'Prairie Home Companion' duo kicks off Folk Arts Society season

by John Sinkevics

The Grand Rapids Press

Sunday October 05, 2008, 5:26 AM

Robin and Linda Williams

GRAND RAPIDS -- Take it from half of The Hopeful Gospel Quartet: It's a win-win situation working with Garrison Keillor on "A Prairie Home Companion."

Folk duo Robin and Linda Williams have graced the national radio show for years as part of Keillor's gospel quartet, strengthening their vocal prowess and raising their musical profile in the process.

"It brings a real high level of concentration and performing ability that I think has only helped us in our own stage shows," said Linda Williams, who described Keillor as a "very gifted" writer with a tremendous work ethic.

"A lot of people are only familiar with what we do on the radio show, and then they discover we have this whole other body of work, and they're really excited about it."

That other body of work represents 35 years of writing, recording and performing folk, country and Americana music with striking voices Keillor claims "can melt cheese."

On Saturday, the Virginia couple will kick off the Grand River Folk Arts Society's Acoustic Saturday Nights series, which delivers national and regional acts in the folk, bluegrass, roots, Celtic and ethnic music genres.

IF YOU GO This year, the folk arts society has moved the concerts to Grand Rapids' Wealthy Theatre after hosting the shows for six years at Grace Bible College in Wyoming.

Wealthy Theatre seems like a good fit, said Mary Postellon, a society board member, noting it is centrally located and easier to find.

Wealthy also offers the option of hosting most shows in its intimate, 60-seat Koning Micro-Cinema, with bigger events -- such as Saturday's opening concert -- in the 400-seat Wege Auditorium.

This year's series, Postellon said, also focuses more on regional acts such as Nobody's Darlin' and Conklin Ceili Band. But she and other society members clearly are thrilled about landing much-respected national headliners Robin and Linda Williams for the opener.

Their latest album, "Buena Vista," was recorded in Nashville and produced by Grammy winner Tim O'Brien. The CD includes the compelling originals "I'm Invisible Man" (about the homeless) and "Maybelle's Guitar and Monroe's Mandolin" (a tribute to bluegrass icons Maybelle Carter and Bill Monroe), as well as a rendition of Lefty Frizzell and Sanger Shafer's "That's the Way Love Goes."

"We're really pleased with how it came out. It has a live feel and a loose feel, and to us, it just sounds real," Robin Williams said in a recent phone interview from the couple's home in Virginia.

The couple's live shows mix traditional chestnuts with original, roots-oriented tunes, from the humorous to the poignant, the instrumentally inspiring to the vocally bracing.

"We're singing better than we ever have," said Robin Williams, a guitarist who concedes he never anticipated they would be going so strong in their 60s. "It's really fun every night."

They're accompanied by Their Fine Group: bassist Jim Watson and fiddle/mandolin player Chris Brashear. The banjo-playing Linda Williams, a graduate of Michigan State University, said there's "a freshness to playing live that you try to capture" for fans.

"They're going to see some really good music, some good singing and some good picking from four people who really enjoy what they're doing," she said.

"That's the beginning and end of it for most performers," her husband added. "That's why you do it.