Robin & Linda Williams: Bluegrass Stars

May 12, 2010

Robin and Linda Williams

Robin and Linda Williams first appeared on A Prairie Home Companion in 1975, the same year they recorded their first album. In 2008, they released their 20th, Buena Vista. For more than three decades, these two have charmed listeners worldwide with their robust blend of bluegrass, folk, old-time, and acoustic country. Robin and Linda claim that they make their home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, but truth be told, they spend the lion's share of their time on the road. And fans at every stop are glad they do. Their Fine Group: Jim Watson (bass, mandolin); Chris Brashear (fiddle).

Listen to "Going, Going Gone" from the album Buena Vista

Your new album is called Buena Vista. Tell us a bit of history about how Buena Vista came about?

It was mainly us wanting to do a CD of all Robin & Linda tunes. Buena Vista is a record that we decided to record live. In order to do this, we had to get the material together so that we felt confident that we could record it quickly. We wanted most of the material to be our songs, songs that we were confident about and which would stay in our repertoire and we would be proud of. Once we felt we had all of the material together, we started looking for a producer. Our record label, Red House Records, felt that we should go to Nashville and record the record. That led us to Tim O'Brien. He is a long time friend of ours, a great musician and a great producer. He assembled a great group of musicians, mostly, I think, because they wanted to work with him. We came in and would run the tunes once or twice with the group and then record them. Rarely did we take more than two takes. It was very quick which keeps the energy and spontaneity, and freshness about the songs. We are pleased with the results. It worked.

You wrote all but one of the songs for Buena Vista. Why did you choose to include "That's the Way Love Goes"?

"That's The Way Love Goes" was a Tim O'Brien choice. He felt we needed a tender love song. We had some love songs but they weren't the sweet, sweet love songs. That's the Way Love Goes" was written by Lefty Frizzell. We knew of the song but had not performed it. He suggested we take a crack at it as a duet. We love singing it. It is a beautiful song. It's nice to find a love song that has such good lyrics. We are very lyrically oriented. You are hooked with that great opening line "I've been throwing horseshoes over my left shoulder." It's a great opening line for a song.

Listen to "That's The Way Love Goes"

Of all the songs you have written and performed, some have great background stories attached to them like "Shotgun Shells on a Christmas Tree," which song on this collection is the most personal and has the most meaning?

Linda: Good question. Without looking, I would think it is "Visions of Mother and Dad." Garrison asked us to look for songs about moms and dads and home which we could put together in a medley for a Thanksgiving show. As we were searching for songs and getting material together for the radio show, I started thinking I would like to write a song about my mom and dad. So I started working on it. As it worked out, we were able to finish the song the morning of the radio show. We played it for Garrison, who liked it so much that he put it in the show. We sang the song live for an audience for the first time and it went so well that the song ended up on the Duets CD. Amazing!

Listen to "Visions of Mother and Dad"

Robin: "For Better or Worse" rings a bell with people who have been married for a long time. I think everybody who has been married for a long time and stays married for a long time understands how those things work and how your work through differences with one another and you just either walk away or you work it out. Our song is about working it out.

Which song gets the most requests at your live shows?

We get a log of requests for "I'm Invisible Man." I am glad about that because it's not really all that much of a feel good song. It's nice that people hear the message and like it because the message is worth it. It's a song about homeless people and its gratifying that it rings true enough that people want to listen to it and we are glad they want to hear us sing it.

The song "Mama's Hungry Eyes" appears on the new A Prairie Home Companion release Motherhood: A Radio Collection as well as the Visions of Love CD. How did you come to choose to record "Mama's Hungry Eyes"?

We have known the song for years and sung it. When Garrison produced the Visions of Love album, he asked us to send him a bunch of songs that we have known, that are part of our DNA. Songs that make up the lexicon of where we are coming from but ones we typically do not perform. So we sent him a bunch and he made the final selection and he chose "Mama's Hungry Eyes." I think he wanted something that would show our audience the kind of music that we listened to and performed when we were not on stage so that they would have an understanding the kind of music that's important to us. I think the album was a success. It was a great idea on his part. It was a treat to work with him in that setting. It was great to work with him in the studio and to hear what his thoughts were because they were amazing. We don't always get that opportunity on the live radio show because there simply isn't enough time.

Listen to Mama's Hungry Eyes

Since you are one of the longest tenured guest performers on the show, which celebrated its 35th Anniversary last July 6th, do you have a favorite memory of performing on A Prairie Home Companion? Are there any guest performers that you have gotten the chance to perform with that stand out?

Robin: It would be hard to pinpoint just one because every night is memorable. In a way, being with the A Prairie Home Companion show when we were at Radio City Music Hall, being with Garrison at Carnegie Hall, those are the kind of things that most performers don't get a chance to say they have done. So, for us to be able to say "yes, we have performed at those places" is a real highlight of our career.

Linda: I think the cruises have been fun. We would have never gone on a cruise. The nice thing for us about the cruises is that we have worked with Garrison for a real long time and he has a certain need for what we bring to the show. A lot of time, its bringing material that he can fit in with quickly that helps to get the show started or close the show. We kind of have an understanding of what is needed and we always prepare a song which could be used as an opener or a closer. They don't always get picked or used. When preparing for the show, we always try to bring things to him and we always try to bring things that he will sing with us. We usually offer up a feature or two. Sometimes, we don't get a feature. That's just how it works out or sometimes — it gets cut because time is short or whatever. Sometimes we just go out and sing with Garrison. I rarely play the Banjo on the show. I had a man at the last show come up and say "I completely misunderstood what you guys were all about. I had no idea what you did musically and how much I was going to enjoy it." So it's great to be on the show in that journeyman, supportive role and that's our role and we enjoy it very much. It is also great to be able to come here (on the cruise) and stretch out and let people who are fans of the show and know us in that context, see what it is underneath or around all that. Get the full Robin & Linda experience.

Any favorite Garrison memory or story you would care to share?

Oh yeah! Emmylou and Chet and Jethro Burns way back in the old days. Garrison came up to us one time and said "I want you guys to put a medley together of train songs — use Jethro and Chet, just tell them where you want them to play." And we were like "We're going to have to arrange this thing and tell CHET ATKINS 'OK, you play here... ok no, that's enough.'" And tell Jethro Burns where to play. These people were like icons to us. And what we found out is that they were just like us ... they were there to please Garrison and fit into the show and they were as easy as pie to work with. We have had terrific opportunities to play with guest stars and its been a real pleasure.

Robin: The last time we were on the show for the cinecast, we got to work with Elvis Costello. Where would we have ever have got the chance to be on stage and sing with Elvis and work on a script.

Listen to "In The Evening By the Moonlight" featuring Garrison, Elvis Costello & Robin & Linda Williams

How did Marvin & Mavis Smiley come about? The pseudo infomercials are a riot.

In the early 80's when Prairie Home first started going national, we would drive by car to the Twin Cities, stay at Garrison's house, and would perform on 2-3 shows. One day, we were sitting on his porch after dark and he said "I am thinking about this week and what I would like is a medley of Broadway songs done bluegrass. Think of some names and we will do it as a record company promotion from Do-Tell records. So we came up with Marvin and Mavis Smiley and he added The Manhattan Valley boys. It was one of those things where we never got through it during rehearsal. We were always killing ourselves laughing. The pieces were always complex and we couldn't get through it from start to finish. The pieces go at a blistering pace. It's like running a marathon. Even though it kept falling apart during rehearsal, he kept it in. We never got through it but he thought it was funny. He was solidly behind it. He was fearless. We went and did it — the only time we got it right was on the show and it was hilarious. He loved it. He just loved it. We did several farewell reunion tours in the period of time when he was off the air, did Radio Company of the Air and coming back to APHC. We did a couple of cross country tours and Marvin & Mavis Smiley were in costume. The audience went insane over it. They loved it and it just tickled Garrison. He would get the biggest kick out of it. We've done so many now that its hard to come up with a new idea. But, every now and then, he'll come up with an idea and he'll say, "Let's have Marvin and Mavis on."

Listen to Marvin & Mavis Do Springsteen

Any favorite Garrison memory or story you would care to share?

Robin: There are so many. What has happened is that when we started out, we were in total awe of Garrison and his talent and that has not left. And we were green, we were young, and I can remember Verne Sutton, Phillip Brunelle and this group of regulars that he would do these skits with. He would work with them and they would produce things for him. We would think wouldn't it be great that if someday Garrison would think enough of us to give us that responsibility.

Linda: And one day, during one of those periods when we were staying with him a couple weeks, he gave us that opportunity. He had gone to see the movie Yentl and he was just kind of amazed by the movie in one way or another. He came up with the idea of doing a parody called Dental where I was the patient and Robin was the dentist and it would be a musical where the patient fell in love with the dentist. There was to be a lot of singing where you have your mouth open and either a hand or dental instrument in it. Garrison said "go get a Yentl CD and I will write some lyrics and you find some songs that will go along with them from the soundtrack." That would be the songs for the sketch. It was nuts. We put this thing together in a day and a half. Butch Thompson and I were working it out and I could hardly remember how these songs went. I am trying to sing love songs like there is stuff in my mouth. The dentists name in the sketch was Bob. I'm humming his name mumbling words like my mouth has Novocain. It was insane and he got the biggest kick out of it and he just loved it.

Robin: As time has gone on, there is a friendship that develops. And it's really been one of the greatest things in our career to have been associated with A Prairie Home Companion and Garrison Keillor. We learn so much from him. The association with Garrison has been one of the creative boosts for us because we have been able to see how hard he works first hand.

Linda: He's encouraged us to stretch out musically and do things we probably would not have done. Classic country that we have known but we always were looking to write our own songs and have our own voice but he encouraged us to do classic stuff and let people know where we are coming from. It helps so much as a performer to have someone challenge us. It's hard to express how much he has meant to us.

Video: "Done Found My Lost Sheep" from the Cinecast rehearsal

Tell us about your experience on the A Prairie Home Companion movie? How was it to work with Robert Altman and the rest of the amazing cast assembled?

Robin: I think the greatest thing about that movie was that it was all done at the Fitzgerald Theater except for one or two shots. We got to see first hand the filming of the entire movie. For that reason, it was very special. There were no location shots where we were not needed that day. We got to see Robert Alman every day — all the actors, all the crew. What was amazing to me about it was that it was in a context that we were extremely comfortable in.

Linda: People say "What was it like?" I say it was like we played ourselves, we do what we always do on the show: we back people up, we sang a song or two, Garrison hands us a commercial kind of thing at the last minute and you work out a little harmony and throw it on and do it. It was an extremely comfortable setting for us yet we were making a movie with Robert Altman, Kevin Kline and Meryl Streep. We were just doing what we always do.

I do have a new found respect for how far these movies go — how many people have seen it. You walk into a club in Nashville and people come up and talk to you about the movie. You would not think these people would have seen it — Irish musicians, country musicians and they would say "We love you in the movie."

Tell us about the Fortune Williams festival — what is the format, who will be performing this year and how can fans learn more?

It is the last weekend in September. It is a 2 day festival — Friday and Saturday. We start Friday with a songwriter in the round concert which is enormously popular. We invite a guest and the fortune part of the festival, our co-host, Jimmy Fortune who was the tenor singer with the Statler Brothers after Lew DeWitt left. The Statler Brothers are from Staunton Virginia, our hometown. So it's the two people from Staunton who came together to do something for the city. Staunton is very nurturing of the arts. The community has been great to us and great to Jimmy. We do the festival at the Frontier Culture Museum a beautiful museum of homesteads of the immigrants that have settled area. There is a German homestead that was imported from Heidelberg. There is an Irish Farm, an English Farm, there is an old Appalachian farm and now there is an old East African village. It's a beautiful setting and people can walk around and visit all these farm sites. The farm sites are manned by and womaned by people who are working either tending garden or weeding. It is a wonderful site that looks off into the Blue Ridge Mountains.

We go for two days and we book a combination of music that has its roots in that area of the country. We have been going for 8 years. We are pleased to have our name attached to it and it has been met with the success it has. It's a labor of love but we feel as if one of the things it does The community has been good to us we like giving back to the community.

Garrison helped us out. Garrison came down and performed one time. He drew the biggest crowd we ever had and he killed. It was one of the best performances by him I have ever seen. The crowd loved him — he thought it was a great audience and he had a good time. We did a little Hopeful Gospel Quartet about 3 to 4 songs and then he did a great one man stand-up thing. I have never heard him do some of the stuff before or since. It was things we never heard him say before. It was a masterful performance. Fortune Williams has a website, . It has been real important to us and wonderful to be involved in the Staunton Community. It has made us appreciate more than ever how lucky we are to be where we are and where we live. The festival will be the 24th and 25th of September this year. It is usually the last weekend in September every year. Our headliner this year is Patty Loveless on Saturday night. We go from old time country music, we perform with our band, Jimmy is there. It is so much fun & spontaneous. It is a terrific event, truly uplifting and fun.

How can fans keep up on your activities? When you are on tour and where?

Absolutely. They can sign up for our e-mail list on our website, We try to do it monthly to keep people updated on what we are up to along with a list of dates. Or you can visit our main website for the same information and you can write to us or buy our product.

Another interview of Robin and Linda Williams, from 2002, can be found here.

Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

Old Sweet Songs

Lovingly selected from the earliest archives of A Prairie Home Companion, this heirloom collection represents the music from earliest years of the now legendary show: 1974–1976. With songs and tunes from jazz pianist Butch Thompson, mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull and the first house band, The Powdermilk Biscuit Band (Adam Granger, Bob Douglas and Mary DuShane).

Available now»

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