New voice in bluegrass music is hitting all the right notes Singer: Debbie Williamson didn't set out to be a performer, but with her first solo album due out this summer, she is beginning to make her mark.

June 09, 1996|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

When Debbie Williamson was a kid, growing up in Ceredo, W.Va., just across the Big Sandy River from Ashland, Ky., she never dreamed that she'd be a bluegrass singer one day.

"I've sung all my life, back home in church, and in choruses all the way through college," she says. "But I was never on stage until about three years ago."

But the Nashville-based singer who grew up in the a cappella Church of Christ tradition is learning fast.

This summer, Williamson's first solo album -- "Weepin' Willow Blues" -- is being released by Mid-Knight Records, a small label based in Greensboro, N.C.

The first single, "Love Among The Dandelion," written by her husband, Kevin, is being distributed by Prime Cuts of Bluegrass, a music sampler service based in Keokuk, Iowa, to 380 disc jockeys whose programs are heard on 1,050 radio stations in the United States and Canada.

Kevin Williamson wrote or co-wrote five of the album's 11 songs.

"I like songs that I can feel," Debbie Williamson says. "I want to convey what I'm feeling to an audience. And Kevin's songs paint a lot of pictures."

Williamson has one of those voices -- as clear and shocking as an icy mountain stream -- that cuts through the clutter and makes listeners pay attention. With the right breaks, she has star potential.

But just a few years ago, the doors of bluegrass wouldn't have been open for someone like her. She's a vocalist, not a musician. And bluegrass still leans heavily toward instrumentation.

"Vocalists were taboo in the past," Williamson says. "One magazine reviewed the band and didn't even mention me."

But times are changing.

A handful of powerful singers are beginning to make their mark in bluegrass today without playing an instrument -- Jana Dolonkova of Slovakia, Irina Surina of Russia, Eugene Wolf, Marie Burns, Maura McCabe and Margaret Archer Bailey among them.

"It's still fairly unusual," says Nancy Cardwell of the International Bluegrass Music Association in Owensboro, Ky. "Bluegrass is a very utilitarian music. Everybody pulls their own weight. And for financial reasons, most bands can't afford to add a vocalist. But occasionally, you get a vocalist who makes it worthwhile."

Williamson, 25, is also part of a new breed of bluegrass musicians who didn't grow up with the music. Although her father was a country musician when she was child, Williamson grew up listening to rock and roll. "After the rock stations started playing rap, I gave up and went to country music," she says.

When she started dating Kevin Williamson, now her husband of almost five years, Williamson began listening to bluegrass for the first time. "I'm more into the newer groups than the older styles," she says.

Her husband, a second-generation bluegrass musician, started his own band, Shadow Ridge, four years ago. A year later, Debbie Williamson began touring with the band, singing harmony.

Gradually, Williamson has taken a bigger role in the band's show as her repertoire has increased.

For information about "Weepin' Willow Blues," write Ernest Knight Jr. at Mid-Knight Records, Box 20506, Greensboro, N.C. 27405. Phone (910) 674-2299.

Pub Date: 6/09/96

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