In 1971, a young schoolteacher named Linda Hill was visiting her parents in Myrtle Beach, S.C., when she met a musician named Robin Williams. She was a singer and played guitar. He was a regular on the coffeehouse circuit. The two hit it off immediately. Two years later, they were married and touring the country in a VW Bug.
They’ve been on the road ever since. The couple tour and play constantly, sharpening their chops and blending their voices together in lush Appalachian harmonies. They’ve become mainstays on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion and have influenced subsequent generations of roots musicians.
To commemorate 40 years of musical and romantic collaboration, the couple are releasing Back 40, a collection that surveys their vast catalog of more than 20 studio albums and innumerable live shows. In addition to one new tune and a handful of covers, the duo revisit material from throughout their career, some dating back to their very first years together.
Preparing to go back out on “the never-ending tour,” as Robin calls it, the couple spoke to CMT Edge from their home in rural Virginia.
CMT Edge: How did you decide to do an album of your own old songs?
Linda Williams: A lot of our stuff never got put on to any kind of digital format, so we haven’t performed some of these 40-year-old songs in a long time. We’re always picking up new fans and new audiences, a lot of whom have never heard some of these pieces. It was just a way to look back on some things that had gotten lost.
Robin Williams: All this material had really meant a lot to us at some point. We thought they really held up, even the ones from the very first record 38 years [ago] when we released our first CD.
Linda: It was an LP! There were a lot of songs, so we had to cull through them and find the ones that were the cream of the crop or pieces that had changed a lot over the years. We also wanted to pick ones that all hung together in some fashion and make a record, and that’s a hard thing to pinpoint sometimes.
Robin: We didn’t want to just go back and put out a compilation of original material. We wanted to do these old songs as we are today. In most cases, if Linda sang it originally, then I sang it now. And If I sang it originally, then she sang it now.
Robin: When we decided to do this, we were thinking of maybe even doing a two-CD set. We wanted to show some of our songwriting influences from the early days and record some material by our songwriting heroes, but we had to limit the concept of the project.
But we recorded for the first time a Bob Dylan song. It’s our 23rd or 24th CD, and we’ve never recorded a Dylan song! As well, we’ve never recorded a Joni Mitchell song before. Both of those artists, as well as many others, were our songwriting heroes — people we used to listen to — and we tried to figure out what we could do to emulate them.
Linda: I saw Dylan when I was in high school. I’m from Alabama, but I was living around the Detroit area at the time. Detroit and Ann Arbor had really good coffeehouses and small concert venues. I saw Dylan when he came through after the Freewheelin’ record, and I saw Joni Mitchell when she was still playing with her first husband, Chuck Mitchell.
It was a revelation. I already had a guitar, and I was doing what everybody was doing back in those days in the early and mid-1960s, which was singing what you heard on the radio — stuff like the Kingston Trio and Peter Paul & Mary. I liked all that, but when I saw people like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell doing their own material, I just thought, “This is what I want to do.”
What was it like revisiting these old songs? How had they changed over the years?
Robin: I’ve got a perfect example of that — “This Is the Real Thing.” I don’t even remember what we had in mind when we wrote it with our friend Jerry Clark, but that was over 20 years ago. Now when I sing it, I think of Johnny Cash — what an individualistic performer and human he was. He had strong Christian faith yet battled demons all of his life. As a result, he had real empathy for lost souls. When we do “This Is the Real Thing,” I’m thinking of people with lost souls and wishing Johnny Cash could have heard this song. As the years go by, you get new perspectives on your own material.
How you have changed as musicians since you first recorded these songs?
Linda: We’ve gone from playing as a duet to playing as a four-piece in … what would you say? ’89 or ’90?
Robin: ’90 or ’91, I think it was. And we’ve pretty much kept that up ever since. When you’re playing in a four-piece, you learn a lot of musical lessons that as a duo you don’t have to pay attention to — mainly vocal parts. You really have to sharpen your instrumental sensibilities as to when you should play and when you shouldn’t. It’s made us better musicians, deeper musicians. I would say that after 40 years, we’ve just become more comfortable with who we are.
Linda: There’s always stuff that we can learn and get better with. We can always work on our singing and work on our writing. There’s always a long way to go, even though we do work at it and we feel like we’ve attained a nice expertise. It’s all a learning process.
So much has changed in the industry since you started. There are even new terms for how people refer to the music you play.
Robin: For a long time, we felt as if we were niche-less because our sound incorporates a lot of different aspects of acoustic roots music — country, bluegrass, old-time. It’s all melding together into one thing, and I swear, for the first 20 years, we had no niche. People wanted to put us somewhere. It wasn’t necessarily frustrating, but you got tired of being niche-less.
But then, somewhere in the ‘90s, whenever the term Americana came up, I thought it was a blending of genres into a personal style. Even though I think most people, when they think of Americana, they think more about …
Linda: Alt-country. I think there are so many people doing Americana now because it’s so much more available to learn. When we were coming up, people were going to Tommy Jarrell’s house to learn how to play fiddle. Or they were going to search the hills to find Roscoe Holcomb or Dock Boggs.
Now everything is available. There’s YouTube. There are instructional tapes. You can go to college and get a degree in bluegrass or traditional music or whatever. It’s easy to find pretty much anything you want, but when we came along, we were trying to make a living and study it all at the same time, so we were developing in front of people instead of developing and then coming out with a sound. Not that younger people don’t develop as they go along.
Robin: The important thing is that the music stays strong. These new acts coming along, they have really good insights. It’s all the same heart and soul.