By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
"They're hippies!" says my friend when I attempt to convince him that Victoria Williams and Mark Olson have the antidote to our culture's malaise. And granted, after the sixth national-magazine profile featuring Olson, Williams, their dogs, and insights on healthful living, their love story does start to sound more like the gear-grind of the Atlantic Records star-making machine than a cosmic herald of deliverance. Yet, after some investigation, one can't help but be persuaded that these two have a message worth a listen and a lifestyle worthy of a pamphlet.
Among Jayhawks fans still peeved at the band's post-Tomorrow the Green Grass split, it's not uncommon to hear "Victoria Williams" and "Yoko" muttered in the same breath. And it's true that when Williams and Olson met, while sharing a bill on a cross-country tour, Olson often jumped the 'Hawks' bus to ride in her cramped car, and frequently ditched his posse to explore small towns or take in roadside creeks. Today, the pair carries on a decidedly rural version of John and Yoko's mid-'70s iconoclasm--exploring, dipping, making music, and jettisoning external pressures to live the good life at their tiny cottage in Joshua Tree, California.
"We'd never bought a house before," says the 38-year-old Williams, whose inspired loopiness suggests she might ditch out for a game of hopscotch should this interview with her and hubby Mark become too dull. "We got this five acres for $10,000. It was like a play house to learn in, plant some trees and water 'em, build a swimming pool." That pool, dug by Olson, is a concession to Williams's multiple sclerosis (the diagnosis of which spurred pals like Eddie Vedder, Dave Pirner, and Lou Reed to cover her songs for 1995's Sweet Relief benefit).
In their kitchen, garden herbs are mixed into medicinal teas, and the quest for a natural MS remedy has led Williams as far as bee-sting therapy. "And," she adds, "I smoke pot," which she uses legally as a resident of California. That rankles Ma back home in Louisiana. "My mother has glaucoma really bad," says Williams. "So, I asked her, 'Mom, why haven't you tried pot, 'cause people say pot's good for that,' and she said, 'I'd rather die.'"
Williams's birth ties to the Deep South are hewn throughout her excellent new album Musings of A Creekdipper. "Wish I could fly/ and see everyone I love in the blink of an eye," she sings on the album's centerpiece, "Grandpa in a Cornpatch." That sense of sacred space colors the album, and many of its best songs were written and recorded in the couple's living room.
"I was like, why do we want this stuff in the house? We spend enough time in studios," says Olson, explaining his initial distaste for the encroachments of home-based music making. Yet, he soon changed his tune, and eventually ended up recording the whole of his countrified, self-distributed Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers in the living room of their TV-less home, with Williams and fiddler-pal Mike "Razz" Russell. Having had his fill of producer/auteurs back in his Jayhawk days, Olson insists that his stripped-down approach to living-room recording has been bettered by a process that involves "trying to forget a little bit more all the time."
By contrast, the final mixes of Williams's big-sounding fourth album were shepherded through Daniel Lanois's Teatro studio by producer/friend Trina Shoemaker, who gives spare, yet epic, treatment to its Tin Pan Alley-worthy folkcraft. With a voice that's half blithe kindergartner and half herbalized Rickie Lee Jones, Williams hasn't ever compromised on quirk. But these days her whimsy is tinged with some gravity, and to wonderful effect. For Creekdippers, Williams limited her usual swirl of guest players to an intimate few, and played many of the orchestral bits herself on chamberlain, a mellotron-like device that was the analog prototype for the samplers of today. Tracks span from "Train Song," a funky shout-out to the caboose, to "Periwinkle Sky," a cloudgazing daydream set to reverberant piano swells, to "Hummingbird," a sweetly square yet danceable love song written by Olson that appears on his record as well.
Both albums mull the effects of change and aging and the blessings and curses of memory. In his "Valentine King," Olson vents frustration at seeing his grandfather in a nursing home. The song describes a party where patients were gussied in the garb of a silly royal court. "On Valentine's Day they put a crown on his head," he recalls. "It made me mad, and I wrote that song. I wasn't mad at anybody. I was mad at life." On Musings, Williams's powerful pastiche "Grandpa in a Cornpatch" laments and celebrates the passage of time.
"Yeah, music for the elderly," Olson, drawls, considering one of their many shared song themes. "Sure, we're around each other a lot, we talk a lot." He even goes as far as to hint that their next joint project--a recording of Williams's growing list of children's songs--may take their reflections on age to the opposite extreme.
Olson pshaws the suggestion that he's got an inspiring romance going, but he won't accept the culture's prevailing cynicism either. His matter-of-fact secret to happiness? "It's just wanting to get together with somebody and make it work." Pretty basic stuff.