There’s no shortage of bands mining the same strain of gothic prairie music to which Christian Williams has laid claim—bands with synthetic twangs and a nagging fascination with the dark side of the heartland. Few, however, have the nerve to go about it so plainly. On his fifth album, Thirty Minutes with Christian Williams, Williams digs into bluegrass in its most basic form, shedding all layers of mannered affectation to create a work that’s enormously affecting in its simplicity. To the legions of guy-and-a-guitar albums, he adds one that’s mostly about a man and his banjo.
This no-frills approach is refreshing because it gives the banjo, a fascinating instrument that’s usually a supporting player, lots of room to breathe. Williams uses this space to pluck, strum, and race, in speeds that range from blindingly fast to a lazy crawl. The effect is reminiscent of Roy Acuff, Jimmie Rodgers, or countless other early country pioneers, artists who seemed to record in voids populated only by them and their instruments. The only thing missing is the pops and crackles.
Thirty Minutes is not a perfect album. Williams’s voice is often strangely toneless and his lyrics tend toward the sappy when dealing with specific emotion, as in the album closer “Born Again.” But in its bareness, the album achieves a rare kind of elegance that exceeds the sum of its scant parts. This is typified by tracks like “To the Stars,” a short instrumental piece propped up on a repeating melody that, at less than two minutes in length, doesn’t amount to much. Nevertheless, the song is breathtaking in a quiet way, typifying an album whose simplicity resonates well beyond its range.