F.R. faves for ages, Chris Nickson finally nails down
the Robin & Linda Williams interview. Hurrah!
Let's start right off by saying this isn't about that Robin Williams. That Robin Williams is the one who goes na-no na no, sits upside down on chairs, goes through personalities with a speed that would make a multiple schizophrenic dizzy, and makes scads of money dressing up as a woman. This Robin Williams, along with his wife Linda, sings, plays, and writes music. American music, running the gamut from country to folk to bluegrass and gospel.
It's a sweet sound they make, with plenty of rich harmonies, good tunes and heartfelt lyrics, without all the saccharine sentiments and phoney arrangements that have come to characterize Nashville in the 1990s and the sound of 'Young Country' on the airwaves. They hark back to a simpler time, when talent, voices and acoustic instruments managed to say it all perfectly well.
So perhaps it's only appropriate that they should live well away from Music City, U.S.A., up in the Shenandoah Valley, close to the Blue Ridge Mountains. This is Waltons country, and on a sunny day, once the mist has lifted, the views are as breathtaking as any postcard.
"It's nice here," Robin says. "We moved here from Nashville about 20 years ago and we've never looked back. I lived close by here when I was a kid, then we moved away and I did most of my growing up in North and South Carolina. Linda was born in Alabama, and she and her family gradually migrated north. She went to high school and college in Michigan. Then they all came back down south after that. In '71, she was down visiting her parents, in South Carolina, and we met."
The two of them hit it off immediately, and it wasn't long before romance was in the air. Robin was already a professional musician, and Linda played and sang, but at first they had no idea that they'd end up working together.
"We got our thing together in Nashville. Linda was living there. She moved to Nashville independent of me, and I was looking for a place to go, so I moved there at about the same time. We continued our relationship there, although we weren't playing music together at the time. But through the open stages, open mikes, and writers' nights there, in '72 and '73, that's where Linda and I first started getting our music together, rehearsing and then going to these pass the hat places to play. And we got a lot of encouragement from people who've gone on to make names for themselves, but who were scuffling like us then. These were people we'd sing, play, exchange tunes with, go to parties with. It was a great period there. There was really a creative underground in Nashville then."
Not quite creative enough to keep the couple in town, though. They headed for the country and a more basic lifestyle, to the place they've remained ever since. And to put together a career that was independent of the machine.
Robin and Linda started out p]ying their trade on the circuit of coffeehouses and clubs, combining their own material with traditional and gospel songs, slowly building a reputation as a powerful duo. They recorded their first album. Things were going steadily and smoothly. And then they met Garrison Keillor.
"I'd been travelling around, playing coffeehouses, and ended up in Minneapolis," Robin recalls. "I spent a couple of summers up there, and made some contacts. As a result, our first few records were done with a company there. We'd go up to record, and one of our musician friends (Peter Ostroushko) from Minneapolis ended up coming on the road with us. He knew about this new radio show that had started up in the summer of '75 called A Prairie Home Companion. We'd just finished the album, and when we came back in the fall, people said we should get on the show. So we called Garrison, and got in on the ground floor. From '75 until '80 we'd call them when we were coming to town and ask to get on the show, and we were never refused."
It might not have seemed like it at the time, but it was the start of something big. Nostalgia was starting to seep into the air, and Keillor's fictional community of Lake Woebegon found itself holding appeal for a lot of people throughout the country. "When Garrison went national in 1980, he started gathering people around him that he though could help him keep the show's high quality. We became semi-regulars for a while, playing ten or twelve times a year. That continued until he retired the show in 1987. Then when he came back we played every once in a while."
It was ideal exposure for artists like Robin and Linda. A quality programme with a national audience only too happy to hear them sing and play. On top of that, in Keillor they found a friend with some similar musical interests. So it wasn't too surprising when the three of them, together with Stoney Lonesome vocalist Kate MacKenzie, teamed up to form the Hopeful Gospel Quartet as a side venture.
"That's fun. We ve done one CD, and we're trying to do another. "
They've also gone on to play theaters and festivals around the world, which isn't too shabby for something started as a pleasant hobby, really.
But Robin and Linda haven't put all their eggs in one wireless basket. They've continued to work as hard as ever - harder, in fact, as the show increased their popularity. An endless round of touring, with a number of other radio appearances, television, and more festival performances in the U.S. and Canada than some people have had hot dinners. For a cottage industry, things were booming.
Eventually, though, they decided it was time to add a couple of extra musicians and fill out their sound a bit. They'd had people touring with them before; now they wanted a real group.
"The band's been together for about four years," Robin explains. "We teamed up with Jim Watson (who'd been the bass player in the Red Clay Rarnblers) in 1988, and we've been playing together ever since. Then Kevin [Maul], the dobro player, came in. We were real careful when we started putting it together. There are a lot of other things to think about besides music when you put a band together. We wanted to make sure everyone got along. And it's worked out real well."
So they had the band, they were playing together. All they needed was a name....
"The hardest thing we've ever tried to do is find a name for this band. Getting something that didn't sound stupid. When we first got it together, Linda and I had commited to play the Grand Ol' Opry. As we walked onstage, the MC introduced us and Robin and Linda Williams and Their Fine Group. So we laughed about that, but as time went by we couldn't find anything that sounded better. It was slightly humorous and everyone felt comfortable with it."
And that, as they say, was that. Robin and Linda Williams and Their Fine Group was born.
You might well think that between the writing, touring and recording that Robin and Linda do, they'd have their hands quite full. Well, perhaps, but that's never stopped them from trying their hands at something new. "We were heavily involved in theater work for about seven years. We wrote a couple of shows, performed them, and it was a good experience. Most of that was in the mid to late '80s. It started with the Lime Kiln Theater in Lexington, Virginia, and now we're dabbling in other areas of the world. It's a lot of fun writing the songs, but I'll tell you, it's really hard to manage that plus the group. At this point the theater 's taken second place to the group. We used to take summers off to do the theater work, but we can't really do that any more."
Not these days. A couple of years ago the world at large seemed to finally discover Robin and Linda Williams, and now, in their own way, they're quite in demand.
"In '93 Mary-Chapin Carpenter's management called us to ask if we'd do a couple of shows with her down in Florida. It was a great opportunity for us, so we drove all night to get there. When we'd finished, her road manager came up and asked if there were any other jobs we could work together. We ended up doing a coast to-coast tour with her. And when she was recording, she called and asked us to sing some backup. So we went to D.C. and did that."
That was certainly a nice way of saying thank you, and given the fact that the record sold like the proverbial hot cakes, one which put the duo's name in front of a whole host of people. But it wasn't the only backup work Robin and Linda did in 1994; they also helped out with Iris Dement's glorious My Life .
"With Iris," John says, "we'd known her for a long time. She was putting the record together, and she had this song that was kind of like a gospel thing, "Going to Dance on the Shores of Jordan." Her producer had seen the Hopeful Gospel Quartet at a festival in Denmark, and he thought we'd do well singing with her. So he called us up to ask if we'd be interested, and of course we were. That kind of thing doesn't happen for us a lot, it just turned out that we sang on two Grammy nominated albums (and, of course, Ms. Carpenter's took home a bagful of statuettes). It was a nice little kick for us."
On the basis of that involvement, and well as their own work, it isn't too astonishing that the big record companies have come a-calling and a-faxing, flashing their big rolls and offering dreams of country wealth beyond avarice. But Robin and Linda just aren't interested. They're quite content doing what they're doing, thank you very much.
"We've got a long term career going. It's been slow and steady moving, but that's what we wanted. Our goal has always been to spend our lives making music. We've never had a huge hit to propel us into the forefront of the sceno. On tho other hand, we've always been there. We ve been playing steadily and building our audience over the last 22 years. It seems like we have as much energy as we ever did, and things are better now than they've ever been."
So who can blame them for wanting to keep their independence? This way they can do exactly what they want without having to think about that ubiquitous corporate bottom line.
"I think the difference between what we do and what's going on in Nashville is that we don't have to worry about having hits. Our decisions are creative ones. It's a tough row to hoe when your bottom line is you have to have hits and sell records and get played on the radio. That really puts a wrench in things. We don't have to deal with that. We write about things we're interested in. I'd label us as country/folk. We're country musicians, our music has come from country and its traditions, be they country-western, old time, bluegrass, or whatever. We're not part of the country industry. We're on the frings, because we write songs that other people down there record."
And, of course, Robin and Linda do plenty of recording of their own. Twelve albums to date, starting out on small labels with Robin and Linda Williams, Shenandoah Moon, The Welcome Table, Dixie Highway Sign and Harmony, before moving to Flying Fish for Close As We Can Get and Nine 'Til Midnight, now available together on a single CD [and highly recommended as an introduction . . .Ed.].
Then they signed with Sugar Hill, who've been putting out their records since 1989. There was All Broken Hearts Are The Same, The Rhythm Of Love, 7urn Toward Tomorrow, and Live (recorded in Holland with Their Fine Group). And now there's Good News, again featuring the band. It's pure country gospel, a mixture of familiar traditional pieces like Sinner Man, some, modern covers, and a smattering of Robin and Linda originals, all combining into one authentic whole. You can almost see the little clapboard church as you sit and listen to it.
"We've just known that at some point in our career we'd do an album like Good News. It was just a matter of time. And while we didn't have any long range plans as to when we'd do it, about this time last year we were just sitting around wondering what we'd do next, and it just seemed to be the perfect time to put it together. We found a studio we could use, found an engineer, so all of a sudden, bam! It was perfect. And it was a lot of fun. My father's a minister, so I grew up singing in the churches in the South. He had churches in town, and then he'd have these satellite churches out in the counties. The first time I heard real country singing was going out to these small churches where my dad preached. When Linda and I teamed up and started making a living from playing music, almost from the first album on we've always done a gospel song or so. It's not new to us at all."
But after 22 years, there's probably very little that is new to them any more. They've been there, done that, and very likely sold the tee shirt. So what might their plans for the future be? Robin takes a sip of coffee while he considers, then answers slowly,
"I don't see any change in our direction. It's just a gradual progression, building on what's already happened. The next CD will be mostly original material. We're starting to put it together. We've done some pre- production work, and we'll probably start recording at the beginning of May. T hat's the plan now. It seems as if everyone's still into the band idea. We'll just continue on."
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And Robin and Linda, along with Their Fine Group, are purring along perfectly well, firing on all four cylinders. Like a very decent bottle of wine, they've improved with age, the flavors mixing and rising.
But still, before I went, I had to ask. Hadn't there been just a few times when they'd played and someone yelled, 'Hey! You're not Robin Williams!' He laughs.
"It's never been much of a problem. We've had the occasional person come and be disappointed because they're not seeing the comedian. But I always wonder what these people are thinking. Why would they expect to see Robin Williams in a venue that holds a couple of hundred people? They're just dreaming, if that's what they're hoping. I heard more about it when he was doing the 'Mork and Mindy' stuff. It does happen every once in a while when we're playing with Garrison, though. We'll be booked to play a job in a major house and they'll see Robin Williams is staying at the hotel, and we'll get fruit baskets, complimentary bottles of champagne...When that happens, I know what's going on. But that's okay, I'll take it."
Well, wouldn't you? After all, everyone knows those Earthlings are crazy.