Toledo, Ohio artist Chuck Williams (who works out of the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts & Buzzards Bay) is a formidable traditional singer-songwriter who has been around the barn more than once. If an older style folk-roots collection is your forte you won’t go wrong with Chuck. His latest, “Stories I’ve Told,” is just that -- traditional. Eleven song stories that start with “Backyard Oak Tree,” – a mandolin (Steve Folino) rich tale sung in a Townes Van Zandt-Steve Goodman style. For those unfamiliar with Chuck, he has opened for Cheryl Wheeler, Kelly Joe Phelps, Steve Forbert, and Jimmy LaFave, among others.
Chuck’s approach is typically relaxed, at times sentimental and always confident. He is not a folk artist with heavy political leanings in his songwriting such as Joan Baez, Phil Ochs or U. Utah Phillips. However, what Chuck has mastered is how to pull at Americana heartstrings and tell rootsy stories through his simple and effective novella type lyrics. Nothing is overproduced or played with flash. Chuck has a personable singing style and it's not done to impress but express.
“Pawn Shop,” is like a Neil Young ballad from his more countrified repertoire. Chuck’s voice is far warmer and sincere than Neil. There’s fiddle (John Kirk) that supports the tale and combined with Chuck’s acoustic guitar the song is fuller than you would think since there are no drums, keyboards or brass. Songs like this can be compelling and powerful. It’s like an older man singing some old philosophical song that gives you room for reflection.
Despite the lack of an in-your-face band Chuck’s musicians are nonetheless diversified and perform with precision. Chuck’s songs are at home on the radio, or on the back porch. Listeners who know the value a good relationship with their grandparents will understand his tune “Grandad Always Told Me.” At times, it seems, it’s the grandparent who offers the wisest advice to a child. Since they are older and closer to the grave – older people seem to be in their formative and regressive years – which lends them to experience a second childhood with their grandchildren. It gives them a chance to right the wrongs or misgivings they experienced with their own children. They're not burdened by having to go to work, pay the rent or mortgage or fix the house -- which always takes precious time away from a child. And sadly, because parents don't really have a sense of time -- don't realize they are ignoring their children's. “You can do anything you want to…” is a strong hook to a child who is overwhelmed by life. Many parents would say get a good job that pays well and has good benefits. Not the grandparents. Not now. Their dreams may have dissipated and their view of life now goes for the gold ring.
That introduction to adulthood in small doses is always the business of the elderly. They have nothing to lose by surrendering their wisdom to a child they love. Chuck has captured that in this simple song.
Chuck segues to hoboes and small-town life – he adds railroads and colorful characters. This song reminds me of something Boxcar Willie or Freddy Fender would record. It has a maturity to it and we all know someone who may be a personality in a Chuck song. I think Chuck would be at home with an Arlo Guthrie or Hamilton Camp to sing along with.
Hoboes are a special breed – they are a group of people who may be technically homeless and probably undocumented since they have no address. But, they are not without family. Family meaning people who care about them and may not be related to them. These are the lost souls of the road. But are they truly "lost?"A family that may be on the road, in the valleys, on the prairie, riding freight trains -- don’t be fooled they still exist. “Riders of the Rails,” is this story.
Chuck isn’t going to take country radio by storm with these songs but there is an audience for this type of reminiscing, with homegrown memories. Not all lives are lived with the comfort of a roof over their head and a case of Pepsi in the fridge. They are lived richly in their own special way. “The Other Side,” is poignant. And you would think country radio would dedicate its day programming to modern country but late at night – this is the place where many people listen before drifting off to sleep. They could appreciate songs like this. Or, maybe early in the morning on a Sunday – just before greeting the new day these songs would be perfectly suited before the harder pop-oriented country begins to sweeten the airwaves.
I remember years ago having to read to a group of children. One looked at me and said something that stayed with me. A young boy of maybe eight with a wondrous face. He simply watched me go through some books and he said in his little voice, “tell me a story.”
I knew when he said that I had an appreciative audience...even if it was only one. It could easily apply to anyone who is about to listen to a Chuck Williams song. You know he's going to tell you a story.
“Country Queen,” is a pleasant upbeat melody with wonderful accompaniment. Dock Murdock’s dobro is like the sugar in strong coffee. You may wince a little on the first sip but once it goes down it’s so refreshing. Now, I am not entirely certain, but I have to assume some of these songs have been lived by Chuck. Not simply made up at a kitchen table or out in the garage. I say that because he sings each with authority and emotion.
I am familiar with Chuck’s material from previous years and he always seems successful when he rummages through his bag of songs and comes up with a collection of interesting tales. “Hard Road,” is something Woody Guthrie or U. Utah Phillips would have enjoyed performing as well. Not everything folk-Americana has to be about politics and worker’s struggles. There are approachable topics that can make a song such as this interesting without the venom. Truckers will appreciate this tale. The United States is a big, big country and it’s rich with outdoor stories of its people, places and years that have passed. It takes a troubadour like Chuck to lend it all some sincerity.
“Seeds and Stems Again Blues,” starts with a harmonica and acoustic guitars. Williams’ voice is in a different tone. A sadder hue, a little more intense and perhaps a little more recollective of the hippie years. It’s all nostalgia but it’s warm nostalgia on a pensive pathway. This song features a fuller band and Williams shines in the glow of a campfire. There’s a tint of New York roots singer-songwriter Jim Lampos. His material too could be played side by side with satisfaction.
Artists such as Justin Bieber and even Taylor Swift will never know what it’s like to sing something with a deeper meaning. Maybe with time, they will have something more serious to sing about. Maybe they will realize they can do more than just sing something that has the shelf-life of white bread.
A little more on the ethereal side is “Aphrodite.” Fred Miller provides a flute and Steve Folino provides mandolin. Chuck is not always in a straight ahead mode of folk. He stretches boundaries with his interpretations. If nothing else, many of the tunes in this collection are memorable. They may, for some, require some repeated listens but it’s all there. For a folk singer, Chuck is never at a loss for words. His lyrics, at times, are rural poetry. Poetry of the forests, roads, farmlands, prairie and if there’s a touch of fantasy – in the hands of Chuck Williams it will work as a folk song. Folklore has always been a big part of European folk music in Ireland, England, and Scotland. I hear a Bob Dylan covering this. I don’t know why but it just has an early Dylan mystique about it. The song is rooted in some of the heavier tunes of bands like Seatrain, Pure Prairie League, and Hot Tuna.
Upbeat is “Higher You Climb,” and it’s finally – a topical song about joblessness. Crying about it? No. There’s a determination in Chuck’s voice and an optimism. “I’ve got no money, but I’ve got time…” “I’m down, but I’m not out…” You can almost hear the sarcasm of a Randy Newman in this. If there’s a delightful song in this collection, despite the subject matter – this is it.
“Dear Mom,” is a difficult listen. But we will -- because eventually, we all go through this heartbreak of losing a mother and despite it – we still have a need to talk to her.
This is probably the strongest and most poignant of all the tracks. Few songwriters go into this realm. It's too close to the heart. Singer Rick Springfield, of all people, wrote a song about the death of his father and what he did to get comfort. Rick sang that he would climb up into his father’s chair and he would be at ease. A lost jewel of a song buried on one of Rick's albums --“My Father’s Chair.”
My own grandmother once told me when she was over 90 that she was not scared to die. But then she said, "Johnny, I know you see an old woman but inside this body – I am still 17 years old." I never forgot that. That led to a song-poem years later with a band I was performing with and composed as “Deep as a Century's Long.”
We all have these kinds of songs buried inside us whether we are songwriters or not. But when we hear a song like “Dear Mom,” it penetrates the soul, the pores in your skin and floats around in the ether of your imagination. We are not alone in our loss and fortunately, some people like Chuck Williams have the forum to bring it to our ears and express it for us. This song is quite excellent. Will radio play it? Of course not. Will someone play it dozens of times at home when they are alone -- who knows the music of Chuck Williams? I'd bet on it.
Chuck didn’t write every song – there was a team of songwriters who assisted him. Chuck’s band is The One Night Stand Band – and they are all proficient in their performance. The album is a four-panel color CD designed by Paula Mailloux at Bongo Beach Productions. The collection was Produced by John Mailloux and Chuck Williams and recorded in Westport, MA.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review/commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as a reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.
John Apice / No Depression / April 2018