Josh Williams Causes Heartache Outbreak25 August 2010
In our last entry of Ye Olde Performer Showcase, members of Acoustic Blue offered the observation that the bluegrass circuit had become the default home for traditional country music. With everyone in the country music firmament from Dolly Parton to Jim Lauderdale releasing bluegrass albums and with country stalwarts like Gene Watson performing at bluegrass festivals, it’s hard to take issue with this view.
Even an event like the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, whose line-ups often read like a genealogy of the New Grass bands of the 1970’s, has of late been tinged by a touch of twang. This year, country songbird Kathy Mattea brought her recent collection of coal mining songs to the Grey Fox main stage, and Josh Williams returned with his band to perform a couple of sets that drew heavily from the country canon.
Of the flavors that country music brings to the bluegrass tradition, none are more pungent than those found in a good break-up ballad. Whereas the classic bluegrass ballads tend to deal with drowning, poisoning, dismemberment and other crimes of passion, the destruction documented in country tunes generally takes the form of psychic wounds. Case in point:
For a man who has yet to turn thirty, Williams does an uncanny job of summoning the ghosts of the best crooners of country’s bygone eras. Like Randy Travis and George Jones before him, he can pull off that trick of somersaulting from an opening bass note right up into the tenor range. He’s also mastered a down home version of melisma, a technique whereby, as he approaches the climax of a song, the singer turns a single syllable into a miniature cadenza of heartache. Check out what Williams does to the word “tried” in the final chorus.
Like so many fine songs, “The Great Divide” never was an outright hit (it reached #41 on the country charts in 1989), but it has since become something of a standard. Latter day bluegrasser Gene Watson recorded the tune and is still closely associated with it, but it was actually written by Randy Travis (in partnership with John Lindley). In album notes he wrote at the time his recording was released, Watson referred to “The Great Divide” as “my favorite song.” He also credited Travis for persuading him to keep performing when he was ready to chuck it all. Cool how so many of the dots connect here, from Travis to Watson to Williams.
Yer Pal— Curly