Twenty-something singer-songwriter Dar Williams confesses, "I'm probably getting a little more hype than I'm worth."
This becoming display of modesty is prompted by a line from a recent edition of Stereo Review; a critic there dubbed her "the Great Folk Hope." To Williams, this designation is flattering but somewhat premature. "I call myself 'folk,' and I have a little bit of a commercial eruption here and there," she concedes. "So of course people are going to say I'm 'the Great Folk Hope.' But I'm a folk singer who's been riding on the wings of a lot of other folk musicians. And I'm also within the context of folk musicians who are in general getting more airplay in a radio world that's friendlier to different kinds of music."
Such comments may be true. Nevertheless, few folkies have garnered the combination of popular acclaim and rave reviews that have greeted Williams's first two albums on the Razor & Tie imprint: 1995's The Honesty Room and her current platter, Mortal City. She's gotten so much attention, in fact, that the major-label path blazed by such crossover artists as the Indigo Girls is now open before her. She insists that she has no plans to travel in that direction, though. According to her, "There are plenty of carrots extended to me if I wanted to do the rock thing or the alternative-rock thing." But, she goes on, "that's a bogus world--so I've stuck by folk."
Fortunately, Williams's efforts within this genre are a far cry from "Puff (The Magic Dragon)." Her primary influences, she claims, are "definitely the folk rockers from the Sixties--which is not plinky-plink, sit-with-a-guitar stuff." For example, while Williams appreciates the spare, Vanguard-era releases by Joan Baez, she reveals that Baez's later discs, which sport a heavily produced sound that recalls the Byrds, Jim Croce and Carly Simon, earned more spins on her turntable.
Throughout her own work, Williams displays a poetic eye for detail and a supple, three-octave vocal range that alternates between a sometimes comically deadpan alto pitch and a feathery falsetto. These qualities are heard to good effect on "As Cool As I Am," a lyrically dense but undeniably catchy protest against the objectification of women that's Mortal City's most popular number. Addressed to a former lover of unspecified gender who apparently was fond of admiring other women in Williams's presence, the ditty dissects the kind of interpersonal game-playing that the singer calls "full of crap." She continues, "When people do that, it's all about power. Very rarely can a person say 'That woman's very beautiful' and, in this day and age, with our media culture, not have another political thing" crop up. In such instances, "there's no winning. The only way is to just get out of the relationship." The protagonist of "Cool" does just that, accompanied by the lilting but somewhat cryptic refrain "I will not be afraid of women/I will not be afraid of women."
As a writer, Williams fares best on ballads such as "This Was Pompeii," which portrays the end of an affair in terms that reference the volcano-induced fall of the fabled title city, and "Iowa (Traveling III)." At other times, she's prone to a schoolgirlish level of lyrical preciousness as on the poignant yet pointless "Crisis of a Co-ed," which is likely to appeal only to the kind of people whose weekends revolve around Garrison Keillor. Likewise, the intentionally hokey harmonies that decorate "The Christians and the Pagans" strike a neo-vaudevillian tone that is considerably more annoying than the song's overweening P.C. nature.
Still, even these tracks imply that Williams enjoyed making them--something that's less true of The Tofu Tollbooth, a sort of traveler's guide to the country's natural-food outlets that she compiled in 1993. Williams, who says the tome was inspired by a trip to an Alfalfa's market made during her first tour of the Mile High City, wrote Tollbooth at a time when she felt fairly certain that her music would never support her full-time. She adds, "I really just wanted to prove to myself that I could do something tedious." As fate would have it, though, the book's appearance virtually coincided with Honesty Room's release. Although music has been her first priority since then, she notes that she's put together an updated version of Tollbooth, for which she's seeking a publisher.
Right now, Williams is especially excited about the upcoming Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, where she'll sit on the faculty of the gathering's annual "Song School" alongside John Gorka, Greg Brown, Longmont's own Maggie Simpson and other leading folk artists. (The performers are scheduled to critique the compositions of fledgling songsmiths who have paid $200 a head for the privilege.) When asked what advice she most frequently gives aspirants under such circumstances, Williams replies, "Don't push too hard--let the talent speak for you, not your business savvy."
Artists who rely on the latter instead of the former, she believes, may squeak out "three more gigs a year at best. If you have something that people want to hear, they will find you, And things will have sort of an organic growth pattern to them."
Much like Williams's own career.
The Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, with Wolfstone, Patty Larkin, Dar Williams and the New Folks Showcase. Friday, August 23 (call 449-6007 for additional information); Dar Williams, with Richard Shindell. 8 p.m. Saturday, September 21, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, $13, 322-2308 or 800-444-
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