For fans of folk-, country- and roots-oriented music, it’s disheartening to see how much talent toils on the fringe of the pop music marketplace. While the Garth Brooks style of pop-country sells millions of albums and fills arenas, such low-profile singer-songwriters as Nanci Griffith, Joe Ely, Lucinda Williams, Guy Clark and Iris DeMent are lucky to get their music heard.
Working in semi-obscurity means recording for indie labels and touring small venues or as part of multi-act folk and bluegrass festivals. But at least one unheralded musician refuses to cry the blues. In fact, he’s practically rejoicing. According to singer-songwriter Robin Williams, change is upon us.
“People now want different kinds of music so much so that the Gavin people had to create a new chart,” he said, referring to the roots-based ‘Americana’ chart. “It wouldn’t exist unless there was sufficient interest in music that is driven by the heart and soul, and not [by] demographics. Plus, with the [Americana] format, it’s great to know that radio will now play people like Robin and Linda Williams.”
Robin Williams, who represents the male half of the aforementioned duo, also believes the top draws have stumbled a bit--at least commercially.
“Things tend to be cyclical in Nashville,” he said by phone from a tour stop in Williams, Calif. “Because country’s big sellers, like Reba [McEntire], are no longer selling out on their own, they’ve become part of package tours.” (McEntire co-headlined a tour last year with Brooks & Dunn.)
Robin and Linda Williams, who will perform Sunday evening in Trabuco Canyon with bassist Jim Watson and Dobro player Kevin Maul, have been playing music steeped in the tradition of the American South for more than 20 years. The husband-wife duo has refined a style that includes folk, hillbilly, country, bluegrass and gospel, all of it marked by elegant, soaring harmonies, stellar musicianship and well-crafted storytelling.
They’ve released 12 albums, the last seven for the independent Sugar Hill Records, in North Carolina. Among their admirers are Emmylou Harris, Kathy Mattea, Tom Paxton, Tim O’Brien and Mary-Chapin Carpenter, who invited the Williamses to open a portion of her national 1993 tour. The pair have also been regulars since 1975 on Garrison Keillor’s long-running “A Prairie Home Companion” on National Public Radio.
The pair’s brand-new release, “Devil of a Dream,” has garnered favorable reviews and reached No. 12 on the Americana charts. The spicy LP’s numerous highlights include a banjo-fueled bluegrass stomp (“Things I Learned”), a somber tale warning of the dangers of worshiping false gods (“The Genius”), a humorous glimpse of a man’s misadventures at a bar’s pay phone (“It’s Like This, Man”), and a pair of musically spare but lyrically detailed country shuffles (“Green Summertime” and “Falls From the Sky”).
The musical eclecticism of “Devil of a Dream” offers a stark contrast to the duo’s previous album, 1995’s “Sugar for Sugar.” Devoted entirely to spirituals, that inspirational collection received a nomination for gospel album of the year from the International Bluegrass Music Assn. Of the various musical styles that helped shape the Williamses’ career, gospel has played the most pivotal role.
“Southern culture is the whole deal behind what we do, really,” said Williams, who grew up in rural North Carolina. Linda hails from Alabama, and the couple now reside in the countryside of Augusta, Va.
“My father was a minister, and we’d sing together all the time in our church,” Robin Williams added. “After listening to traditional country, gospel was a completely different kind of musical expression. I mean, there was no self-consciousness in it at all. Everyone really hauled off and sang. I understood there was a soul coming through those voices.”
That stirring soulfulness brings an honest, emotional edge to Robin and Linda’s brand of American roots music. The twosome play with an intuitive feel, his husky voice and her sweeter tones blending with the kind of effortless grace that arguably comes only from being soul mates.
So what gives the couple’s professional and romantic partnership its enduring quality?
“I don’t know . . . as trite as it sounds, it’s probably communication,” Williams said. “Day in and day out. It’s funny, people think that Linda and I are always happy and rarely disagree. Well, it’s just not like that. But we keep things from building up to an explosion . . . or to a point where the fences can’t be mended.
“Honestly, we’re close friends, and we do have a tremendous amount of respect for one another’s creative side--and Linda and I try our best to pick each other up when one of us is down. Maybe that’s it.”
* Robin and Linda Williams and Their Fine Group perform Sunday at Trabuco Presbyterian Church, 31802 Las Amigas, Trabuco Canyon. 7 p.m. $10 donation requested; children under 12, free. Presented by Shade Tree Stringed Instruments, (714)364-5270, and Trabuco Presbyterian Church, (714) 589-5110.