Robin and Linda Williams: A Place of Their Own

Prairie Home veterans Robin and Linda Williams

February 4, 2002
By Russ Ringsak

Robin and Linda Williams

It's been said the Americana radio format was created to make a place for Robin and Linda, and of course they would be the first to poo-poo that notion. But it's been difficult for critics over the years to find a niche for the Williams; too original for modern country and not twangy enough for what they call classic country; too much drive for folk and too much energy for traditional. The result of all this is that they've never suffered the disastrous downslide from mega-stardom into obscurity, but instead have enjoyed a steadily increasing army of fans, so that the longer they play the better things get. Not many in show business have been able to enjoy that.

This is not to say they haven't been noticed by the major labels, but they say: "...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 fringe, because we write songs that other people down there record."

About their last album, In the Company of Strangers, The Houston Press said: "...The kind of no-frills,boiled-down country that derives its power from simplicity and heart, rather than flash and bombast." The Fort Worth Telegram wrote: "The couple, along with their Fine Band, craft a robust blend of bluegrass, folk, old-time and acoustic country that combines wryly observant lyrics with a wide-ranging melodicism." And the Orlando Sentinel put it this way: "Together the Williamses are a more persuasive case for harmony singing than the Everly Brothers or Simon & Garfunkel ever were."

That things are going well is evidenced by the new RV they got last March, 19 inches longer than the old one (doing the math, this comes to an increase of over 1300 square inches); it has a microwave, a television and portable plumbing. And they are no longer hauling around a PA system. "As far as we're concerned, that's a sign of success, that now we have good sound systems wherever we play. All those years of setting up and then breaking down a sound system at the end of a gig, it's great to be done with that."

The Fine Group is fluctuating these days, since dobroist Kevin Maul went in off the road. Robin said "Jim Watson on bass is solid as a rock, and then we've been playing a lot recently with a mandolin player named Jimmie Gaudreau, who is a mandolinist extraordinaire, and we're having a good time doing that -- it's been a lot of fun."
"He's great," Linda said, "He played with the Country Gentlemen, J.D. Crowe, and a D.C.-based band called Chesapeake with Mike Auldridge, and he was with Tony Rice for about 14 years -- he's about our age and he's been involved with heavy-duty bluegrass bands for 32 years; and now, he's enjoying playing with us.

"And we've also been doing a lot just as a trio, the Fine Group Trio, we call it; and it's good just like that, because it forces us to do more instrumentally. I play more banjo, Robin plays more lead guitar, and sometimes Jim plays mandolin and we get that old-timey sound of two guitars and mandolin. And when we go up northeast Kevin will join us up there for a few gigs, and out west there's a couple of other guys we know; and of course we get Peter Ostruoshko to sit in with us, too, now and then. So it's working out just fine, where we don't always have the same instruments. It's musically more exciting without having a set lineup. We weren't sure how it would work out, but it's been going well."

Asked about songwriting, Robin said he was writing before he met Linda, and after they'd been together a few years she "jumped right in there, too."

She said, "That was one of the things that attracted me to Robin -- he was this sweet guy, and he wrote these terrific songs... I was taken with him."

Robin said, "Well, you know, you play music for a while and then you figure, I could write a song -- why don't I try to write a song; and you just sit down and you do it. And it's like anything else, it's like playing a guitar, you have to work at it to become any good at it. And you have to work at it every day, to stay on top of it."

They have a new album coming out this year, Visions of Love, recorded here at Hudson-Forrester Studios in two sessions last year in May and August. "It all went down real fast and easy," said Linda, "It's really sparse; a lot of it is just me and Robin, and Rich Dworsky played on four or five tunes, Gary Raynor played on four tunes or so, and Peter Ostruoshko played on four tunes. And it's.... really beautiful. The songs all come together in a cohesive way and it almost... tells a story. We're really thrilled with it, and proud of it."

They are also having a good time with the quartet formerly known as Hopeful; since Kate McKenzie married, moved to Oregon and retired, they are now more than pleased, as they say, to have Mollie O'Brien join them in what has now become the Helpful Gospel Quartet.

A writer and truck driver, Russ Ringsak has been with A Prairie Home Companion since 1974. He writes a monthly column on prairiehome.org

Another interview of Robin and Linda Williams, from 2010, can be found here.

Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

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