Kevin and Debbie Williamson: A Partnership in Bluegrass
Published in Bluegrass Unlimited 1996
By Art Menius
In both life and music Kevin and Debbie Williamson have forged a solid partnership that rests on a foundation that far exceeds performing together in Kevin Williamson & Shadow Ridge. On that rock things have begun to fall into place for them in music. The first album credited to Kevin Williamson & Shadow Ridge, Out of the Shadows on PineCastle, showed progress beyond Kevin’s successful solo debut on the label. The lead off cut, “Shadow Ridge” spent the the fall of 1995 in the Bluegrass Unlimited charts. His songwriting continues to gain notice. Debbie, meanwhile, has recorded her first album for MidKnight Records.
Debbie nurtured her voice in chorus and church. There Kevin and Debbie’s lives came together. “The faith was the basis of our relationship,” explains Kevin. “So when we went to put together our band that contained the relationship of our marriage, we decided right then and there that our faith in God should reflect in our music and our show. Which is not to say that we get up there and preach. People read a lot more from what you don’t say than what you do say. We just feel like we have a statement to make in that God has touched our lives in such wonderful ways that if we just reflect that in our music and in our personalities, that people are going to go away better from having been part of our show.”
The Williamson have a serious spiritual side, but are certainly no stuffed shirts. Kevin sports an engaging personality and a wicked sense of humor. Debbie smiles easily and laughs at the drop of a hat. They prove hard not to like. They appreciate the rare and unexpected opportunity to work together.
“Traveling is one of the things Kevin and I like to do together,” Debbie confesses. “It’s a lot of fun, but sometimes it has down moments. For the most part we travel with a really good group of guys. That makes a big difference.
“It was a lot more difficult considering not being a part of Shadow Ridge. I didn’t like the idea of Kevin being gone all the time and me being back here. It was so hard being at home when I could contribute. It’s allowed us to have another aspect of our lives that we share. It’s a dream that we can work for together directly as opposed to two people having separate careers. The most rewarding thing is to get to make music with Kevin and to get to do it together. Kevin really is a good singer and he’s an awesome songwriter, but together we’re pretty incredible. Our blend is unique.
“Shadow Ridge, like every other bluegrass band, has experienced some personnel changes,” Kevin noted. “In 1995, we worked our second summer; we’re going on more than two years. Mainly Shadow Ridge is myself and Debbie.”
Yet neither had planned for Debbie to become part of Shadow Ridge. Kevin had played guitar, sung, and written songs for his dad’s West Virginia based band Redwing seemingly most of his life. After his first PineCastle CD of all original material appeared, he needed to take his own band on the road.
“I had the concept of a four piece band–mandolin, banjo, guitar, and bass, and one would sing tenor,” Kevin recalled. “When Debbie could be in attendance, we’d have her come up and sing with the band as a special guest. We never could come up with a player who was a tenor singer. I sing kind of high, and all the really good high tenor singers we’re gainfully employed. Debbie had sung on my first solo project, which we did before we formed the band. She’s a wonderful singer; she’d just never sung in a professional capacity. We decided I’ve got a tenor singer in the house. Let’s hire the bass player, mandolin player, and banjo player and get on with it.
“It’s turned out she’s turned out to be a wonderful harmony singer and the blend between Debbie and I has become one of the signature things of our sound. She’s also grown to be a really, really good lead singer, who gives our sound a whole another dimension. About the time they get used to me singing lead, we throw in a song with Debbie singing these really high, crystal clear lead vocals. We’ve got two lead singers now.”
Even with the Williamsons shared love of travel, Debbie’s transition from choir to touring professional bluegrass band posed challenges. “It was very difficult. It was scary because I had never been on stage before, especially when the first show is an IBMA showcase. It’s a lot different to hear yourself on stage and with the extra parts, it’s difficult to hear. The most difficult part is that is not enough money to do it all the time and so having to hold down a regular day job.”
Yes, the day job to support the music job. This was new to Debbie, but Kevin had grown up in the bluegrass world of his father, Jerry Williamson. He had spent plenty of years on the road with Redwing the band and the sound company. He not only knew the score, he had the brains and personality to pursue plenty of more lucrative careers.
“I played with three or four bands before I formed Shadow Ridge, with Redwing being the most recent and my tenure with them over ten years. I didn’t learn enough about the business of actually putting a band on the road, but other than that, whatever needs to be done, I learned about it — from driving an MCI to writing a song to singing your heart out. The rumors are true; It does get in your blood,” Kevin explains. “Bluegrass music is particularly addictive….Just when you’re completely beaten, somebody is kind to you and says they really like what you’re doing, and you come back for more.
“In bluegrass music friends would be a better description than fans. You actually have contact with those people. That’s what makes bluegrass music special. The fans are just great genuine people, and as a musician you have access to them as well as they to you. Being on stage is certainly part of it. Especially when things are going right. When the crowd’s in to it, and the band’s clicking, and you’re not breaking strings. You’ve got that energy going out and coming back from the audience; that’s a great feeling. It’s impossible to describe.”
Still, Kevin did not enter the field blind. Despite his relative youth and protestations to the contrary, Kevin had absorbed some clear ideas about putting together a band and a sound. “First of all, I learned that when you put together a band you need to hire people that you like to travel with and feel comfortable traveling with before you hire musicians. I find great people, and I find great musicians. Hopefully, they’re both. But if I have the choice between spending a year of my life with someone whose a great musician but a jerk, or a pretty good musician whose a great guy or girl, you can bet I’m going to choose someone whose a good person. I do travel with my wife, and I do have to be comfortable with the people we travel with.
“I learned that it’s hard to sell original music, but I’m going to try my best to anyway, because there are a lot of great musicians who can play guitar better than I can and can cover any bluegrass material. For me, in order to make a place for myself in this music, I need to be doing something original.
“I know how to write. If I’m looking for a particular song in a set, a particular mood in a set, that says a particular thing, it’s a natural reaction for me to go write that song. That’s what I know to do. Writing is such a part of me that I don’t know any other way to do it.”
He contributed a number of songs to Redwing even though his father writes prolifically. “It’s a great thing as a kid to have a role model as a writer, but it’s also real intimidating,” Kevin explains. “It used to be co-writing with my dad would be I’d get a chorus, he’d write the rest of the song, or I’d get a verse, and he’d write the chorus.”
Write Between The Lines proved Kevin’s genuine coming out as a writer with ten solo credits and two co-written songs. One of the latter, “Salt River Canyon” composed with Jerry Williamson, gained a lot of airplay, peaking at #20 in the June 1994 National Bluegrass Survey. The release featured vocal harmonies by Russell Moore and Shelton Feazel and the musicianship of Larry Perkins, Butch Baldassari, and Randy Howard.
“With record number one, we did a big variety of material: some acoustic country things. There’s a song on there with just Scruggs style fingerpicked guitar. We just used banjo on maybe four cuts, maybe five,” recalls Kevin.
That diversity of compositions comes naturally. “Bluegrass is such a wide market. The demographic is so broad, who’s to say who listens to bluegrass anymore. If you’re shooting for a bluegrass market with your themes, where do you aim? I’m not afraid to write about anything. When I finish a song and it has the heart and the drive, I’ll put it on stage and see if people like it.”
Kevin and Debbie had different plans for the first band CD, Out of the Shadows. “I really wanted to do stuff that was original for the most part, but unequivocally a bluegrass album, even though we’ve put a couple of songs on there that have a little bit of an acoustic country feel. I wanted the main thrust of the album to be bluegrass — original bluegrass music. When we were writing stuff for this album, I wanted a lot of drive, just straight ahead, quick moving bluegrass. It was exciting to write that album with only about a year to write it, whereas with the other one, like you said, I had a lifetime to write those songs.”
Nonetheless, the songs on Out of the Shadows display a wider range than usual. “Shadow Ridge” has almost a Sons of the Pioneers feel to it packaged in a Beach Boys-like pocket symphony structure. “The One I Can’t Live Without” could be contemporary country. “Backwoods Backstep” is not so serious, drives, and tends toward new grass, but could be done more traditionally.
“I just write what’s on my mind, and I try to write it in a feel that lends itself to the subject matter. You mentioned ‘Backwoods Backstep.’ A fellow said to me one time ‘You know, sometimes on a Saturday night we’d get a bunch of people down, get somebody with a guitar and somebody with a fiddle, and we’d roll up the rugs and throw some sawdust on the floor.’ What a cool image! I can see that. That’s an instant all-night party. When I got that picture in mind, I thought this should be the coolest, driving, rocking, fingers flying kind of song. I think the music should set the mood of the theme.
“I just write what I know. When I do that I try to make the music set the mood for that. It comes out in different kinds of styles. I’ve been exposed to a lot of different kinds of musics. You name it; I’ve been exposed to it. I grew up in the 70s, and even in eastern Kentucky we had television. So a lot of different influences go in there.
“On the first album we kind of proved we can write, and the people have accepted the singing on the album. I can write and I can sing, what better statement can a bluegrass musician make. The other thing I wanted to say with Out of the Shadows was I can out together a band, and we, as a band, can put forth a good sound, a signature sound, if you will. It was important to put out a band record if we were going to be a band.
“With this record, even though we used a few guests, the core of the record is our band. We can recreate that whole record as a band on stage. We can recreate our first project to a large extent when we step on stage. This is my sound, but it’s not my sound just because I hired great sidemen on my record. It’s my sound because I continue to look for and employ excellent musicians to help me with my music.”
Out of the Shadows featured Kevin and Debbie along with bass player Andy Todd, who has been part of Shadow Ridge the longest. “He is a solid as a rock all the way down the line, whether it’s driving the band or driving the van,” Kevin says. “His bass playing is big and full and right on top of the beat. That creates the drive of the whole sound. He also sings the third harmony part for our band.” When Shadow Ridge recorded the Valentine’s Day 1995 release the band also consisted of mandolinist Matt Mundy, lately of the Lynn Morris Band and then having just departed the alternative Aquarium Rescue Unit. He also appeared on the most recent Bela Fleck CD, Tales of the Acoustic Planet. Michael McLain of that prodigious clan was the banjo player and baritone.
“The hardest thing to deal with traveling with all the guys is when somebody leaves,” Debbie confides. “It’s hard for a woman because we’re more emotional about it. I’ve had to learn to be friends but keep in mind that it’s a business relationship as well.”
These days the Williamsons and Todd tour with two musicians who, like Kevin, have family roots in bluegrass. Banjoman Kevin Haynie is the 19 years old brother of noted fiddler Aubrey Haynie. “He can play J.D. Crowe to Bela Fleck,” brags his boss. “With our sound and the material that we’re doing, a versatile banjo player is essential. Sometimes we try to soften-up and do things with a mandolin and two guitars, and Kevin is a very accomplished guitar player who’s had some classical training.”
Williamson made a note when Haynie answered his initial phone call with a basso profundo “Hello.” “A soon as he came over to starting learning the tunes, we spent a few minutes learning bass. So consequently we now have a really good quartet all because he came to phone and said ‘Hello.’ He may regret speaking that low.” Justin Clark, nephew of the monster mandolinist Bobby Clark, handles the mandolin job.
“The image we portray should be that of a very professional bluegrass band,” Kevin states clearly. “I mean rehearsed music, thought-out music, and music that speaks to and touches the people we play to. We need to communicate to people as a band. I think when people hear me talking about having a contemporary bluegrass band and writing original material, a lot of traditionalists automatically think Kevin Williamson & Shadow Ridge are going to come in hear and start playing music they don’t understand or like. I was raised in eastern Kentucky. I have heard more Ralph Stanley sets that anybody I know. I’ve sat at the sound board for Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe, Larry Sparks. I understand what they play and incorporate that in my music. I’m certainly not a clone of them or anybody else, but I understand where the music comes from and have a great deal of respect for that. While I try to maintain a high level of professionalism and originality, I never want Shadow Ridge to forget where the music comes from.”
He sets similar exacting standards for himself as a song writer. “Bluegrass has always been music of the heart. If you can feel it and you can make other people feel it, that’s one of characteristics that has always made bluegrass great. You can see the different decades of bluegrass music you can see the themes change. I feel that in the 90s, people who write songs need to really develop their stories and pay attention to what they’re writing, and to pay attention to detail.
“If bluegrass music is going to get more airplay and more exposure on a broad scale, we don’t need to lose the heart or to not write about cabins, we just need as songwriters in bluegrass to realize that those consumers out there know the difference between a well-crafted song and a shoddily crafted song. They know good workmanship when they see it.
“One of the things that I look for in my own songs or songs I’m going to write, I’ll look at the pictures. I want the words to paint a picture like it was a Norman Rockwell painting. If the sun’s setting, I want you to see the color of the sunset. I don’t want to say ‘He shot him.’ I want you to see the passion in his eyes. I want to paint those kinds of pictures with my songs. That’s what makes it a challenge, and that’s what makes a song to me. If I listen to a song and can close my eyes and see everything that’s in that song, that’s one that’s going to move me.”
Debbie, meanwhile, has moved into the realm of solo recording artist with her Kevin Williamson-produced, Rich Adler-engineered debut. “Ernie [Knight of MidKnight Records] came to me to do this project. I felt honored to do something that he thought would sell. It gives me the opportunity to see of people are going to like what I have to offer.”
Debbie recorded 11 tracks ranging from Flatt & Scruggs material to Kevin’s songs. The current Shadow Ridge augmented by Aubrey Haynie and acclaimed Dobroist Rob Ickes backed her, with Kevin and Aubrey providing harmony vocals. “It was really cool to be involved with such wonderful musicians and working at Rich Adler’s studio is incredible. Rich makes it really easy though. It was fun. I look forward to working on another project and doing it again.”
The solo material also helps Debbie establish more of her own identity as one of the band’s two lead singers. “We’re working the songs into Shadow Ridge shows. Kevin’s trying to get me more involved with the stage show. We’re hoping to balance it out a little more with my material.”
Kevin and Debbie Williamson have entered the expanding world of working spouses in bluegrass. Not even counting full family groups, that demographic includes Lynn Morris and Marshall Wilborn, Laurie Lewis & Tom Rozum, Jan and David Harvey, Jim Mueller and Sharon Horovitch, and many others. “It’s good to see the support for women artists growing throughout the bluegrass community,” notes Debbie. “I’m really enjoying myself. I don’t get nervous except at the big festivals like Tulsa. I work hard to make every show better.”
“Our relationship and our working relationship can be a very positive influence for us,” Kevin says. “In today’s society, marriage in and of itself is of little value and has very little staying power. We feel that our marriage does say that it can work. It’s not always smooth like clockwork, but just as when I worked with Redwing my relationship with my father was always a topic of conversation. Just as that relationship was always on display, our marriage is always on display and we feel that can be a good influence on younger folks.”