An Hour Before Daylight is the third release from Richmond, VA-based singer/songwriter Rob Williams. Like his previous two albums, it offers all-original material plus one carefully chosen cover — in this case, it’s a briskly rhythmic rendition of Lucinda Williams’s “Blue.” His sound is rough but warm, full of turns and twists through a soundscape of folk, rootsy rock, Americana twang, and Williams’s original touches, unbound by genre. His stories lead us to places that feel familiar and timeless. Places that stretch as high as hope can go (“Icarus Dreamt”) or just a whisper away from someone who’s spent too many sad nights on that barstool next to yours (“Broken”).
And not just to those places but also to the triumphs and, yes, the failures of people who lived there or were just passing through. Some of them are beyond our reach — the miners who perished underground in “Butte, Montana, 1885,” an ancestor from impossibly long ago in “Lucy, You’re Lovely,” ourselves as children in “Hide And Seek.” Yet Williams makes the past a living presence, its lessons undimmed by time.
Here, too, his two come together as one. “This album is much more about history than anything I’ve ever done,” Williams insists. “People who love history have that skill of relating the past to the present, whether in how they see the world or how they write about it in music or words. It becomes easier to immerse yourself in a character and become that character in a song.”
That works for Williams because, having lived mostly in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia, he learned to let his mind roam freely from place to place, era to era, and come back with a few new songs as souvenirs. Music fascinated both him and his older sister Leslie from the start, but where she concentrated on building strong classic-rock chops on guitar, Rob was drawn more to writing. He grew up listening to the classic artists his older siblings loved -- the Beatles, the Stones, and even John Prine. At the time he started doing original music in local clubs, his taste migrated toward the music of R.E.M. and The Replacements. For a while he fronted a band called Joe Buck Jr., whose members were a shifting gathering of friends.
Switching primarily to a solo format accelerated his development as a writer and folks like Rhett Miller, Jason Isbell, and Josh Ritter spoke to the songwriter in him. Backed by Joe Buck Jr. alumni, he released A Place In The Sun in 2013 under his own name. As an experiment, Williams didn’t share his new songs until right before each session. “I didn’t want anyone to overthink their parts,” he explains. “I think it worked out pretty well.”
In December 2015, he followed with Southern FM, this time taking his experiments a step further by leaving Richmond and tracking in Dallas with musicians he didn’t know. “That left a strong enough impression on me that I decided to do it again for the next record. But I wanted a little more control this time, so I rehearsed in advance with some people, including my sister, and then we went up to Great North Sound Society, this studio in an old house in the foothills of southern Maine.”
For eight days, amidst trees and open spaces, they got inside each song, found its heart and brought it to life. Along with the ones triggered by events of the past, Williams presented works that were more candidly autobiographical than anything he’d done previously (“The Old North State”) — or sounded like they were (“Don’t Want To Love You”). He spun complex narratives (“Rhythm Of The Sunset”) and challenged the hypocrisies of our era (“Tired And Poor”). And then he bade farewell with “Goodnight, Illinois,” which ends with a return to his prescription for fearlessness when fear seems to be the only option: “The road we walk down is not the only there is to know, so many times I’ve been told. But if that’s wrong, we’ll be wrong one more time.”