September 15, 2012

Loving What They Do

by Jim Newsom

When Robin and Linda Williams first appeared on A Prairie Home Companion, the show was new and so were they.

“It started out in 1975,” Robin Williams told me in a recent telephone conversation, “when we did our first record; we did it in Minneapolis with Peter Ostroushko as one of the musicians. We ended up on the road with him, the three of us playing music. And Peter was saying, ‘We’re going to the Twin Cities and this guy’s got this show. It’s worth calling him up.’ So I called him up and he answered his own phone. He said, ‘Well, I’ve got to see you.’ So he drove over to Menomonie, Wisconsin to see us play. Afterwards he said, ‘come on the show’ and we did two weeks later.”

“Him” was Garrison Keillor, creator and host of what would become a long running program on public radio stations across the country, including WHRV-FM here in Hampton Roads.

“We would end up in Minneapolis a couple of times a year and when we did, we’d always call and they always included us. In the spring of 1980, we were playing up there and he came up after the show and said, ‘I’m getting ready to go national and I’m trying to assemble some people around me that I feel comfortable with. I really feel comfortable with you and I feel like you could help me out on the show.

“That’s when we started playing more.”

Robin and his wife Linda subsequently became household names to the legions of PHC devotees across the country. But, though their connection with the program has been their calling card for all these years, the folk singing duo has built a reputation with their own recordings and concerts. They perform at the American Theatre in Hampton on Friday, September 21st.

“He wanted us to move up there [to Minneapolis],” Linda said, “but we didn’t want to do that. And we didn’t want to throw all our eggs in one basket. But we were totally flattered by the fact that he was interested in us. So we worked out a deal where we would give him our availabilities a couple of times a year and he would pick up what he wanted.”

“And that’s the way it still works,” Robin continued. “People think we can just call up Garrison and play any time we want. But in actuality we just do what we’ve always done, which is answer the phone. The phone’s kept ringing. It’s been really good for us, not only because you’re being heard by millions of people. What we saw from him was what a real artist does and how hard you have to work if you want to really make a living at this. You’d better treat your opportunity with respect and not take it for granted.”

Robin & Linda Williams have made the most of their opportunities, producing a lengthy discography of recordings filled with their distinctive and appealing blend of bluegrass, folk, old-time, and acoustic country material. They were “Americana” before there was such a genre classification. Their new disc, These Old Dark Hills, is an excellent example, filled mostly with original songs but sprinkled with Springsteen and Tennyson.

“We’re pretty happy with this one,” Linda said. “We really like to work live in the studio. There’s a temptation to do too much when you are in the recording studio; it’s like being in a candy shop. But we got it to where it’s stripped down with a good selection of songs. Jim Rooney, our producer, is perfect because he works very fast. We recorded in two days and mixed in two days and actually finished a little early.”

When we talked over Labor Day weekend, they had just returned to their home in Middlebrook, in the heart of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley between Staunton and Lexington, from an eleven-day Prairie Home Companion cruise.

“We had never been on a cruise ship before we started doing these,” Linda said. “They have a big showroom at one end of the boat that basically will handle half of the cruisers. There is early seating and late seating for dinner, so the people with late seating come to an early show, and the people with early seating come to a late show. Half come at 6:00 and half come at 8:30 for the show, and Garrison Keillor comes up with these themes for a show every day.

“By the time we did rehearsal and hung around for both shows, it was from 4:30 to about 10:00, and sometimes we would have a show of Robin & Linda’s music either before or after. You could do as many as four shows a day. But it’s all fun! There are people we’ve worked with for years. In a way, it’s like a reunion for all of us.”

One of their most memorable experiences was making the movie, A Prairie Home Companion, with legendary director Robert Altman in the summer of 2005.

“You think of the hours you’ve spent in front of television or in a movie house,” Robin said, “watching people like Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline and Woody Harrelson and Tommy Lee Jones—all these people that you’ve seen, and there you are with them. It was pretty cool.”

“We were filming for a month,” Linda explained, “Everybody in the whole company was there from the get-go, and all went every day to the same place and worked.

“As we were leaving after a month, had the car packed and about to pull away, one of the producers came and said ‘Mr. Altman would like to say goodbye to you guys.’ So we went back in the theatre and he said, ‘You kids are what this is all about. You did a great job!’”

Robin & Linda Williams have had quite a life together since they met in 1971 when she was teaching school in Myrtle Beach and he was a young troubadour plying his trade on the coffeehouse circuit.

“We both have the same drive,” Linda said, “the same desire and the same love for what we do; and we’ve been lucky over the years because we haven’t grown apart. We stick together, we get along; we like each other. There’s a mutual respect and we’ve kind of defined our roles. We know how to go about it and it’s all a pleasant experience.”

“And,” Robin laughed, “we learned what buttons not to push!”

Robin & Linda Williams and Their Fine Group
The American Theatre
September 21 – 8:00 pm
Tickets: $25.00 – 30.00
(757) 722-2787; www.hamptonarts.net

copyright © 2012 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.