Posts Tagged ‘Delmore Brothers’

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Josh Williams Takes Us Back to Redwood Hill

5 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

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Josh Williams: An Homage

29 January 2013

We pestered Josh Williams plenty at last year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival and as you can see from our previous posts, he put up with us with grace and humor. While we appreciate Williams’ candor and detail in responding to our many questions, seems like we ought to take a break from the talk and let the man do what he does best…

“Blue Railroad Train” is a vintage country blues from the Delmore Brothers, but as Williams points out in his introduction, he learned the tune as it was popularized by Williams’ mentor Tony Rice in the 1970’s. When Williams says that he is offering his rendition as an homage to Rice, he seems to be referring primarily to the instrumental licks, but he can also channel the sound of Rice’s younger voice to great effect— a fact not lost on Rice himself.

Back when he recorded “Blue Railroad Train” for his classic album Manzanita, Rice could both play and sing with abandon. Over the ensuing decade, however, illness largely robbed him of his voice, forcing him to team up with other singers. For the past several years, Williams has been a fixture in The Tony Rice Unit, where he has played mandolin and handled lead vocal duties.

It’s hard to imagine anyone else being a more fitting vocal surrogate for Rice than Williams. While he certainly has a voice that’s all his own, Williams shares Rice’s affinity for soulful country vocals. It’s an oversimplification to put it this way, but you could say that the key to Rice’s sound was that his guitar was playing jazz and his voice was singing country. That description fits Williams’ style as well.

Only a genuine hot shot would announce that he’s going to play a song the way Tony Rice does— inviting inevitable comparisons between his performance and that of the maestro. Should you feel compelled to measure Williams’ version against Rice’s, there’s a video clip on YouTube of a live performance from Rice with a stellar edition of The Unit.

Yer Pal— Curly

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