Doug & Telisha Williams
Fresh voices of Appalachia
The country genre has its own classical music: bluegrass, with its acoustic rural string band raised to startling virtuoso heights. But as the classic barroom country ensemble, with its electric guitar, steel guitar, and small, metronomic drum set, recedes into the past, various artists have taken it, as well, and begun to purify it and elaborate on it. The Martinsville, Virginia, duo of Doug and Telisha Williams are in the forefront of this development. They don't so much write a specific type of classic country song as experiment with a number of them (drinking songs, train songs, breakup songs, hard-times laments), accompanying them with a spare, mostly acoustic version of the traditional grouping.
Doug and Telisha Williams met in high school, where he was the drum major and she was the majorette. They went away separately to college but returned to their economically hard-hit hometown, married, and kept performing. Over ten years their music-making has progressed to a point where they can make a living appearing on the circuit of small grassroots-folkie venues; they'll play the Green Wood Coffee house on Friday, June 1.
The duo's unadorned songs and stories are of the type often described as "honest," but honesty will take you only so far in the music business. Better to focus on how unusual and concise much of their imagery is: a train passes through a cemetery and rattles the bones laid to rest there; a first shot of whiskey "burns like the memories of you"; a shirt on a rack in a thrift store "pulls a trigger inside of my head" and propels memories of abuse to the fore. The title track of their current album, Ghost of the Knoxville Girl, retells a famous murder ballad from the perspective of the murdered woman, a difficult task to pull off in a natural way. These are honest songs, but also in their way quite ambitious ones.
Doug and Telisha Williams write together, sing together, and play together. (I always wonder how these touring performing couples manage to find space apart.) Telisha sings the majority of their numbers in a voice that bears comparison to Iris DeMent's, whose "Our Town" is one of the few non-originals in their repertoire. The songs and the vocals are authentic slices of the small-town South, sure, but these voices of Appalachia are also fresh, challenging, and absolutely worthy of your close attention.
[Originally published in June, 2012.]