Josh Williams Takes Us Back to Redwood Hill5 February 2013
With the 2013 edition of the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival just around the corner, it’s time to wrap up our series of profiles of Josh Williams that we recorded at last year’s event. Here’s the band running through the ballad “Redwood Hill” as they warmed up for their main stage set:
In bluegrass circles, “Redwood Hill” is most closely associated with The Country Gentlemen. In a prior post, Williams discussed learning about bluegrass by exploring his dad’s record collection as a kid. The Country Gentlemen were among the acts that made an impression on him.
Founded in the late 1950’s, The Gentlemen were prominent fixtures in the rebirth of bluegrass that occurred in the 1960’s and early 1970’s with the rise of college music circuit and the culture of bluegrass festivals. Though the group developed an international following and was a key influence on a whole generation of pickers, not everyone warmed to their polished, folk-inflected brand of bluegrass. In particular, The Gentlemen’s penchant for adapting tunes with a pop pedigree didn’t endear them to traditionalists.
I’m not sure where the Moldy Figs of bluegrass would come down on “Redwood Hill,” then or now. It was written by the Canadian troubadour Gordon Lightfoot, so it’s a contemporary composition, but it also clearly shares the form and themes of many an older song. At the time The Country Gentlemen appropriated “Redwood Hill,” Lightfoot was at the height of his fame and many of the Young Turks of early 1970’s bluegrass were drawn to his material. Williams’ mentor, Tony Rice, recorded Lightfoot’s “Cold on the Shoulder”— a milestone from the era that has weathered well.
Whatever one thinks of The Country Gentlemen and their ilk’s exercises in cultural cross-pollination, when Williams & Co. sing “Redwood Hill,” it sounds like the aural equivalent of a vintage postcard, summoning up all the tumult and tempests of yore, no longer as battles to be fought again, but as bittersweet memories.
As we close out this series, I want to thank Josh Williams and his bandmates for sharing their music and their views. I’m also very grateful to Jamie Lansdowne for editing these pieces with such patience and forbearance.
Yer Pal— Curly