Since Robin and Linda Williams first received national attention in 1975 on the A Prairie Home Companion radio show, their varied fan base has continued to grow. The eclectic music of the Williams holds special appeal to a broad base of acoustic music lovers. Whether you’re a folkie, bluegrasser, or roots country music lover, These Old Dark Hills offers plenty of surprises from poignant ballads to breezy melodic jaunts. From their home base in the Shenandoah Valley (in Virginia), the duo has a unique knack for offering contemporary acoustic material with an old-time ethos and themes of sadness, goodbyes, and nostalgia.
More than half of the 12 tracks are their own compositions which spotlight their skill in writing emotional and intimate songs of love, home and remembrance. Presenting personal and accessible songs with meaning, they also sing an evocative and guiding “Crossing the Bar” which Rani Arbo composed using poetic words from Alfred Lord Tennyson. The Williams’ long-time friend, Garrison Keillor, lays a few harmony vocals into the mix of that song. Most of the album is arranged with the duet’s vocals, guitar and banjo, accompanied by Chris Brashear’s mandolin and fiddle, Al Perkins’ dobro, and Todd Phillips’ upright bass. The songs are given fairly sparse settings to emphasize touching words and welcoming messages. Perkins’ pedal steel imparts a country twang to the Williams’ own “Forever,” and their cover of Jessi Coulter’s “Storms Never Last.” Pedal steel is also an alluring addition to “They All Faded Away,” written by Robin with one of his frequent collaborators, Jerome Clark. I was also moved by their acoustic cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “My Lucky Day.”
The Williams are genial, affable, approachable acoustic musicians. If there’s any question about their ability to make profound musical statements, give the closing track a close listen. Written by Will M. Ramsey (with additional lyrics by Almeda Riddle), the a cappella quartet of Robin, Linda, Chris Brashear, and Jim Watson modulates through various keys to convey their sincere hope for the dawning of “World Wide Peace.”
The Williams’ kinship to traditional music remains strong. While exploring and innovating, they continue to preserve the mountain sound. After many years with the Sugar Hill label, I think this is now the duo’s 18th album—their sixth or seventh album on Minnesota’s Red House Records label since 2004. It’s a fine partnership they now have with the label known for its splendid folk and Americana offerings. Robin and Linda Williams have solidified their signature sound, as well as their approach to success. Unconstrained by borders or boundaries, and with brand new songs and fresh outlooks, the hills are like close friends who bring comfort, reassurance and contentment.