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Folksy is as folksy does

by Wren Wertin
Dar Williams has mastered the art of drawing a bigger picture out of slice-of-life details. She comes to Colorado next week.
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Some people call it Lyons, others Planet Bluegrass.

The folks at the Planet are responsible for a series of music festivals, including Rockygrass and the Festival of the Mabon, which they host at their festive grounds in Lyons. They also organize the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

From Aug. 15-17, the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival descends. To celebrate the thirteenth year of festival-hood, all the headliners are Grammy nominees and winners. Dar Williams, still riding the critical success of her latest album, “Beauty in the Rain,” comes as part of a larger tour that includes five other dates in Colorado.



After vacationing in Alaska, she spent some time via the phone with the Vail Daily.

Williams has been a regular on the East Coast circuit for years. The singer-songwriter has a clear voice that believes her own lyrics. She’s put out five solo full-length albums, one as a part of a trio, and been featured on compilations. Listening to her body of work from start to finish, her work has gone from a folk orientation to a pop one. Does she agree?



“To me, the question is: does my music matter to me or does it not?” she said. “It can be folk or pop as long as it’s good. … I’m a folk musician in so far as I believe in the power of music and lyrics, and you can do a lot in three chords.”

The albums

But she doesn’t want to be boxed in. Her first two albums, “Honesty Room” and “The Mortal City,” offered track after track of quintessential coffeehouse folk. Songs like “The Babysitter’s Here” and “The Christians and the Pagans” offered insights into bigger pictures behind slice-of-life images. “As Cool As I Am,” a jubilant tale of a woman going from fearful player to self-assured being, offered a peek into what was to come later down the road.



When she came out with “End of the Summer,” things started to change. There were more layers, more instrumentation.

“There was a shift with it, and I liked the shift,” she explained. “I said I wanted the vocals to float out, I wanted to make a beautiful record. I love beautiful production, like Elvis Costello, Tori Amos, Sarah McLaughlin, even the really produced stuff of Simon and Garfunkle.”

“I think you just become yourself more,” she added.

She’s justifiably wary of the question: folk or pop? The world pounced on Liz Pharr for admitting to wanting to reach a particular audience demographic. Pop has always been synonymous with selling out, perhaps because it’s usually industry-driven rather than grassroots, community-supported.

“The folk world has splintered a lot,” she said. “And somebody has given me this incredible insight. He says some of the folk networks that really helped nurture my career are nurtured by audiences in the social services and do a lot in the volunteer world. There’s been a lot of demoralization of human and social services, and those people were the ones who understood how important it was to have community-based music programs.”

Either way, Williams’ music is getting stronger. “End of the Summer” offered such stand-outs as “Are You Out There,” and “Teenagers Kick Our Butts,” rich with a combination of angst, hope and musical diversity. “The Green World” is a great listen from start to finish. “I Won’t Be Your Yoko Ono” dispels any notion of her wanting to endear herself to pop audiences only, as it champions Ono’s perspective in her relationship with John Lennon. Finally, “Beauty of the Rain” follows down the same path, further into the landscape.

The process

One thing that’s remained a constant through her metamorphosis of sound is the quality of her songwriting. Williams is always able to paint a bigger picture behind the smaller details.

“I feel very lucky over the years to have slowed my eye down enough,” she explained. “In my mid-20s every other thought was, is this right or wrong? As I progressed, a lot of that fell away. I was able to say, “There’s no punctuation there, this is who I am.’ I look at somebody’s hands or earrings, flowers and fields … but it doesn’t become the lightning bolt of a song unless there’s some sort of important thing behind it. The details coalesce into a story that reflects, at the end of the day, a bigger story.”

Lately, she half shades the picture, leaving bits and pieces in shadows, letting the listener fill it in.

“I don’t think the process has changed, but I have,” said Williams.

Lou Reed’s “A Perfect Day” is a model for what she’s striving for, she said. Though it’s description after description, the song alludes to self loathing, and then leads back to a longing for redemption. She’s enjoying the blank spaces between lines.

“Sometimes it feels like laziness and sometimes maturity,” said the songwriter.

In 1998, she, Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell put out “Cry Cry Cry,” an album meant as a tribute to the folk artists who were touring in the ’80s and ’90s, who had been influenced by “everything from traditional folk music to post-modern literature.” And so Michael Stipe’s work kept company with the songs of James Keelaghan, Buddy Mundlock, Julie Miller and Robert Earl Keen.

“We wanted to call ourselves the Harmony Whores, but nobody would let us,” said Williams, laughing.

They have no plans to resurrect the trio, as they are all entrenched in their own careers. Instead, Williams hopes another trio will take the baton and put out another “Cry Cry Cry” album.

Another shift?

Many of Williams’ songs deal with a person trying to remain true to herself in the context of a relationship. A newlywed, this might be a harbinger of another shift to come.

“I don’t think the songs will change much,” she said, laughing. “My husband and I were both single for so long, both dated so many people, we’re single people who got married. It is working out for us and we’re really happy. In some ways we were born to be together, and in other ways we have to do a lot of work.”

And she’s still interested in many of the same things:

“That icky power abuse that happens, that adults can betray you, your friends can betray you and you can betray yourself.”

And putting that into music that’s not heavy or depressing is a gift, one Williams has. For more information on the musician, visit her Web site at http://www.DarWilliams.com, or the Planet Bluegrass site at http://www.bluegrass.com.

Aug. 15

Noon Gates open-

12:15 – 2 p.m. Folks Showcase-

2:10 -3 p.m. Billy Jonas-

3:15 – 4:15 p.m. Maggie Simpson-

4:30 – 5:30 p.m. The Nields

5:45 – 7 p.m.Chris Robinson

7:15 – 8:30 p.m. Patty Griffin

9 – 10:30 p.m. Warren Haynes

Aug. 16

10:30 – 11:30 a.m. Dan Sheridan

11:45 a.m. – 12:45 p.m. Richard Julian

1 – 2:15 p.m.Christine Kane

2:30 – 3:45 p.m. Darrell Scott-

4 – 5:15 p.m. Utah Phillips

5:45 – 7 p.m. Dar Williams

7:15 – 8:30 p.m. Greg Brown

9 – 10:30 p.m. Norah Jones

Aug. 17

11:30 – 12:30 Mindy Smith

12:45 – 2 Vance Gilbert

2:15 – 3:30 Xavier Rudd

3:45 – 5-Todd Snider

5:15 – 6:30 Alice Peacock

6:45 – 8 Richard Thompson

8:30 – 10 Indigo Girls

Dar on tour:

Aug. 12:

Grand Junction

Plaza in Mountain Village

Aug. 13

Telluride

Sunset Concert Series

Aug. 14

Aspen

Jazz Aspen Snowmass

Aug. 16

Lyons

Rocky Mountain Folk Festival

Aug. 17

Boulder

Boulder Theatre

Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at wrenw@vaildaily.com or phone at 949-0555, ext. 618.


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