Durham Herald Sun

Folksy band nicheless but noteworthy and timeless

Friday, May 6, 2005
By Philip Van Vleck

Robin and Linda Williams and their Fine Group are one roots music outfit who are "comfortable being nicheless." Past masters of roots music, their tremendous repertoire encompasses country, traditional, bluegrass, modern folk, and Southern gospel. A good bit of that repertoire also consists of original tunes. They will perform Sunday at the Artscenter in Carrboro.

Robin and Linda have been working their magic on stage for 30 years, and their discography spans 24 years. Their Fine Group is a quartet which includes former Red Clay Rambler and longtime Triangle resident Jim Watson who's been a mighty fine group member since 1988 and mandolin virtuoso Jimmy Gaudreau, who was recently inducted into the Society for the Preservation of bluegrass music in America's Preservation Hall of Greats.

In addition to their excellent original songs, Robin and Linda have collected a veritable host of material from numerous genres. "I went back not long ago and listened to our very first record (a self-titled record released in 1975 on Flashlight Records), and the focus was there even then," Robin Williams said in a phone interview from his home in Virginia. "We were doing this old-timey, folky, country, bluegrass thing, and that's who we are. We're comfortable being nicheless.

"When we work up a set particularly an opening set that works for us, we'll go with that for a long period of time," he added. "By long I mean a few months. After that, we just get a little tired of it and then we start experimenting again." Robin and Linda spent many years recording for Durham-based Sugar Hill Records. In 2004, however, they released their debut album for Red House Records. "The recording thing is going well," Robin Williams said. "We left Sugar Hill a couple of years ago and signed a three-record deal with Red House. We would've stayed with Sugar Hill until the last dog died, you know, because it was real comfortable. We knew everybody in the office and we'd been with them a long time. When it came time to renew our contract, they just had different things in mind than we did." The label change has been productive, he said. "When we switched to Red House it felt weird for about 15 minutes and then we realized that it was just time for a change," he continued. "We've been at this for ages and every time there's been some kind of a change, it's been for the better. Red House was really glad to have us and that felt good. They've done everything they said they would do and they're open to our ideas."

One such idea was the Christmas album Robin and Linda have just finished tracking. They began seriously entertaining the notion last December, and when they broached the subject with the folks at Red House, their response was quite enthusiastic. "We had most of January and February off," Robin said, "and we figured if there was ever a time to do this Christmas CD, it was right now. So, that's what we did and it's in the can. The record will be released this fall." The upcoming Christmas album is not a collection of "war horses." Rather, he and Linda wrote some of the tunes, and they covered appropriate numbers by John Prine and Steve Earle, among others. They also dusted off a few traditional hymns that are not standard yuletide fare. It's certainly not surprising that Robin and Linda penned several Christmas songs. Their output of original material over the years is staggering and the quality of the material is top notch.

"Writing that many songs has been both good and hard," Robin said. "The difficult part comes from having a body of work that you consider really strong. It makes for some pressure. We've got to live up to that work; that's what keeps us going, really." Because they have a deep repertoire from which to draw, the range of material one might hear during a Robin and Linda Williams concert is quite broad and eclectic. Their gift for grasping such a breadth of material with conviction makes Robin and Linda and Their Fine Group, a true delight in concert.

Drop in at ArtCenter Sunday evening and get your fair share of some mighty fine roots music. Philip Van Vleck charts our world's music from his office in Cary. Reach him at vanvleck@nc.rr.com.