…not the Same Old Cover Tunes: The “One-Man Jam Band” talks about Grateful Grass, Rex and Reinvented Traditions
By Mary Eisenhart
“I’m one of the lucky ones who really love their job. To be able to do it and give the proceeds to worthy causes is a blessing, whether it is music or painting or carpentry or whatever.” – Keller Williams
The term “unique” seems to come up a lot in descriptions of Keller Williams, not to mention “one-man jam band.” Since the ’90s, he’s garnered a devoted following with his distinctive playing style, instruments that are often one of a kind, creative layers of looping to fill out the sound, and arrangements of cover tunes that would often surprise their authors.
Williams’ Deadhead roots frequently yield startling new offshoots — consider his classic “Gate Crashers Suck,” which starts out as an ode to the pastoral joys of Deer Creek and culminates in a burst of invective against the destroyers of the scene. Or “My Sisters and Brothers,” in which the Jerry gospel tune gets a sort of percussive island treatment and segues into something called “Boob Job.”
Beyond his one-man-band adventures, Williams is also a frequent collaborator. His 2007 album Dream featured, as the title suggests, something of a wish list of musicians: BÃ©la Fleck, Bobby Read, Bob Weir, Charlie Hunter, Derrek Phillips, Fareed Haque, Fleming McWilliams, Jeff Sipe, John Molo, John Scofield, Martin Sexton, Michael Franti, Modereko, Samir Chatterjee, Sanjay Mishra, Steve Kimock, The String Cheese Incident, and Victor Wooten. One track, “Cadillac,” a duet with Bob Weir featuring backing vocals by Weir’s dog, went on to become Song of the Year at the recent Jammys.
“It’s kind of exciting to hear Bob Weir sing the lyrics that I wrote,” Williams says, “and to be able to record it in his house is above and beyond cool. I’m so grateful to be able to sit back and listen to this record, and all the folks, my heroes, who helped me out with it.”
Among those interesting collaborations was the time he got together with SCI’s Keith Moseley and Jeff Austin of Yonder Mountain String Band for a project they called “Grateful Grass” — a 2006 concert at Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium in which the trio played Williams’ bluegrass arrangements of Dead tunes. The show was a big hit — and this year Williams and crew took it to the next level by releasing the show as a benefit download for Rex.
No stranger to community involvement, Williams plays a benefit every year on December 26 (the feast of St. Stephen) for his local no-kill animal shelter, the SPCA of Fredericksburg, Virginia.
A few weeks ago we had a chance to chat with Williams as he embarked on a summer tour with his whole family and Yonder Mountain String Band. With the shouts of frolicking children in the background, we talked about his musical philosophy and influences, as well as the making of REX: Live at the Fillmore.
Rex Foundation: You play a lot of cover tunes as well as your own material. Do you prefer covers or originals? What role does each play?
Keller Williams: I often say that I am a music lover first, a musician second, and a songwriter third. Songwriting comes further along.
I definitely play music for the love of playing music, and there are so many songs that have been written that are so incredibly good, that I wish I’d written, that I’m going to be playing other people’s music for a long time. There’s something to be said for that too, in the sense of connecting with the audience.
Rex: You cite the late Michael Hedges as an influence, especially in your playing style. Since many people reading this are probably unfamiliar with his work, can you tell us a little bit about him?
Williams: Well, to me there were a couple different sides of Michael Hedges. There was the very peaceful kind of New Age Michael Hedges, kind of walking that fine line between classical and meditation music. Then there’s the super-funky kind of Michael Hedges.
What I took from Michael Hedges stylistically were things like slapping the guitar and playing strange little harmonics and different tunings. But mainly what I took from Hedges was the whole idea of the solo show, how he was able to control the stage and the audience all by himself. I think he did that through not only his stage presence but his choice of covers.
A lot of people would go see him for the first time — people like you and me would probably bring our friends to see him — and he would play these covers that you would recognize, but they were done in a totally different way. I got a lot of that from him as well. I got so much from the guy, but I don’t cover his music. I don’t cover the songs he wrote, but I do some of the covers he did, with his arrangements. Me doing a cover of a cover–it took a long time to really admit that, but that’s exactly what I’ve done.
So many songs that he did I never liked the original, but his version was so cool. “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones; his version of “No Expectations.” I’d never heard the Rolling Stones version before I heard his version; I wasn’t that big a fan of the Rolling Stones. He played it on the harp guitar with four pre-tuned bass strings.
Like his idol, the late Michael Hedges (left), Williams seeks out unusual
instruments and sounds. Photo: Emily Williams
Rex: How did the Grateful Grass show — and the Rex benefit recording — come into being?
Williams: Well, it’s no secret I have somewhat of a teeny little unhealthy fascination with the Grateful Dead, so that accounts for a lot of my affiliation with Rex.
I’ve always played Dead covers, I’ve always been a bluegrass musician, and the two always seem to go hand in hand. It’s easy to find people who love Grateful Dead music and love bluegrass music to sit down and play with; Grateful Dead music is its own genre, and it incorporates well into bluegrass music.
The concept came together when we booked a gig at the Fillmore in Denver, which is an enormous room. It’s got that beautiful vibe of the San Francisco Fillmore, but it’s much bigger. Too big for my world, so we made it kind of a multi-band night. We had Jerry Joseph and David Schools (Widespread Panic’s bassist) play first, and then we decided to do something different and call it Grateful Grass.
I sent my arrangements of about a dozen Grateful Dead tunes to Keith Moseley of The String Cheese Incident and Jeff Austin of Yonder Mountain String Band; they knew the songs, but not the arrangements. So they listened to the tracks; then we rehearsed for about two hours and went onstage and did it.
Rex: Was it the plan at the time to make it a benefit recording?
Williams: It was a matter of being proud of it and wanting to release it, but since they were all Grateful Dead songs, it seemed logical that we release it and try to do some good with it — wanting to be affiliated with Rex and all the good they do, and knowing that the folks at Ice Nine, the Grateful Dead’s publishers, are in with the Rex Foundation.
Putting something out like this, sometimes there’s tons of politics and red tape due to licensing and royalties and recording cover songs and where the royalties need to go. But with this, it was no problem, because everyone was super cool about having me record and release this, and the profits go to Rex.
Rex: In your experience, how do music and the arts foster a sense of community and giving back?
Williams: The arts, and music in particular, offer an excellent opportunity to create community; people from all different backgrounds are joined together to enjoy something in common, so people’s walls are down. With all that good vibe, it’s a great time to rally around social causes. People want to be involved and to give back — they just don’t always want it to be political or pushed on them.
I’m one of the lucky ones who really love their job. To be able to do it and give the proceeds to worthy causes is a blessing, whether it is music or painting or carpentry or whatever.
Rex: We see you’ve got an album coming out in the fall; any tour plans around that? Any interesting future plans you’d like folks to know about?
Williams: Yeah, I’ve been playing some live shows with a band recently — Keith Moseley on bass, Gibb Droll on guitar and Jeff Sipe on drums In September we’re releasing a live recording called, well, Live. We’ll be on tour through fall, and hitting the West Coast for the first time as a group.
“I often say that I am a music lover first, a musician second, and a songwriter third. Songwriting comes further along. I definitely play music for the love of playing music, and there are so many songs that have been written that are so incredibly good, that I wish I’d written, that I’m going to be playing other people’s music for a long time.” – Keller Williams