So, is Josh Williams a bluegrass singer or a country crooner? People who have enjoyed his silky smooth voice this past twenty five years might well wonder.
Williams has made his living in the bluegrass world, currently holding down the guitar spot with Rhonda Vincent & The Rage, and has released a number of chart-topping bluegrass records, but his voice always betrays a deep and abiding passion for the traditional country sound with the grass.
An admiration for the talents of Keith Whitley explains a big part of that, another troubled artist who started in bluegrass as a very young man, and reached the top of the country music world, only to lose it all (including his life) to a struggle with addiction. Josh was living a life on that same track, but was spared the ugly end when he took back charge of his life, received treatment for his meth problem, and has since been clean and sober for the last six years.
So… we’re back to our opening question, and I’m afraid the answer isn’t provided on Williams’ new Rounder CD, Modern Day Man. The album seamlessly blends bluegrass and country sounds with songs from both sides of the fence, produced by J.D. Crowe and engineered by Steve Chandler in a way that should satisfy those on either flank of the stylistic divide.
But what if you’re a Josh Williams fan who is offended by the very idea of percussion in bluegrass? If so, well… sorry about your luck. All save one of the 12 tracks have drums, though they are subtle and unassuming. I may agree that with such a backing band of bluegrass super pickers as Crowe has assembled here – and a rhythm guitarist as deft and skillful as Williams – the drums don’t really add much, if anything, to the final product. But it’s equally true that they don’t really detract in any measurable way. You won’t hear any drum fills or crashing about, just that solid backbeat provided in bluegrass by the mandolin. Deal with it.
Every track on Modern Day Man is a keeper, anchored by Josh’s compelling vocals with sterling accompaniment and harmonies, on songs from today’s top writers, plus a couple of golden oldies. Choosing highlights would be a pointless exercise; they are all superb.
Starting with Queen Of The County Fair, from Shawn Camp and John Sherrill, Josh shows his facility with Doc Watson-style, C-position guitar picking and delivers this fast moving song of teen heartbreak with just the right mix of wistfulness and pain. Nashville steel ace Doug Jernigan, who had provided pedal guitar on classic J.D. Crowe albums with Keith Whitley back in the ’70s, reprises that role here as well.
Josh tackles a pair of Ronnie Bowman songs, the title track, written with Robbie Melton and Thom Shepherd, a father/son ode to working hard and living right, and Let It Go (co-written with Jerry Douglas) a plaintive prayer for release, both of which are well served by Williams’ rich baritone, with its effortless agility and soulful intensity. You hear more than a touch of Ronnie’s example in these two numbers.
Randy Travis’ Great Divide gets a lovely acoustic country treatment, a song that Gene Watson cut in 1988 about the pain of divorce. From the more folky, singer/songwriter realm is Jonathan Edwards’ Girl From The Canyon, a bouncy bit of grass that had also been recorded by Whitley and Johnny Cash. Jernigan’s steel completes the ’70s vibe.
Another Whitley homage comes in Another Town, a Tom T. Hall song, which Keith did both with Crowe and on his own some years later. Here it’s a bluegrass romp (with electric lead guitar and steel) where Jason McKendree channels J.D. on the five.
A favorite for me is Mordecai, one Josh recorded on a previous solo project. It’s a Mark Mathewson song about a traveling Jewish peddler who explains to a young boy the continuity between Hebrew and Christian worship. Josh has performed this for years and you may hear him do it on Rhonda’s show still, a real crowd pleaser.
Another that has followed Williams for some time is Prodigal Son, a profoundly sad and moving story of a condemned man writing home to his parents as he faces death. But the story he tells them is happy, upbeat, and 100% opposite of the truth. Nobody wants to disappoint their mom and dad, and this one will wrest a tear from even the most jaded eye. Special kudos to Scott Vestal for his tasty, low-tuned banjo and to Daryl Mosely for penning such a poignant song.
Lonesome Lesson Learned finds Josh in a New Grass vein, with Vestal again on banjo, Sam Bush on mandolin, and John Cowan on tenor vocals. It’s the 1980s again on this song from young writers Justin Carbone and Troy Engle. God’s Plan from Harley Allen and Bobby Carmichael is a tender song about accepting what comes in life.
Today’s “It Guy” in country, Chris Stapleton, contributes Alway Have, Always Will, written with Brandon Rickman, a western-sounding ballad sung as a duet with Buddy Robertson. Josh again shows his lead guitar chops on this one.
The album closes with Sweet Little Boy, from indie-country singer/songwriter Corey Smith, another soul-crushingly sorrowful song, but this time with a happy ending. Josh performs it solo with his guitar, showing just how much pathos a single voice can generate. Surely the story of this sweet little boy finds an autobiographical echo in Williams’ life, and it leaves a powerful impression with its starkly naked arrangement.
Josh Williams is one of the truly special talents in our music who, even with all he has done before now, is just now coming into his stride. One can imagine most any selection from Modern Day Man being a hit on bluegrass radio, and several that should receive some attention from traditional country stations.
For most of us, it doesn’t matter whether you call him a bluegrass boy or a country singer. His abilities set him apart from most all who have vocalized in our music, and I hope to live long enough to hear many, many more releases that showcase his artistry.
This is a masterpiece.