Sing Out! magazine, winter 2012
ROBIN & LINDA WILLIAMS AND THEIR FINE GROUP
Red House 244
Stonewall Country: Songs from the Musical
As America begins the 150th anniversary of the Civil War (AKA "the Late Unpleasantness" depending on your region), Robin & Linda Williams have finally recorded their musical play they've staged in Lexington, VA, since 1985. Its central character is the Confederacy's brilliant and perhaps mad -- General Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson, who died by friendly fire in 1863.
With Robin's warm tenor, Linda's strong alto and tender soprano and Jim Watson's high, sharp tones, the sonic palette is broad, while the genres (rousing gospel, parlor ballads) shift with an eclecticism reminiscent of Watson's days in Red Clay Ramblers. The lyrics are steeped in southern nuances, Civil War history, 19th-century Protestantism and devotion to duty. Robin is, after all, the son of a Presbyterian minister. "Dueling Anthems" employs a military march melody for a counterpoint battle of words for example, "You lying Yankee hypocrite. You had slavery once, but it didn't work out. You weren't concerned with freedom when you charged full price for the Africans you sold to us down in the South." Fortunately, heard together, the songs emerge commendably free of oversimplifications and black-and-white thinking.
The numbers variously borrow from original source material, "Battle Hymn of the Republic," "Dixie," Stephen Foster's "Hard Times" and, yes, "Heartbreak Hotel." The sole song the Williams drew from their earlier catalog, "Don't Let Me Come Home a Stranger" is a Civil War counterpart to Jean Shepard's Korean War era "Dear John Letter" and Merle Haggard's Vietnam era "I Wonder if They Ever Think of Me." Will any GIs abroad now identify with these bygone tales of deprivation and disillusionment? Bitter "The War's Gone Bad on Me" is a court martialed deserter's last letter home prior to execution.
The disc ends quietly with an almost hymn-like ballad based on Jackson's dying words: "Let us cross over the river."
Robin & Linda Williams and Their Fine Group
Stonewall Country: Songs From the Musical
Robin & Linda Williams' reputation in Bluegrass circles is certainly stellar, and as regulars on "A Prairie Home Companion," their music has been heard by millions over the airwaves. However, their stage musical "Stonewall Country" is known only to the relative few who had opportunity to see it in repertoire at Lexington Virginia's Lime Kiln Theater from 1985 to 2005, or during its recent revival in 2009. But with the 150-year anniversary of the Civil War commencing this year, it's an ideal time to release the songs as a compendium, and to use them to learn the legacy of one of the Confederacy's most revered generals, Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson.
Still, Stonewall Country is more than a mere history lesson. It is, in fact, a period piece that reflects the tone and temperament of the times, a song cycle about the circumstances that influenced both the man and his mission. The homespun title track encapsulates the idyllic environs that framed Jackson's early years, its ambling melody capturing the serenity of Virginia's beautiful Shenandoah Valley. Then, as the album progresses, darker clouds appear. Conflict ensues with the simultaneous accusations of "Battling Anthems," then turns harrowing and unsettling with the brazen "Seven Day Freak Out," and ultimately numb and cynical in the trad-sounding tune, "Hardtack's All We Eat." By the time the album winds its way to its conclusion, the pain and horror of conflict are fully etched, giving "The War's Gone Bad On Me," "Don't Let Me Come Home A Stranger" and " Let Us Cross Over the River" a forlorn feeling that echoes the war's futility. The couple enhances authenticity by employing traditional instrumentation (banjo, fiddle mandolin, jews harp and the like) as well as Garrison Keillor in the role of narrator, and through these devices, history and humanity suddenly seem all but inseparable.
Oliver di Place
Musings on music. New Discoveries and Old Favorites.
Robin & Linda Williams:
Somebody's Someone<----- Listen
Stonewall Country, Songs from the Musical
Robin and Linda Williams made their recording debut on a small Minnesota label in 1975. They made their early reputation on A Prairie Home Companion, the radio show also out of Minnesota. But they originally hail from Virginia, and their music is Southern folk, but not exclusively bluegrass by any means. Stonewall Country is another Civil War album of original songs. This one is set of music written for a stage show that tells the story of the life of Stonewall Jackson. Each song represents a different character or mood, and the music shifts accordingly. So there is a bluegrass number, a blues, and any number of songs that resist genre labeling beyond folk. Robin and Linda Williams handle all of the lead vocals, and portray all of the different characters and moods, proving themselves to be wonderfully flexible singers. My point in including this album in this post is that what is called newgrass actually includes music that is only tangentially related to bluegrass in the first place. "Somebody's Someone" is a beautiful love ballad, inspired by actual letters that Stonewall Jackson exchanged with his second wife during the war. Musically, it has more in common with country than bluegrass. Either way, it is one of the most moving songs on an album that is full of them.