march 2011


The Consensus? Special.

By David McGee

down homeDOWN HOME
Josh Williams

Among many thoughts that spring to mind when considering Josh Williams’s superb Down Home album is how young but how seasoned he sounds all at once. He has a lived-in voice, but one free of ragged edges—you’ll have a hard time not thinking early Randy Travis when he sings, especially when he eases into a tender country love song such as “Dream of Me” with its loping pace, aching harmonies and strong backwoods flavor supplied by tart, to-the-point fiddle and banjo solos by, respectively, Jason Carter and Aaron McDaris. Though Williams was surely proud to have the help of virtuosos on the order of Carter and McDaris, he reminds us on his sprightly “Cherokee Shuffle” instrumental that he can flat burn it up himself on guitar, mandolin and banjo, all of which he plays with impeccable precision and a generous amount of heat, leaving the exuberant fiddle work this time to one Stuart Duncan.

But then the über-talented Josh Williams has logged the mileage and played enough music for someone considerably older than his 30 years. That will happen when you start recording at age 10; and by age 12 are on Nickelodeon’s “Nick News,” fronting your own band (Josh Williams & High Gear) and recording as “The Bluegrass Youth All-Stars” with the likes of Michael Cleveland and Chris Thile. All this in advance of joining the respected Special Consensus in 1999 as a fiddle and mandolin player, then move on to a 2003-2007 tenure as the guitarist in Rhonda Vincent’s Rage. For good measure he also plays selected dates with one of his musician heros, Tony Rice, as part of the Tony Rice Unit, and has been known to show up with the Randy Kohrs Band and the Traveling McCourys.

Josh Williams performs Jimmy Martin’s ‘The Last Song’ at ROMP 2010 in Owensboro, KY, June 25, 2010. ‘The Last Song’ is the last song on Williams’s new Down Home album.

Down Home is the third of Williams’s solid solo albums, but it arrives on Rounder two years after it was slated for release on Pinecastle, home of his 2000 and 2005 solo outings, only to fall through the cracks when the label shut down. Thanks goodness for Rounder, then, for not letting music this good gestate any longer. Down Home is one of the best bluegrass albums of this young year, and it might well be considered one of the best country albums, too, if mainstream country were still interested in artists like Josh Williams.

Josh Williams and band perform Michael Martin Murphey’s ‘Carolina In the Pines’ on May 23, 2009 at the Coleman Theatre in Miami, OK, hometown of Oklahoma University Heisman Trophy winner Steve Owens.

No matter, Williams has fashioned something really special here. In addition to the all-star musician lineup gathered around him, he’s chosen an appealing batch of songs of varying temperaments, from sources both contemporary and classic (Jimmy Martin, Homer Joy, Tom T. & Dixie Hall). Every album has its own personality, and Down Home’s is friendly and engaging but not without some grit. The Halls explore a couple’s determination to stay together in troubled times in the strutting “We’ll Burn That Bridge,” a concept Williams sells with an earnest vocal on which he is joined in harmony by Jamie Dailey and Darren Vincent and gets some nice atmospherics from Aaron McDaris’s banjo and his own mandolin interjections. Warm memories spurred by a box of old family photos is the subject of Steven Paul Spurgeon’s easygoing reflections in “Kodak 1955,” which has a Statler Brothers feel in its nostalgic reverie and deeply held feelings for family and friends, and, though mightily tender and nuanced, Williams’s vocal gets a harmony lift in the choruses when Rhonda Vincent helps it soar onto a higher emotional plane. He has a splendid time charging hard through Homer Joy’s classic “Streets of Bakersfield” with an energy surge emanating from Doug Jernigan’s lively pedal steel flourishes, Jason Carter’s tasty, agitated fiddling and Kenny Ingram’s propulsive banjo work. Relentless in attack and ambitiously widescreen in feel, "Stealing Away," Darren Wilcox’s confession of being deliriously consumed by his love for the girl of his dreams, finds the singer’s excitement mirrored by the electrifying sprint of the instruments around him—Greg Cahill’s cascading, impossibly fleet flurry of banjo notes kicking off the track is arresting enough, but Cahill gets a run for his money after the first verse when Williams (mandolin) and Jernigan (pedal steel) set up his next solo with their own sparkling, speed-picked statements in an infectious outburst of high spirits. After having some deeply harmonized fun with Rhonda Vincent on the bluegrass polka—yes—of “Polka On the Banjo,” Williams goes out on Jimmy Martin’s “The Last Song,” a toe-tapper of a tune about the addictive nature of music making that Williams puts his stamp on with a swinging, good natured vocal buttressed by the brisk soloing of Kenny Ingram on banjo and Greg Blaylock on resophonic guitar advocating for another day on the bandstand. What to say to that but “let it be”?

Josh Williams’s Down Home is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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