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Robin & Linda Williams: A Better Day A-Coming

Robin and Linda Williams first appeared on A Prairie Home Companion in 1975, the same year they recorded their first album. Their most recent release, A Better Day A Coming, has just been released on their website.  For more than three decades, these two have charmed listeners worldwide with their robust blend of bluegrass, folk, old-time, and acoustic country. Robin and Linda claim that they make their home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, but truth be told, they spend the lion's share of their time on the road. And fans at every stop are glad they do. 

Watch 'A Better Day A-Coming

Tell us a bit about the new cd which is called 'A Better Day A Coming 
We feel we had “the gift of time” for our new CD, “A Better Day A-Coming.” We recorded it in three sessions, from August 2019 through August 2020, in our living room, with its 10-foot ceilings and plaster walls, with our good friend, Kevin McNoldy, assisting as co-producer and engineer. Bassist Mark Schatz and multi-instrumentalist, David McLaughlin come by the house for the second session, and we sent digital files to our friends Richie Dworsky, Kevin Maul, and Patrick McAvinue and had them add their parts. During the final session we recorded one last song and began mixing the CD. The “gift of time” was especially important with the mixing and sequencing of the songs. We did most of it by emailing files back and forth, we took our time, and we were able to make sure we were all satisfied with the final product.
How did you go about choosing the songs?  
We started by recording eight original songs. Then we added five other songs, three by other songwriters and two from the public domain that we felt we had made ours by developing personal and unique versions.
What is the most personal song on the cd and why?  
I’d say it’s probably “The Old Lovers Waltz” as it’s essentially about us and our long marriage. There are several other original songs that are about people we’ve known over the years. Of those, I’d say “We Don’t Know What To Say” would be a close second to “The Old Lovers Waltz” as it’s about a neighbor and a friend.
What is the most exciting part and most challenging part of self releasing your first album?

One exciting aspect of this record was that our living room sounded so doggone good, as good as some high-priced studios we’ve recorded in. Another exciting aspect is the strength of the performances. Everything is in good pitch and in good time and the recording has good energy and solid dynamics.

The most challenging part of the CD has been the postproduction work. This is our first self-release and now we know how diligent the record companies had to be in dealing with the mountains of minutia involved in getting a CD out to the public. Talk about teaching old dogs new tricks! We’ve learned a lot, and we wouldn’t have gotten through it without a lot of help from our musician and music-business friends who freely shared their knowledge

PURCHASE 'A Better Day A-Coming >>>

The song "Mama's Hungry Eyes" appears on the new A Prairie Home Companion release Motherhood: A Radio Collection as well as the Visions of Love CD. How did you come to choose to record "Mama's Hungry Eyes"?

We have known the song for years and sung it. When Garrison produced the Visions of Love album, he asked us to send him a bunch of songs that we have known, that are part of our DNA. Songs that make up the lexicon of where we are coming from but ones we typically do not perform. So we sent him a bunch and he made the final selection and he chose "Mama's Hungry Eyes." I think he wanted something that would show our audience the kind of music that we listened to and performed when we were not on stage so that they would have an understanding the kind of music that's important to us. I think the album was a success. It was a great idea on his part. It was a treat to work with him in that setting. It was great to work with him in the studio and to hear what his thoughts were because they were amazing. We don't always get that opportunity on the live radio show because there simply isn't enough time.

LISTEN TO Mama's Hungry Eyes

Since you are one of the longest tenured guest performers on the show, do you have a favorite memory of performing on A Prairie Home Companion? Are there any guest performers that you have gotten the chance to perform with that stand out?

Robin: It would be hard to pinpoint just one because every night is memorable. In a way, being with the A Prairie Home Companion show when we were at Radio City Music Hall, being with Garrison at Carnegie Hall, those are the kind of things that most performers don't get a chance to say they have done. So, for us to be able to say "yes, we have performed at those places" is a real highlight of our career.

Linda: I think the cruises have been fun. We would have never gone on a cruise. The nice thing for us about the cruises is that we have worked with Garrison for a real long time and he has a certain need for what we bring to the show. A lot of time, its bringing material that he can fit in with quickly that helps to get the show started or close the show. We kind of have an understanding of what is needed and we always prepare a song which could be used as an opener or a closer. They don't always get picked or used. When preparing for the show, we always try to bring things to him and we always try to bring things that he will sing with us. We usually offer up a feature or two. Sometimes, we don't get a feature. That's just how it works out or sometimes — it gets cut because time is short or whatever. Sometimes we just go out and sing with Garrison. I rarely play the Banjo on the show. I had a man at the last show come up and say "I completely misunderstood what you guys were all about. I had no idea what you did musically and how much I was going to enjoy it." So it's great to be on the show in that journeyman, supportive role and that's our role and we enjoy it very much. It is also great to be able to come here (on the cruise) and stretch out and let people who are fans of the show and know us in that context, see what it is underneath or around all that. Get the full Robin & Linda experience.

Any favorite Garrison memory or story you would care to share?

Oh yeah! Emmylou and Chet and Jethro Burns way back in the old days. Garrison came up to us one time and said "I want you guys to put a medley together of train songs — use Jethro and Chet, just tell them where you want them to play." And we were like "We're going to have to arrange this thing and tell CHET ATKINS 'OK, you play here... ok no, that's enough.'" And tell Jethro Burns where to play. These people were like icons to us. And what we found out is that they were just like us ... they were there to please Garrison and fit into the show and they were as easy as pie to work with. We have had terrific opportunities to play with guest stars and its been a real pleasure.

Robin: The last time we were on the show for the cinecast, we got to work with Elvis Costello. Where would we have ever have got the chance to be on stage and sing with Elvis and work on a script.

Listen to 'Broadway Bluegrass' by Marvin & Mavis Smiley >>>

How did Marvin & Mavis Smiley come about? The pseudo infomercials are a riot.

In the early 80's when Prairie Home first started going national, we would drive by car to the Twin Cities, stay at Garrison's house, and would perform on 2-3 shows. One day, we were sitting on his porch after dark and he said "I am thinking about this week and what I would like is a medley of Broadway songs done bluegrass. Think of some names and we will do it as a record company promotion from Do-Tell records. So we came up with Marvin and Mavis Smiley and he added The Manhattan Valley boys. It was one of those things where we never got through it during rehearsal. We were always killing ourselves laughing. The pieces were always complex and we couldn't get through it from start to finish. The pieces go at a blistering pace. It's like running a marathon. Even though it kept falling apart during rehearsal, he kept it in. We never got through it but he thought it was funny. He was solidly behind it. He was fearless. We went and did it — the only time we got it right was on the show and it was hilarious. He loved it. He just loved it. We did several farewell reunion tours in the period of time when he was off the air, did Radio Company of the Air and coming back to APHC. We did a couple of cross country tours and Marvin & Mavis Smiley were in costume. The audience went insane over it. They loved it and it just tickled Garrison. He would get the biggest kick out of it. We've done so many now that its hard to come up with a new idea. But, every now and then, he'll come up with an idea and he'll say, "Let's have Marvin and Mavis on."

Any favorite Garrison memory or story you would care to share?

Robin: There are so many. What has happened is that when we started out, we were in total awe of Garrison and his talent and that has not left. And we were green, we were young, and I can remember Verne Sutton, Phillip Brunelle and this group of regulars that he would do these skits with. He would work with them and they would produce things for him. We would think wouldn't it be great that if someday Garrison would think enough of us to give us that responsibility.

Linda: And one day, during one of those periods when we were staying with him a couple weeks, he gave us that opportunity. He had gone to see the movie Yentl and he was just kind of amazed by the movie in one way or another. He came up with the idea of doing a parody called Dental where I was the patient and Robin was the dentist and it would be a musical where the patient fell in love with the dentist. There was to be a lot of singing where you have your mouth open and either a hand or dental instrument in it. Garrison said "go get a Yentl CD and I will write some lyrics and you find some songs that will go along with them from the soundtrack." That would be the songs for the sketch. It was nuts. We put this thing together in a day and a half. Butch Thompson and I were working it out and I could hardly remember how these songs went. I am trying to sing love songs like there is stuff in my mouth. The dentists name in the sketch was Bob. I'm humming his name mumbling words like my mouth has Novocain. It was insane and he got the biggest kick out of it and he just loved it.

Robin: As time has gone on, there is a friendship that develops. And it's really been one of the greatest things in our career to have been associated with A Prairie Home Companion and Garrison Keillor. We learn so much from him. The association with Garrison has been one of the creative boosts for us because we have been able to see how hard he works first hand.

Linda: He's encouraged us to stretch out musically and do things we probably would not have done. Classic country that we have known but we always were looking to write our own songs and have our own voice but he encouraged us to do classic stuff and let people know where we are coming from. It helps so much as a performer to have someone challenge us. It's hard to express how much he has meant to us.

VIDEO: "DONE FOUND MY LOST SHEEP" FROM THE CINECAST REHEARSAL

Tell us about your experience on the A Prairie Home Companion movie? How was it to work with Robert Altman and the rest of the amazing cast assembled?

Robin: I think the greatest thing about that movie was that it was all done at the Fitzgerald Theater except for one or two shots. We got to see first hand the filming of the entire movie. For that reason, it was very special. There were no location shots where we were not needed that day. We got to see Robert Alman every day — all the actors, all the crew. What was amazing to me about it was that it was in a context that we were extremely comfortable in.

Linda: People say "What was it like?" I say it was like we played ourselves, we do what we always do on the show: we back people up, we sang a song or two, Garrison hands us a commercial kind of thing at the last minute and you work out a little harmony and throw it on and do it. It was an extremely comfortable setting for us yet we were making a movie with Robert Altman, Kevin Kline and Meryl Streep. We were just doing what we always do.

I do have a new found respect for how far these movies go — how many people have seen it. You walk into a club in Nashville and people come up and talk to you about the movie. You would not think these people would have seen it — Irish musicians, country musicians and they would say "We love you in the movie."

 

How can fans keep up on your activities? When you are on tour and where?

Absolutely. They can sign up for our e-mail list on our website, www.robinandlinda.com. We try to do it monthly to keep people updated on what we are up to along with a list of dates. Or you can visit our main website for the same information and you can write to us or buy our product.


1 comment

  • Thank you so much for this! The Relationship you guys have with Garrison is so special; it comes across in the shows, and especially in this interview. Thanks!!

    Chuck Braithwaite

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