999 Bluegrass Unlimited article, "Bluegrass Pushes Tradition." At the time, they defined their audience as "a little bit of everything, just acoustic music lover ... broad base ... folkies who like the old-time ballads, bluegrassers that like the instruments and harmonie ... roots country people who like the original material ... and others who come just to be entertained." Since the Williams first received national attention in 1975 on "A Prairie Home Companion" radio show, their eclectic group of fans has continued to grow. From the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, the duo once toured with Mary Chapin Carpenter who appears as a harmony vocalist on "Home #235" and "Old Plank Road." Sissy Spacey (and her daughter, Schuyler Fisk) also sing harmony on the latter, while Iris Dement joins in on "Leaving this Land." Another special guest on this album is dobroist Mike Auldridge.
On tour, guitarist Robin and clawhammer banjo-player Linda's "Fine Group" includes Jim Watson on electric bass and mandolin, and Jimmy Gaudreau on mandolin and mandola (a band member since 2000). Both bandmates appear in prominent roles on "Deeper Waters," but two other bassists (Mark Schatz, Kevin McNoldy) play that instrument. Fiddler Ricky Simpkins adds some beautiful fills and breaks to the mix.
With all strong originals and one traditional medley, "Deeper Waters" showcases the fine songwriting and arranging skills of Robin and Linda, whose collaborators include Dave Hull, Jerome Clark, Jimmy Fortune, Jim Watson and Tim O'Brien. All lyrics are included for their emotional and intimate songs of love, home, remembrances and memories, happy and sad. With a goal of presenting good, close, personal, and accessible songs, they looked to both older and newer material.
A contemplative ballad, "Whippoorwill," opens the project with a tale of a Kansas woman's sweet refrain for a North Dakota boy. A melodic and embracing "October Light' demonstrates Robin and Linda's tightly-blended and smooth duet singing. Turning up the tempo a notch on "Clarkfield" is a welcome treat. A sad perspective of the old prairie home and impending abandonment is portrayed in "Leaving This Land." The mandolin, banjo, and dobro riffs dance happily throughout "Home #235," a seemingly autobiographical song that speaks to their traveling life and love. A spirited "Old Plank Road" tells of potluck and picking down at Charlie's store.
The 7-minute traditional medley begins with "I'll Remember You Love In My Prayers" before its genesis drives into a toe-tappin' "Liza Jane" and "The Old Stillhouse." The duo's longing for deceased family and dear friends will be realized at their journey's end as they are "Saving Me A Place." This would've made a nice closer on Deeper Waters, but they instead chose "Lost Children," a ballad written with Tim O'Brien about emigrating Irish children and the safety that the future brings after they reunite with the parents.
Clearly with a strong kinship to traditional music, the Williams continue to provide fresh explorations that preserve the sound yet also innovate. Robin once told me that he puts on Bill Monroe when he wants to hear good music and get rejuvenated. Following the same innovative muse and spirit as Monroe, Robin and Linda only get so far from traditional sensibilities while maintaining themselves in the forefront of the ever-growing Americana movement.
Although this is only their first on the Red House Records (after a successful stint with Sugar Hill), I look forward to their continued collaboration with this fine Minnesota-based label known for its folk and Americana offerings. The duo's optimistic attitude towards change has always led them to new heights. Robin and Linda have now released seventeen albums, they're clearly not in any musical ruts, nor are they constrained by any boundaries. They continue to grow professionally. With their brand new songs and fresh look at some older material, the waters clearly do run deep for Robin and Linda Williams.