Imagine you’re in a Berlin nightclub and a guy with a guitar and mischievous eyes roams in with a sheaf of songs. He’s from Oklahoma by way of the world and he’s got a restive energy that is somehow soothing, as if secrets whisper to him. It’s raining fury outside but the bar is warm and the stage is lit. He frees his guitar and brushes past. Someone asks:
“What are you gonna play?”
Robert Williams’ music is the crossroads of grace and truth. He knows where the wild things are and where the quiet heart hides. A singer/songwriter since he was 19, Robert, whose influences include Woody Guthrie and Levon Helm, echoes with a wise man’s rhythms and a poet’s glee. Born in Oklahoma, where John Steinbeck immortalized the everyman’s battle against his fate, Robert is a wanderer, picking up songs along a road that stretches through the roadhouses of Kansas City and Austin to the tempting haunts of Berlin.
Since the 1970s, his style has been his own, a masterful blend of folk, blues, rock and a melodic twist of European cabaret. He played through the Cold War in West Berlin clubs such as ‘Go-In’ and ‘Folkpub.’ He became a mercurial spark in the scene, a voice in the mosaic of what once was and what was taking its place. Berlin popular music critic Peter Müller considers Robert and long-time collaborator Wayne Grajeda to be engrained in the city’s musical history, praising their musicianship, song writing and originality.
Robert’s path eventually led to Egypt where he taught linguistics at the American University of Cairo. From a distance, and in the aftermath of 9/11, Robert had provocative things to say about American exceptionalism and what tragedy had done to his native land. His first solo album, State Secrets (2004), was produced in Nashville by Bonnie Raitt Band guitarist George Marinelli Jr. In 2010, the Oklahoma Gazette named State Secrets as one of the ten most important albums of the previous decade by an Oklahoma artist:
“Williams was once on a path to be a lifetime troubadour. The he wised up. While the Oklahoma City native traded the nightlife for a professional role in Egypt, he remains one of the best songwriters to ever come out of the metro. With just two songs, ‘The Quiet American’ and ‘How Long (Till the End of the World)’, he explains the past decade better than anyone.”
Robert’s guitar and mandolin play soulful and brash. But so much of his songs are about the words. How they fit, sound, rub together; how they whirl and dance. Robert’s lyrics can take you places and bring you back with a deeper wisdom. They are small worlds of longing, wonder and intimate detail.
I was out on the road late last night, from Memphis bound for heaven
The headlights were flashing messages that were only meant for me
Telling me a man’s got to Burma Shave and that Jesus died for my sins
Well darling this must be true
Cause how else in the world could a sinner like me
End up in the arms of an angel like you
You can hear them in that Berlin nightclub when the man with the mischievous eyes and sheaf of songs steps to the mike. The crowd gathers, voices hush, the barkeep folds his rag. The first note is struck as the lights dim and rain falls hard outside the window.
Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles, CA