Who are the greatest singing duo, ever? Jan and Dean? The Everly Brothers? Simon and Garfunkel?
We will have to narrow it down: the greatest male and female singing duo? Sonny and Cher? Dolly Parton and Porter Waggoner? Dollar?
Of course, you’d have to keep narrowing that down until you got to a highly personal classification so in the end it is a meaningless question to ask broadly. Obviously.
But I’d go for Gillian Welsh and Dave Rawlings. There is a perfection in the vocal harmonies they possess - and the guitar of Rawlings, and the songwriting of Welsh, add that extra element of distinction. In the musical genre I am thinking about, they are the template, and many have tried to follow. Forgetting the move to a gender-specific category, the Milk Carton Kids have come close – even down to the guitar style – but they are not a patch, in the end. Then there is the proliferation from that template: The Civil Wars a good example. They too possess a perfection, but that overall becomes too twee; too precise. Whilst I’ve never seen them live I have heard them live and that is where they sound more genuinely dynamic. There are other less ‘pretty’ pairings that possess spark, but this could be an endless pursuit.
Husband and wife duo Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams have just released their first joint offering and this will suffice as an example of an excellent pairing. In my fathomless musical ignorance, these two are, apparently, highly experienced and highly regarded in their respective performance and production careers, though they have never recorded like this together, until now. And it is a fine album. There is sweet harmony, and it is often pretty, but it is never cloyingly pretty. There are harder edges as well, and this comes from both the range of music, some quite rocky and/or brashly Country, but also the vocal contrasts: Larry having a rawer tone to Williams’ more refined one. They harmonise with great skill and effect, but they also just sing along together with energy and verve.
One of the truly great songs on the album is Down on My Knees, Larry starting the song sounding like Clapton singing a Clapton song, and when Teresa joins in it is a mellow, mellowing harmony. Another gem is Another One More Time, this time Teresa leading and then Larry joining [with Amy Helm] with comforting harmony, this sounding like an Emmylou Harris track.
There’s spunk and spark in the cover of Rev Davis’ Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning, Williams demonstrating the equal strength of her sass to her sweetness. Phew! The album closes on the Dead’s Attics of My Life, a gospel-esque, gorgeously harmonising rendition with Amy Helm helping again. This goes beyond ‘pretty’ because it rouses with the inherent emotion in the beauty of the singing. Wow!