Jack Williams,
Across the Winterline
(Wind River, 1997)

I met Jack Williams at the 2001 Northeast Regional Folk Alliance conference. He was a presenter for a workshop on putting sparkle in your performance. The session began with Jack playing a song he wrote, a tribute to Josh White. From the moment his fingers first started picking, I was completely in awe of the way he made the guitar sing along with him. I couldn't wait to pick up any of his CDs. Across the Winterline has been no disappointment.

Jack is everything you want a blues-picker and singer-songwriter to be. His voice is that perfect tenor blend of sometimes gravelly, sometimes velvet smooth, bluesy-folk energy tinged with country and jazz that whispers and pulls you closer. His guitar picking is incredible. Sometimes his guitar seems to be talking back to Jack, sometimes talking to the listener, sometimes just an extension of Jack himself.

The winterline is a natural phenomenon observable only in a few places around the globe, a new horizon visible only from the perspective of mountain heights, and I believe this description fits the message of this CD perfectly. Williams wrote all the tunes (the lyrics are provided in the liner notes) and every one of them is a touching poem, even without the music. And yet, each one has effortlessly been put to song. There's no straining, trying to make the words fit the rhythm of the song. The answer to the question, which came first -- the music or the lyrics -- has got to be, they magically emerged together.

"Run, Run, Run" is the result of some serious writer's block, according to the liner notes, although you couldn't tell it by me. It's a slow, lazy song that takes the listener on a trip through Augusta at dawn. It takes note of small details along the way, turning them into "poetry in motion" so that the listener will "find ... pleasure in the glory of flight."

Sad and lonely stories are typical subject matter for the blues. "The Lone Palmetto Sings" is a true story of a shrimp boat owner, whose main character "never spoke of love, of failure or regret / But these all hung around him like a slow descending net." The listener is provided a glimpse of what a musician's life is like in "The Man in Me," which, as one would expect, isn't always a glamorous life. The tune has a slow, wistful melody, with a quiet desperation that still remains somewhat hopeful -- "There's a reason for everything."

James Dickey, made famous as the author of the novel Deliverance, is immortalized in "The Old Buckdancer's Gone," a song that takes on a country swing flavor. It's a wonderful testament written shortly after Williams found out Dickey had died, and yet has none of the maudlin, depressing tone one would expect from someone in grief. "If Night Be Kind" is another example of Jack's writing that proves the blues don't have to be depressing in order to be good. It's full of hope and faith, as Jack writes "If I be strong in wing and song, I'll fear no more."

William's guitar is often a backup vocalist on a number of these tunes. "Waterbug" is once such tune where Jack sings a line, and the guitar answers back. It's a lively "duet" that really showcases Jack's ability on the guitar. "A Good Heart Shows," advice from his wife's Aunt Sally, is a common sense wisdom that we all look for, but rarely find. And it's one of the many tunes where Jack's guitar has the last word on the subject.

The title cut, "Across the Winterline," has more of a Caribbean beat, with some delightful mandolin picking behind it. The lyrics are almost as much of a prayer of resignation as they are a poem. "Don't crave eternal summertime / You can't outrun that winterline."

Everyone will wish their Mama was "Mama Lou" -- as Jack says, my "taste buds are a-quaking," a fact confirmed by the guitar's voice as well. This is a list of every southern dish you've ever heard of, set to mouth-watering, musical rhyme. The only thing I take issue with -- and will forgive Williams for -- is that okra gets his vote. And yet, if Mama Lou makes it, it's got to be good.

The liner notes include a poetic apology to the listener for all mistakes on this recording. It was done in a friend's living room, with all the musicians playing live, instead of each musician laying down his or her own tracks individually. And yet, I'd be hard-pressed to find any of these so-called squeaks and "missed notes standing naked as jaybirds." The overall effect is so totally integrated, you almost feel like they're playing in your own living room.

Jack is backed up by Cary Taylor on bass, Danny Harlow on mandolin, Robert Bowlin on violin/fiddle and Susan Douglass doing backup vocals. They provide richness to the sound quality without over-powering or compromising Jack's vision.

Though I was made with wings to fly,
I wandered, aimless, through the sky.
I felt an emptiness unfold...
Then Nature sent a breath of winter
Through my soul.
- Jack Williams, If Night Be Kind

[ by Alanna Berger ]
Rambles: 19 January 2002

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