‘Everything sounds better on the banjo’ 

Related photos from the afternoon concert at Avon Hall here.

The first ever — but certainly not the last — Rappahannock Americana Festival took place over the weekend, as organizers Ben Jones and Alma Viator brought multiple live music acts to the Avon Hall grounds and Theatre at Little Washington.

The whole festival was a success: The outdoor afternoon session offered food and drink to accompany the myriad acts, but it was the smaller, indoor Theatre venue that offered a closer look at the music, as David Olney and Sergio Webb opened for Robin & Linda Williams and Their Fine Group.

Piedmont blues performer Jeffrey Scott performed Saturday afternoon (May 17) at Avon Hall.Carl Zitzmann
Piedmont blues performer Jeffrey Scott performed Saturday afternoon (May 17) at Avon Hall.

To list Olney and Webb solely as an opening act, however, would be a slight to their performance, which kicked off shortly after 8 p.m. Combining wry humor with electrifying guitar work, Olney and Webb’s 10-song set left the appreciative — and sold out — Theatre audience wanting more.

“I never learned to talk and tune,” Olney said during a quick set break. “But I’ve noticed at prize fights they’ll have a pretty woman walk around in a bathing suit in between rounds, holding up a card that reads ‘Round 1,’ ‘Round 2,’ whatever.

“I’d like to hire that woman,” he joked, “and have her walk around with a sign that reads, ‘He’s tuning.’ ”

Olney’s set included a variety of songs, from the slow-burning “Johnson City Blues” to more up-tempo numbers like “Postcard From Mexico” — which, in addition to featuring Webb playing the guitar with only his left hand while also talking through a megaphone, tells the story of a former flame who leaves the protagonist with nothing but a postcard reading: “Dear Dave, I’m having fun. You’re not.”

The former, Olney explained, was written after one of his many trips down to Johnson City, Tenn., where he invariably gets lost. “My internal compass gets all turned around there,” he said. “So does my moral compass.”

Proving that he’s not above being serious — for at least the stretch of one four-minute song — “Johnson City Blues” serves to remind listeners that no matter how bad things might seem, they’ll eventually turn around: “Everything is looking up / as far as I can see. / . . . And I’ve had as much as I can stand / of those Johnson City blues.”

Olney and Webb were ready to cede the stage to the Williamses when Jones, just offstage, motioned for them to play one last song.

“You’re normally supposed to wait a bit longer for an encore, but I’m getting up there,” joked Olney, who is 66. “I don’t have a lot of time to waste.”

With that, Olney and Webb launched into “Lampshades,” but not before he described it as a “tribute” to a brave but fictional group of female patriots who ran through the streets of downtown Boston wearing nothing but lampshades. “Which was weird because they didn’t have electric lamps back then,” Olney admitted.

The extremely funny closer, which spends the better part of three minutes advocating the abolition of hats in favor of “lampshades,” deliberately emphasized by Olney each time, even included a slam on the classic cowboy hat:

“Your French chapeau / Oh no, no, no. / Your Stetson hat / makes you look fat. / You need a lampshade.”

Robin and Linda Williams took over after a 15-minute break, providing a bit of contrast from Olney’s and Webb’s dueling guitars with their tight harmonies and their own banjo and guitar work bolstered by Jim Watson’s bass and Chris Brashear’s violin and mandolin. “Everything sounds better on the banjo,” declared Robin.

Throughout their roughly 60-minute, 10-song set, the Williamses’ tracks covered the vibrant scenery of Virginia (“These Old Dark Hills”), the occasional grind of the road (“Dixie Highway Sign”) and even the slow, sad decline of certain parts of the country (“Pine County”).

Like Olney, they entertained the sold-out crowd with short, often humorous anecdotes between songs. “Where’s that [boxing ring] girl when you need her?” wondered Robin during a longer-than-usual tuning session.

One of the night’s standout tracks found the Williamses exploring their songwriting process, as both Robin and Linda detailed the creation of “a love song for people like us — people who have been married 40 years.”

“As many of you know, the 38th wedding anniversary is the farm implement anniversary,” Robin joked. He and Linda explained they had gotten in a fight — due to Robin’s refusal to look at the instructions — and had gone to bed without resolving the issue.

The next morning, Robin said Linda woke up with “a great idea for a song,” which chronicled the couple’s argument and ended with an understanding, if not a reconciliation.

“I wish we’d prepared something with David and Sergio,” said Linda, as the band took the stage for their encore performance. Theirs — a World War I hymn — found the group singing acapella as they prayed, much as the soldiers in the trenches did, for world peace.

The Theatre crowd, several of whom could be heard praising the concert as, “the real deal” on the way out, weren’t the only appreciative ones: “I have the best job in the world,” Jones said, closing out the evening.

“I get to come out here and listen to this great music all day.”