ROBIN & LINDA WILLIAMS, BACK 40

ROBIN & LINDA WILLIAMS
BACK 40

Red House Records
RHR CD 274

Robin and Linda Williams are celebrating their fortieth anniversary as performers with Back 40, a commemoration to share with their loyal audiences. It’s primarily a collection of re-recorded versions of songs from their earlier out-of-print albums, creatively recast with a supporting crew of Chris Brashear on fiddle and mandolin, Al Perkins on everything with a slide, and bassist Todd Phillips. (Long-time fans of their backup band, Their Fine Group, will be pleased to hear one harmony by longtime bassist Jim Watson, as well as one song that’s totally new for the duo.)

A retrospective such as this sent me back through my dusty vinyl collection. While the cover of their early eponymous LP on Flashlight Records features Robin and Linda against a backdrop of medieval or ancient times, Back 40 shows a pair of ardent musicians who are still growing and glowing with creative energy. A prime example can be heard in the two tracks from their debut recording that are redone here. “Adam Rude,” originally a stylized unaccompanied vocal duet, is now a fiery uptempo song sung by Robin that conveys all the outrage and anger of a foot soldier face-to-face with the corrupt machinations of a political leader. “Daughter Of MacLeod,” originally sung by Robin, is now sung by Linda in a manner that palpably carries her empathy and respect for the title character.

It’s worth mentioning that Robin and Linda wrote or co-wrote all but three of the fourteen songs here. From the bittersweet romantic recollections in “Seventeen Years Old” to the clear-eyed observations of “This Is The Real Thing” and “Pine County,” it’s easy to see they’ve journeyed with open eyes, ears, and hearts, and have the unique gift of capturing these stories in song.

They also take the time to honor some of their songwriting heroes, including, of course, Hank Williams (“My Sweet Love Ain’t Around.”) Linda gives one of the most poignant renditions of Joni Mitchell’s winter lament, “Urge For Going.” And by turning Bob Dylan’s “Boots Of Spanish Leather” into a dialogue between a man and a woman, they breathe new life into a folk standard. But that’s exactly what Robin and Linda Williams are still doing, even after forty years on the road. Rewriting their “Dixie Highway Sign” and kicking off Back 40 with their joyful ode to life on the road (“On And On”), it’s clear they are at the top of their game. (Red House Records, P.O. Box 4044, St. Paul, MN 55104, www.redhouserecords.com.)HK

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