Johnny Williams,
Last Day of Galax
(Mountain Roads, 2009)

Bluegrass long-timer Johnny Williams is respected not just for his musicianship -- currently as a member of the Virginia-based Big Country Bluegrass -- but for his songwriting and activism in the genre. He is married to Jeanette Williams, who leads the Jeanette Williams Band, a bluegrass outfit.

In this solo outing on Mountain Roads, a new label that showcases the bluegrass and old-time music of the region where Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina rub shoulders, Williams fronts a small group, prominently including his wife (on acoustic bass and harmony vocals).

The band offers up -- mostly -- Bill Monroe-style bluegrass albeit without Monroe's high-tenor sound; Williams' singing is pitched at a more conversational level. There are occasional excursions into hard-core country (the Hank Williams standard "I Can't Help It If I'm Still in Love With You," where steel guitar makes an appearance) and old-time (the traditional fiddle tune "Swampcat Rag").

A couple of Williams' originals, with Debbie Yates on clawhammer banjo, revive the pre-bluegrass sounds of the Southern mountains. The ballad "Sins of War" returns to a subject favored by bluegrass musicians, the Civil War, to recount an atrocity visited upon two backwoods brothers by murderous Yankee marauders. "A sad but true story of the blue and the gray," the song concludes sadly and, I presume, truthfully. The other new old-time piece, "Back to My Old Ways of Living," is my personal favorite of all the songs here. It evokes with particular power another familiar bluegrass theme, the bewildered plaint of a man trapped between a fading past and a failing present. Other, more standard bluegrass arrangements are fitted to two co-writes with the esteemed Tom T. & Dixie Hall. The Halls, who don't collaborate with just anybody, obviously hold Williams in high regard.

Last Day of Galax -- from the title of a Williams song celebrating the venerable fiddle festival in Virginia -- is a work of solid craftsmanship, never flashy but never less than assured. Williams' soulful vocals serve the material well, and the smart but minimalist instrumental accompaniment keeps them properly at the forefront.

review by
Jerome Clark

21 March 2009

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