Across the Winterline
Folk Era Productions, Inc.
A review written for the Folk and Acoustic Music Exchange
In baseball there is what is commonly referred to as a five-tool player, that meaning that a certain player is able to run, throw, field, hit with power, and hit with consistency. These players are also often known as "complete players," meaning that, even if they can't do any one thing better than any other player, they can do all five sufficiently well. With Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays being the archetypes, it should be obvious that these kind of players aren't found very often. Jack Williams is the musical equivalent of a five-tool baseball player. Let's call him a five-tool folk singer.
Jack Williams, though the categories may be largely arbitrary without the benefit of statistical analysis that baseball allows, excels in all the areas that make a singer-songwriter complete: writing great lyrics, playing an instrument well, possessing a fine singing voice, composing melodically pleasing songs, and being well versed in more than one style of music so as to avoid redundancy. One listen to Across the Winterline shows Jack Williams to be more than adequate in all these areas.
First of all, he's simply an outstanding lyricist. Persistent themes of nature, travel, family, love and childhood, all colored with the stoic wisdom of a true voice of experience, make Jack Williams a songwriter's songwriter. The understated charm of Run, Run, Run finds the author discovering the great transcendence of a single moment spent analyzing his surroundings. His moving tribute to poet/novelist James Dickey in The Old Buckdancer's Gone would, in the hands of lesser artist, have the potential to turn into trite sentimentalism, but here it is delivered with all the wit and charm due his friend. Introspective tracks such as the delicately stirring imagery of The Man in Me" and the more groove oriented reflection on romantic memories of childhood in Mama Lou are some of the most eloquently expressed sentiments to be heard in recent memory. Solemn narratives of small town life and quaint images of nature sound so familiar that the listener can almost walk away with the feeling of having had a conversation with Mr. Williams. In short, this is a man of considerable depth and maturity as a songwriter who can truly draw out the captivating elegance inherent in the things around him while keeping the important things of life in sight as he remembers the good times gone and those yet to come.
A second tool that Jack Williams possesses in abundance is his amazing guitar skills. The aforementioned, Run, Run, Run and The Man in Me are some of the more pleasing, and intricate, finger-picked ballads that you're likely to hear. His dexterous fingerwork also shines through in the bluesy romp of Waterbug and the semi-country- blues of A Good Heart Shows, which recalls elements of Guy Davis' fingerpicking style. If it weren't for the strength of Williams' lyrics, his accomplished guitar work would, at times, threaten to steal the show.
What might surprise new listeners the most about Jack Williams is his extremely smooth and rich tenor. Let's face it, if one thing is not a given with lesser known artists, it usually is their singing voice, as it's true to a certain extent that most singers really don't have much more to work with than what God gave him or her. Williams possesses a very suitable voice for the many styles he can pass in and out of and truly doesn't hit a sour note on any of the thirteen tracks here.
Of course, what really makes an artist great is the ability to put all the aforementioned elements together and write exceptional songs. Jack Williams knows how to craft a perfect song. He can write delicate and mournful ballads, deliver gently rolling narrative, or carry a tight groove. Truly classy mandolin, fiddle and bass support many of Jack's arrangements and the exemplary contribution of these elements is hardly an inconsequential reason this album works so exceptionally well. If any criticism can be leveled at Williams, it is that his songs might be too perfect, and however much he states in the liner notes of the recordings being off the cuff, there is not a note out of place to be found. His songs are polished and not necessarily raw in any sense, but that could be attributed more to the high quality of musicians at work and should hardly be seen as a detracting element.
Finally, Jack Williams is no one trick pony. Jumping with apparent ease from jazz influenced tracks like You're the One to the Texas swing elements in his tribute to the bread basket of American in Heartland to more straight forward country and blues elements, Williams shows himself more than capable of keeping the pace of the album from growing stale. Though echoes of all these forms can be heard, Williams really does have a distinctive sound all his own, usually with elements of all of them interacting at the same time. If musical boundaries do exist between genres, Jack Williams is all but too happy to blur them.
Five-tool singer-songwriters, like five tool baseball players, don't come around too often, and when they do, they are occasionally overlooked in favor of those who do only one thing exceedingly well. Of course, there is a lot to be said for doing one thing so well that it overshadows all the others that might be lacking, but Jack Williams in no such musician. As with all great albums, Across the Winterline unfolds with every listen as the reflections, musings, and proclamations of a man looking back from middle life and looking forward to the future reveal such universal elements that nearly every listener should be able to take something away from the experience. In the end, Across the Winterline appears to be the passionate labor of love of an artist who is embarking on middle age with the knowledge of what his place is in this world. We should all be so lucky.
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Edited by: Paula Gregorowicz