Coming from the country/folk tradition, songwriter David Williams crafts songs that shine with treasure – bits of the Americana lexicon that have long since been forgotten by the pop machine. The way in which he draws his music out of the past, draping the songs with styles and feelings reminiscent of a bygone era, is what matters the most. In this way, he not only entertains children and adults alike, but also educates them in the rich history of American music. Williams’ music is, almost in contradictory ways, weary with the pain of growing older and alive with the wide-eyed optimism of youth.
The new album from David Williams, “Tipping My Hat to Leonard” plays with these same contrasts, finding a space that is as eclectic as it is comforting. This is the sort of record you can sit with on a summer night on your porch, a glass of lemonade in your hand as you watch the sun set over the distant mountains (a piece of imagery that I don’t think David Williams would object to). Throughout the record, Williams pays homage to his heroes: John Prine, Tom Waits, and of course, Leonard Cohen. So if you’re inclined to those fellows as well, chances are you’ll enjoy this record.
What I like about this album is how Williams digs into the archetypes of the poet. This poet-songwriter is a legend that American culture has celebrated much over the years, and one that is indelibly connected to the folk tradition. Just think a Bob Dylan with just his guitar in hand, poised gracefully on stage in front of the masses, their ears and their hearts attuned to his every word. Never before had a songwriter and achieved such a status in society. He was the prophet imparting wisdom to the masses, hordes of people that needed answers to the desperate questions of their times.
How Williams informs and plays into these archetypes are part of the fascination of “Tipping My Hat to Leonard.” As a Nashville songwriter, Williams has seen the more aggravating effects of pop music in this country, a homogeneous style that infects all the good parts of our musical traditions and turns everything into pure commodity, literally sucking the soul out of the music we love. Country music these days is like candy; it may taste good the first, but it lacks nutrition to really feed and sustain us.
Throughout the album, Williams references a pantheon of songwriters and styles, times and places when the art form has flourished. He wonders what it would be like to have been a Tin Pan Alley crooner, meditates on the songs of his hero Leonard Cohen, and takes a fun, exploratory trip through gypsy jazz on “Who Let That Django Jazz into the Room?”
The gruff voice of Williams seems familiar and comfortable as he journeys through the world of his songs. All the treasures of country music shine through. “Little Tiny Foreign Car” embarks on a trip to Paris, and even feels a bit like early Jimmy Buffett, back when he wrote heartfelt, romantic ballads about traveling and heartache. Rolling mandolin lines add shades of color to a song full of wide-eyed wonder. Bygone days of innocence seem alive and accessible once again
On “Dead Man Feel,” though, that wounded troubadour act that Tom Waits perfected comes to the forefront. The growl of Williams’ voice adds depth to the acoustic ballad, and speaks to that contrast of suffering and optimism. “Guernica” adds similar shades of sadness to the album, a journey both hauntingly familiar and refreshingly intimate.