It’s summer festival season, so it’s time for everyone’s favorite musical jester and acoustic one-man band Keller Williams to hit the road for another fun-filled run around the nation. Besides his regular one-man assault shows, he is working with The Hillbenders for a series of shows featuring acoustic reworkings of Tom Petty songs they’ve dubbed “Pettygrass.” Never one to slow down, Keller also has a new record he is polishing up that should be released in mid-October and dates in all four corners of the country and points between—including a highly anticipated performance at LOCKN’ this August with both Keller & The Keels and Keller Williams’ Grateful Gospel.
With all this fun about to kick off, we thought we would chat with Keller Williams once again to hear his thoughts on working with the Hillbenders and honoring the late Petty, his newest addition to his incredible catalog, and how he deals with talkers at his shows. Enjoy!
L4LM: We like to check in with you whenever we hear you have a new album in the works. I guess we will be in business forever because you just never stop making new music.
Keller Williams: Well, there’s no backup plan. I’ve gotta keep making them, so there will always be something to document.
L4LM: I believe this is your 189th album, correct?
KW: Negative. [laughs] No, maybe my 189th song… Actually, I think we’re in the mid-twenties now.
L4LM: You usually have a core concept for your work. What is it for this new record?
KW: This is the first attempt at creating an instrumental record, and a lot of these songs are ones I have been playing for twenty years but have never seen a bass line or a drum part. It’s really fun to revisit these songs and make them new again by adding different parts while staying true to the arrangement.
L4LM: Good idea. The fans get studio versions of songs they have been hearing for years, and you get basically a freebie album.
KW: It’s more like an attempt to release an album of music like the stuff I usually listen to. The music that I play and release is often different than the music I listen to, strangely enough. I’ve been listening to electronic music for the past fifteen years or so. This is moving forward in my tongue-in-cheek idea of making acoustic dance music. This is acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, and lots of groovy loops, samples, and live percussion. Basically, I’m trying to create a mixture of acoustic music and dance music, but using the acoustic guitar as the meat—the main ingredient.
L4LM: Have you got one of your patented one-word names for this new disc figured out yet?
KW: Record To Dance To As Well As Talk Over, maybe? There’s some music you really need to listen to and be able to get it, you know? This one you can actually talk over and understand it. It should be out in mid-October, and it would be perfect for a groovy barbeque.
L4LM: Speaking of talking over, as a primarily acoustic playing artist, how do you deal with how chatty folks can be at shows, particularly upfront?
KW: One thing that works for me is to take the dynamics of a song down. A lot of time people are trying to talk over the music, so if you take the dynamics of the music itself down, I think the talkers will, generally, talk more quietly. Hopefully, they realize that the music is quieter, and hopefully, they will get quieter as well. I find that telling people to be quiet only pisses people off and makes the drunks talk louder.
I came to grips with this about ten years ago. I would go to these listening rooms, and I would see people play and it would be pin-drop silent. Then, when I would go to play these same spots, it was just like one of my normal gigs, and people would feel as comfortable to chat as any of my shows. This, again, is in a venue where I had just seen the place be pin-drop silent, and that would kinda upset me.
But then, I came to the point where I made peace with the fact that they had bought their tickets. I use in-ear monitors, and I can just turn them up and ignore them like they are ignoring me. At the end of the day, I did my thing and hopefully, my kids can go to college one day. For fans trying to hear, the closer speakers always help. Oh, and cupping your hands by your ears so you can hear better and sometimes gets your message across in a gentle way.
L4LM: You have another upcoming project that features some newish material out there on the road right now: your tribute to Tom Petty with The Hillbenders. What was the genesis of this collaboration?
KW: It was about 2015. Every year I do a benefit for my hometown ASPCA the day after Christmas. I try and change it up and bring a different project for that show, so that year I did “Pettygrass” with my studio engineer and the amazing dobro player Jay Starling. I played bass, and it was fifteen Tom Petty hits with harmonies as a set for the benefit.
Skip ahead to when Tom Petty died, and I was in the studio working on this upcoming instrumental project and we couldn’t concentrate. So we brought up the voice memos from the project, and we just sat and listened to those and ran them through computer models, mastered them, and ended up releasing them on my Soundcloud or something like that. It was just because we both loved Petty and had loved that time when we were working on these songs.
Often, I would go back and listen to these voice memos just to listen and remember how happy we were when we were doing these songs. The Hillbenders picked up on these tracks and contacted me and suggested continuing this project. The Hillbenders are just so amazing in their sense of attention to detail. You can see it in their version of The Who‘s rock opera, Tommy, which was really fun.
It took me a minute to come around to the idea of continuing this project, but I’m glad I did. We’ve done our first gig, and it was just really special—there were so many people singing along. There is something really special about playing songs with so many people singing along at the same time.
Live For Live Music: In the jam scene, there can be a little dichotomy between the folks who are there for a twenty-minute jam and the folks who like to sing-a-long. Which side of that would you say you fall more on?
Keller Williams: Hm. As far as the Petty project, I like the singing. The same with the Grateful Grass stuff I do. Sure, there’ll be some solos, but nothing like the Steve Kimock stuff. Time and place, I guess.
L4LM: You said a moment ago that you had slight trepidation about continuing the Pettygrass project. Was that a “respect for the fallen” line of reasoning or something else?
KW: It was more of my issue with making money with other people’s music. That’s something I have always had an issue with. But, at the end of the day—as far as, say, the Gratefulgrass stuff I do—people liked it and they were always asking for it. If you put the artistic bitching aside, both the Gratefulgrass and this Pettygrass project come down to a beautiful celebration of songs and sing-a-longs. I wrestled with it at first, but now I am okay with it.
Keller Williams’ Grateful Gospel – “Who Was John” – LOCKN’ 2016
[Video: LOCKN’ Music Festival]
Live For Live Music: It’s summertime, and, as always, you are gonna be out there hopping around the country with Pettygrass and your various other projects this year. Your touring schedule seems especially weird this year, with some serious distances between shows back to back. Any idea how many miles you will cover just this summer alone?
Keller Williams: Not really. It’s a lot of sitting on airplanes and napping, watching movies and reading. It’s not as bad as it looks. It’s all about relying on the airline industry. You have to approach it with the mentality that every flight will end up delayed or canceled, and that your gear is never going to arrive and if it does it will be broken. That way, if you do make it and the gear does arrive unbroken, you have a reason to celebrate. Needless to say, I celebrate all the time, but if I do end up missing a show or my gear doesn’t come, then I accept it. That is the mentality you have to take to be successful.
L4LM: Heck, you turned your travel stress into a song with “Doobie In My Pocket”. That was a wonderful job of embracing the Native American philosophy of using every part of the buffalo.
KW: That’s right. Bones for the tools and fodder for the song.
“Doobie In My Pocket”
[Video: Live For Live Music]
Live For Live Music: Is there any band or artist whose material wouldn’t sound awesome translated into bluegrass? Could we see a “Slayergrass” set from you someday?
Keller Williams: I would go ahead and say Bach. I would not do a bluegrass thing with Bach.
L4LM: One of the standout dates for the Pettygrass shows this year is your return to the Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park for the Roots Revival. Are you thinking of coming early or staying late and maybe taking a float on the river?
KW: You know, I never made it down to the river before. I always hang out up by the stages or campfires. I won’t make any promises about the water, but I will take some golf cart rides to some cabins and campsites.
L4LM: Thanks, as always, for taking time to share your future plans in the middle of your endless cycle of shows and new projects. We can’t wait to see these new versions of your music and whatever else you come up with down the road!
Keller Williams will be headed to LOCKN’ this summer. On the final two days of the festival—on Saturday, August 25th, and Sunday, August 26th—the virtuosic musician will present two projects. On Saturday, Keller will join forces with the husband-and-wife duo of Larry and Jenny Keel for a daytime Keller & The Keels set. The following day, Williams will kick off the final day’s festivities, performing with his joyous tribute to the Grateful Dead, Keller Williams’ Grateful Gospel. For more information on LOCKN’, head to the festival’s website here.