By ERIC SCHELKOPF
Robin and Linda Williams have been playing Americana music long before it became fashionable.
The husband-and-wife duo, www.robinandlinda.com, in October released the album "Back 40" in celebration of 40 years of recording together. The well-respected songwriters will perform Nov. 23 at Old Town School of Folk Music's The Myron R. Szold Music & Dance Hall, 4545 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets are $22 for the general public, available by going to www.oldtownschool.org.
I had the chance to the both of them about their illustrious career.
Q - Great talking to you. Of course, you are touring in support of your latest album, "Back 40." Was it hard choosing what songs would go on this album? Are there any songs that you think are greatly helped by being given a fresh treatment?
Robin Williams - Well, a lot of thought went into choosing the songs. The main thing for us was to find songs that deserved another shot at a life on a CD and stage. And they all had to hang together as a unit. It took a lot of time.
Linda Williams - And we stayed away from anything too recent. There’s nothing less than 20 years old. They had been stowed away for quite a while. It was like learning new songs so there was a freshness to the arrangements.
Q - This album celebrates your 40 years of performing together. Did you ever think when you started performing together that it would last 40 years? What makes it work?
Robin Williams - It’s still hard for me to believe it. For me, having a life in music was a dream but it was such an intense thing, starting out trying to make a living, that I doubt that I gave it too much thought.
It wasn’t like a goal for me. I suppose that, by the time we’d been at it twenty years, the idea of forty years didn’t seem preposterous.
What makes it work is hard work, getting past all the invisible doors that bar the path of a life in music and all the insecurity of flying by the seat of your pants underneath the radar of the official music business.
The marriage and the career take a lot of personal attention. As we like to say, “Its every day, every day – always, always.”
Linda Williams - In so many ways it was a simple dream; to have a life together and a life in music. But it’s not necessarily a simple life. It takes a lot of commitment and work to keep it all going.
Q - "Back 40" is produced by Jim Rooney. What did he bring to the table? Did the album turn out as you envisioned?
Robin Williams - He brought a practiced ear, a calm demeanor, a sense of humor and a professional ability to work quickly. There was no wasted time.
He is always in the moment and hears everything which is important when you’re recording all the tracks “live.”
Linda Williams - One day in the studio Jim told me if he were an artist he would be a water colorist, not a painter. That speaks to his desire to capture the essence of things quickly.
Q - You first appeared on "A Prairie Home Companion" in 1975. Did you think the show provided a good fit for your music? Does the show continue to provide a new audience for your music?
Robin Williams - Oh, yeah! Now the show has reached iconic stature with movie stars and pop stars longing to be on. But when it started out it was mostly roots oriented performers, classical and jazz musicians.
That music seemed to fit right in with the Lake Wobegon atmosphere of the early years, music that was organic, home made and nowhere near the pop charts. We saw the show before we were ever on and thought we’d fit right in.
As far as a new audience, we constantly hear from folks at our shows who tell us they heard us first on APHC.
Linda Williams - Actually we hear people say their parents always listened to the show and they grew up with it. However they find their way to us we are happy to have them listening.
Q - You have been playing a type of music that now might be called Americana and is very much in fashion. At the time that you started, did you imagine that you would be breaking new musical ground? What do you think about the renewed interest in roots music these days and the fact that the banjo has become a mainstream instrument?
Robin Williams - We’re pleased that there seems to be an expanding audience for this music. When we started, we didn’t think of breaking new ground.
We were just trying to play a personal style, taking advantage of our strengths and hopefully showing our influences through our music. For a good many years we seemed to confuse folks.
We weren’t country, we weren’t bluegrass, we weren’t singer/songwriters and we weren’t folk. We were all of them and there weren’t too many other acts in that niche then.
Now that we’re all in this Americana phase we’re fitting in just fine. As far as the banjo goes, we think everything sounds better on the banjo. Evidently a lot of other folks agree.
Linda Williams - There is a lot to be said from learning all you can from the masters, their songs, their singing style, their playing style. You can’t go wrong starting with the masters.
We’ve done a lot of listening and learning, and recording songs from our heroes, but we’ve always wanted to try to do original material or do some old song in a new way. It’s just been that way from the beginning
Q - Your songs have been covered by the likes of Emmylou Harris and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Has that been humbling? Are there any cover versions of your songs that particularly caught your ears?
Robin Williams - Humbling? Of course. We write from a personal point of view and are thusly always amazed and filled with gratitude when another artist finds something in our songs that makes him/her want to record it.
One of my favorite covers of one of our songs in Tim and Mollie O’Brien’s version of “Don’t Let Me Come Home A Stranger.” It’s similar to ours but they really added some creativity to their arrangement.
Linda Williams - Emmylou’s version of “Rolling and Rambling.” You can find a version live on the David Letterman show with The Nash Ramblers.
It doesn’t get any better than that for me.
Q - You are working on your 24th album. What should people expect from the album? Do you have any dream projects or collaborations?
Robin Williams - “Back 40” has just been released and is our second CD of mostly original tunes in two years. We’re just coming up for air from all that intensity.
It’ll take us a few months to start focusing in on what we want to do next.
Linda Williams - We’re starting to start to think about writing again. It comes along in waves after some time has passed and we’ve done some thinking and reading.