When the top traditional bluegrass singers are named, you expect to hear Larry Sparks mentioned, and James King. Perhaps Danny Paisley as well, and Junior Sisk. But a name you don’t hear often enough is Johnny Williams, who can throw down the lonesome with the very best of them.
There is sufficient evidence of that contention to convince anyone with ears on Williams’ latest album, Going My Way, on Mountain Roads Recordings. To my ears, it’s his best to date, and a serious contender to be considered among the best traditional bluegrass albums of the year.
Part of the reason is Williams’ doleful singing voice, which can take any song and give it a forlorn feel. Even his version of the Kansas mega-hit, Dust In The Wind, sounds here like a mountain ballad.
Part is his brilliant songwriting. I’ve had occasion to note in the past just how difficult it is to compose a new song that fits in the bluegrass or mountain music tradition so authentically that you could be forgiven for believing it to be 60 years old. This album opens with a perfect example on Johnny’s Sailor’s Regret, a truly lonesome story of an old man at sea.
Another part is the strong ensemble assembled to cut this project. The personnel is the same for every song, giving a legitimate band feel to the whole album. Jason Davis is on banjo, gnawing on each and every track as is his wont, driving the music forward with every beat. Chase Johner provides the mandolin, which is always note perfect. He dusts off his best Dempsey Young to kick off Ease My Worried Mind, another Williams original.
Jeanette Williams provides bass, but is only one of Johnny’s vocal duet partners on Going My Way. Nikki Wright, who also plays fiddle pairs up with him on several of the tracks, including his Stanley-esque What You Gonna Do.
Other notable cuts include Johnny and Jeanette singing a grassified version of Talking To The Moon, a hit for The Gatlin Brothers in 1986, Albert Brumley’s The Prettiest Flowers, and John Pennell’s Dark Skies, previously recorded by Alison Krauss.
Going My Way is a very strong project, sure to please anyone who favors the lonesome side of old time bluegrass. It is available on CD or download from the Mountain Roads Recordings site, and to DJs via Airplay Direct.