The first Rappahannock Americana Festival starts at noon outdoors on the Avon Hall grounds in the center of the town of Washington on Saturday (May 17), and runs through the evening concert, which starts at 8 at the Theatre in Washington (291 Gay St.). In the event of rain, the outdoor concert will move to the old Washington School (567 Mt. Salem Ave.).
Tickets to each concert are $25 ($40 for both). For a $5 discount on single-show tickets, visit rappahannockamericana.com, click on “tickets” and, when the time comes, enter the code “local2014” for the discount. Reservations for the evening concert can also be made by calling 540-675-1253 or emailing email@example.com.
Noon to 6 p.m. on Avon Hall grounds: Acts include Irene Kelley; Craver, Hicks, Watson and Newberry; Big Buster and The Dirty Dawgs (aka Ben Jones and Cooter’s Garage Band); Gold Top County Ramblers; Jeffrey Scott; Mandalélé; Ben Mason; and Manabu and John.
6 to 8 p.m. at Stonyman Gourmet Farmer: Pickin’ and dinner between the concerts in the Stonyman courtyard (rear of 337 Gay St.).
8 p.m. at Theatre at Washington: David Olney with Sergio Webb and Robin and Linda Williams and Their Fine Group.
After more than 40 years of traveling and performing together — including to this Saturday’s first-ever Rappahannock Americana Music Festival here in Washington, and most famously over the years to the stage of Garrison Keiller’s long-lived “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show — Robin and Linda Williams have heard it all.
Descriptions of their music, that is.
“For years, we would travel around, and for years, people were trying to find a category for the music we did,” says Robin Williams, on the phone from the couple’s longtime home, an old frame house built around a log cabin in Middlebrook, Va., not far from Staunton. “We never really fit in any niche — not folk, not country, not bluegrass, not singer-songwriters — because we were all of them.”
The recent emergence of the “Americana” genre — all of the above, plus cajun and Tex-Mex and roots and a bunch of other stuff that concert organizer Ben “Cooter” Jones likes to call “homemade” — has made it a little easier, Williams says.
“It’s kind of opened up things, and given some legitimacy to people like us. If you have to have a term, it gave us a term we could use. But even now,” Williams laughs, “we’re having to say we’re ‘acoustic Americana.’ Americana seems like it’s being taken over by a lot of former rock and rollers.”
Since the old days in Nashville (they moved to Virginia in the late ’80s on a whim, and because “they wouldn’t give us a loan to buy a house in Nashville,” Williams says), Williams says he and Linda just feel lucky to be able to go out and sing and perform, or to hang around the house, doing chores and, when the spirit moves, writing songs.
So the Williamses and Their Fine Group (which includes bassist/mandolinist Jim Watson, a former Red Clay Rambler who’s also performing at Saturday afternoon’s concert, and fiddler/mandolinist Chris Brashear) go into the recording studio about once a year, but “it’s not our favorite thing to do. We record fast and then we get out of there and go back to our life at home and our life on the road.”
The Williamses do about 60-70 shows a year nowadays, Williams said. At the peak of their touring days — when that “Prairie Home Companion” exposure combined with tours and collaborations with Shenandoah Valley neighbor Mary Chapin Carpenter and others — they were doing closer to 200 dates.
“That’s the most fun of all,” he says, meaning getting up and playing for folks. “That’s the reason you do it [recording], that’s the whole purpose — so you can get in front of people. Out there, you don’t have to be so hard on yourself, you can just do as the mood strikes you. And if you don’t quite hit it, then it’s gone. In the recording studio, the tape doesn’t lie.”
Not that we’re trying to diss any of Robin and Linda Williams’ recordings. As an example, let’s use the Williamses’ “These Old Dark Hills,” which is one of the six originals of the 12 tracks on the 2012 release of the same name. A paean to the Allegheny Mountains that define the daily view west from Middlebrook, it is a bittersweet tribute, driven to foot-tapping territory by that most underrated of rhythm instruments — the mandolin — and by Robin’s and Linda’s all-natural, free-range harmonies.
The repeated chorus — “These Old Dark Hills / on which sore eyes can rest / These Old Dark Hills / Ridge after ridge to the west” — is followed by one verse that goes: “Father of the timber and the coal / Mother to the music of my soul / Sister of the quiet and serene / Brother to the land of broken dreams.”
That just about covers it.
“It was New Year’s Day, 2012,” Robin says. “Linda was walking around out behind the house. There’s a picture on the CD, and she took it that day. And she came in and started working on that song. The mountains themselves create moods, and the mood that day was overcast and cloudy. The hills were dark.”
The song was meant as a tribute to the beautiful country we live in, Williams says. “And what that country has meant to us,” he adds.
Robin & Linda Williams and Their Fine Group perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Theatre in Washington with folk-country troubadour David Olney and string-slinger Sergio Webb, as part of the Rappahannock Americana Festival. Their Fine Group’s Jim Watson also performs as part of the Avon Hall outdoor concert (noon to 6 p.m.) with Craver, Hicks, Watson and Newberry.