Folk-famous

Joke’s on her: Dar Williams imagined she’d write books about natural food and play music on the side. Her career turned out to be the exact opposite, not that the well-respected singer-songwriter is complaining. Photo by Amy Dickerson

When Dar Williams (who plays Saturday at The Grey Eagle) released her debut album, The Honesty Room, in 1994, she was pretty sure any career she might have would come from writing books about natural food stores. The music thing, she imagined, would probably just be something she did on the side. She showed up for a gig in Vermont after printing copies of the album and placed her first stack of CDs on the table next to copies of the book she’d just published. She was shocked when she discovered, at the end of the night, that she’d sold two copies of the book and 15 CDs.

“I was part of the Cambridge [Mass.] folk scene,” she says, “so there were definitely people who were pursuing full-time music careers. It was happening for them, so I knew it could happen. But I’d … told myself [the book] was going to be the real bread and butter of my career.”

Within a year or two, Williams found herself on the storied stage at the Newport Folk Festival and opening for Ani DiFranco, with a record deal from Razor & Tie and a contract with Fleming & Tamulevich (one of the folk world’s finest booking agencies). Granted, the prose-writing thing would eventually come back around. She frequently contributes to The Huffington Post these days and, last year, published a guidebook titled The Tofu Tollbooth, profiling natural and vegetarian options for hard-core road warriors like herself. But, seeing her prose career flourish comes only after she’s long since become one of the most beloved singer-songwriters on the contemporary folk circuit.

“I always had this thing about not conning anybody into listening to my music,” she says of her unintentional fame. “The people I worked with early on said, ‘We’re not star-makers, we’re career-makers,’ and that’s what I wanted. The idea of being shot up a flagpole and then hitting the ground, because of the way pop careers are framed, flanking off in a what-ever-happened-to-her [sort of way] seemed really undesirable.”

So, Williams set off on a singer-songwriter career that has produced nine solo albums, a couple of live recordings and a particularly notable collaboration with Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky — Cry Cry Cry. Her songs, like “When I Was a Boy” and “The Christians and the Pagans,” have become contemporary classics, influencing 20 years of folk singers. Meanwhile, her more accessible tunes, like “I Won’t Be Your Yoko Ono” and “Spring Street,” have made it OK for fledgling folkies to dabble with a catchy chorus now and then. In other words, she’s achieved a level of notoriety that can only be known as folk-famous.

This has earned her the freedom to make music naturally, rather than trying to fit any brand strategy. Williams’ most recent release, In the Time of Gods, is a 10-song recording based on the tumult inherent in classical Greek mythology. Granted, its songs are also firmly rooted in contemporary concerns. Album opener “I Am the One Who Will Remember Everything” laments on the orphaning of Afghani children who grew up to become members of the Taliban. As she explores how their lives — and the life of the world — might have been different had all those children not been orphaned by war, she keeps her mind’s eye on Hera, the goddess of marriage, who was not at all fond of children. And so the bar is set for an incredibly rich, literary collection.

“My big joke,” she says, “was that I made the album so I could thoroughly freak out my record company. But … I’m in the habit of following [inspiration] before anyone does any kind of market research, whether it’s writing my gender song, ‘When I Was a Boy,’ or a justice song based on Athena. It always seems to spring to my mind poetically as opposed to trying to engineer what I think people will want. That has been the luxury of my career. It’s not so much that I get to choose these kooky topics because I’m twisting away off the grid. I’m used to having inspiration lead my songwriting. … I think am where I belong. That’s the only thing that’s important to me. You want your music to count, and [my music has] counted.”

— Kim Ruehl, a freelance writer living in Asheville, can be reached at kim@nodepression.com.

who: Dar Williams with Angel Snow
where: The Grey Eagle
thegreyeagle.com
when: Saturday, Dec. 7
8 p.m., all ages show, fully seated
$22 in advance/$25 day of show

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About Kim Ruehl
Kim Ruehl's work has appeared in Billboard, NPR Music, The Bluegrass Situation, Yes magazine, and elsewhere. She's formerly the editor-in-chief of No Depression, and her book, 'A Singing Army: The Life and Times of Zilphia Horton,' is forthcoming from University of Texas Press. Follow me @kimruehl

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