SARANAC LAKE - It was 40 degrees and snowing at Robin and Linda Williams' home in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley as they talked on the phone with the Enterprise. Hurricane Sandy had made landfall the day before and was clashing with another storm coming in from the north.
Here in Saranac Lake, where they'll perform Sunday, it was 50, sunny and dry that day.
Coming home to their pre-Civil-War farmhouse from a weekend of gigs in Nashville, storm preparations had distracted the Williamses from working on their next album, a collection of new songs, long-neglected ones from their back catalogue and influential covers. They plan to record and release it in 2013 to celebrate 40 years since they got married and started playing country and bluegrass music together.
Robin and Linda Williams
In those four decades, they've made at least 22 albums and been regulars on National Public Radio's "A Prairie Home Companion" since the mid-'70s. They've made countless people smile with their small-town sincerity and onstage banter, and thus they've become well known nationally, despite, as Robin says, "flying below the radar of the official music business."
They've played here before - for instance, at the Waterhole in 2001 - but this upcoming gig was booked by an old friend of theirs: Joe Dockery, a chiropractor who moved here earlier this year from Virginia, where he once helped the Williamses start and run a music festival.
"He's a very community-oriented guy," Linda said of Dockery, "and he just loves music."
That could go equally for the Williamses.
They'll perform at Pendragon Theatre with their Fine Group: bass player Jim Watson (who's been with then since the late '80s) and fiddler Chris Brashear (who's been with then since 2007). Linda said they look forward to getting back up this way.
"We used to come to upstate New York in our early days and play, I think, every State University of New York college - you know, stay three or four days at a place," she said.
The following interview is abridged for length.
Adirondack Daily Enterprise: I know you play a song from time to time, "For Better or Worse," the one with, you didn't know what the vows meant then but you sure do know -
Linda: But we know what they mean now - yeah.
ADE: After 40 years of traveling on the road, do you see that as autobiographical?
Robin: Absolutely, man.
L: Well, you do learn to make compromises, which I think you have to do; it's sort of inherent in the duet, in that there isn't a star of the show. There's the two of us giving our input and compromising to what we both hopefully agree serves the music the best. And yet ... in so many was, it's sort of the end is stronger than the two parts; you know what I'm saying? So it's worth doing that.
R: The sum is greater than the parts.
L: That's it. We got together because we liked each other, and we got together over music. It isn't that one of us is sort of interested and the other one is mildly interested. It's been sort of, music has been at the core of our lives before we met and certainly after we met is still at the core of pretty much what we do every single day.
ADE: So, over all that time, has writing new songs gotten easier? Or harder?
R: Well, it's never gotten easier.
L: It's never gotten easier because we've written so many, and so the subject matter - we've covered a lot of bases, if you know what I mean. I think sometimes coming up with something to write about that we're really passionate about, that we're really involved in, that we haven't been through before (laughs) is a little bit hard. ... And yet I'll just say, I think the writing, in a way, comes a little easier because we know more how to do it - I know more how to do it, anyway. I think I learned a lot about writing from Robin, and I think I've stepped my skills up a lot as the years have gone on.
ADE: I was going through some of your more recent songs, and you said you've covered a lot of bases already, so sometimes it looks like you're kind of thinking, "Well, what do I write a song about that I haven't already written a song about?" And some of the topics that came up were things that are not - the one I'm thinking of is the one from the Country Music Hall of Fame about Maybelle (Carter)'s guitar and (Bill) Monroe's mandolin. It's not a typical song of any genre, really - bluegrass or country, whatever - to say, "I'm in a tourist attraction here, and look at that! That's great! I'm looking at someone's old instrument, and man, that's cool!"
L: It's a fan thing, and sometimes I think it's a little bit too much of an insider's song because it really is written because of the utter awe and respect and thrill that we get from the music of the pioneers of country music. And really, the Carter Family and Bill Monroe, there's a handful or maybe two handfuls of people that really forged a lot of music in the early days of recording that we've been able to hear. And Bill Monroe and the Carters, the amount that they put out and the statement that they made with their music is so huge, and plus, we just love it! We are just, like, eaten up with it, you know? So we saw those two things together in the Country Music Hall of Fame; I said, "Man, I'm going to start writing a song about that."
ADE: I know, and I don't know that other people would've thought, after seeing that, "Man, I'm going to go home and write a song." I didn't think it was an insider song because of that. I thought the average person might not get the difference between an L5 (Gibson guitar) and an F5 (Gibson mandolin).
R and L: Yeah, right.
ADE: But for the people who do -
R: Well, that goes back to ... the first time I ever heard - this was back in '71 or '2 or something like that - I was listening to a Townes Van Zandt song, and he had this line, "My love lies 'neath frozen skies and waits in sweet repose for me." And I just had to go to the dictionary and make sure I knew what "repose" meant. So maybe in some ways, when they hear the L5 and the F5, it'll send 'em somewhere to go look it up and see what it means.
ADE: How have the venues you play changed over the years? Do you play fewer bars now than you used to?
R: Well, they've changed dramatically. We started out playing nothing but college coffee houses, and then as the years went along we started playing more bars. There was a few years of that, and (then the) Columbia Artists Community Concert Series; we did that for about 10 years.
L: That was a mainstay. We went all over the country and playing whatever - high school auditoriums in little towns all over the West and all over the country. It was pretty interesting because it gave us the opportunity to learn how to play in front of people who not only didn't know who we were but didn't even know much about the style of music that we were playing.
ADE: When was that? You said about 10 years?
L: Mostly in the '80s. ... In the '90s and the 2000s, it's been performing arts centers and schools and concert series and festivals, you know, some clubs.
R: Last week gives you a classic example. On Wednesday we went and did "Music City Roots," a radio and television show in Nashville in front of a live audience, and bam! There you are, the pressure's on, and you've got to get it right because it's on TV. Then the next night we go and we do a concert in a college campus in an auditorium in front of 250 people or something like that, and then the very next night you play a club in Nashville. So you know, it's like, we do it all, and we're comfortable in all these situations, and it's a good thing that we are because that's how we make our living. We make our living in live performances. and it's what we like to do the most; wouldn't you say, Linda?