Through the years, guitarist Keller Williams has delighted the music scene with his mix of fretboard skills, effortless charm, and unexpected genre-hopping. On any given night, you can catch Keller using a variety of looping effects to build insane one-man-band jams, go jazzy with a swinging backing band, get down and dirty with his funk band More Than A Little or pick some bluegrass versions of tunes from artists like the Grateful Dead, Tom Petty and The Doors with a variety of top tier players.
On his upcoming release, Speed, he’s reuniting with frequent collaborators, flatpicking guitar wizard Larry Keel and his wife, bassist Jenny Keel, for a free-wheeling collection of Americana-fied versions of songs by artists ranging from Weezer to Ricky Martin all the way to The Presidents Of The United States!
Our own Rex Thomson recently sat down to chat with Keller for the latest episode of his music scene-focused podcast, Rex-A-Vision. You can read a few excerpts from the conversation below:
Rex-A-Vision: your new album, Speed, is full of bluegrass takes on existing songs from all genres. How much effort do you put into making these songs your own?
Keller Williams: Not much. It’s something I don’t really think about, actually. If a song attaches itself to me, like on the Speed record, I just play it as if it’s a bluegrass song. I start over with that feeling in mind. Some artists slip easily into the bluegrass sound but the basic format is to play it at a similar tempo and just double time the music. That’s an easy way to turn any song into bluegrass.
Rex-A-Vision: So what you’re saying is that you increase the…wait for it…Speed!
Keller Williams: [Laughs] Exactly. We play very fast on this record!
Rex-A-Vision: You are once again working with Larry & Jenny Keel. You clearly work well with them musically and your harmonies are impressive. Is it fun in the studio or are they just constantly bickering?
KW: No, no. Their lil’ disagreements are always minor, and it’s always a professional, musical concern. It’s really good. They work together so well…we work together so well. Honestly, this record is just a self-indulgent excuse to hang out with them. There’s nothing better than hanging out with The Keels, and doing this record just solidifies that we are gonna be hanging out more in the future.
RAV: That love for each other you share definitely comes through in the recordings.
KW: I hope so. If it wasn’t fun for us then we wouldn’t be doing it…simple as that.
RAV: I spent 17 years getting the hook from the song “Peaches” out of my head and then…damn it to hell…you put it right back there! Are you evil?
KW: That’s a bluegrass song if there ever was one! [Singing] “Moving to the country…gonna eat me a lot of Peaches…” [Note: Listen to Keller sing “Peaches” below]
RAV: When you recorded your take on the classic Doors tune “Roadhouse Blues”, how tempting was it to yell “Do it Larry, DO IT!”
KW: You know…I wasn’t. I didn’t really go and study the song. It was a tune that had ended up in The Keels’ repertoire. That was, at best, one or two takes. It wasn’t really a study of the song itself. But it was fun.
RAV: You’re all about the fun. I have never left one of your shows without a smile on my face and a song in my heart.
KW: I’m glad to hear that. I try and present people with a picture outside of their regular day-to-day and I am glad to hear you are there with me.
RAV: Thanks. On a heavier topic, on Monday, the 4th, you’re gonna be taking the stage with a bunch of folks to honor our friend the late Jeff Austin.
KW: Yeah, out to the Jeff Austin thing. It’s going to be epic with the amount of people who are gonna be there. The late, great Jeff Austin. A fantastic human being. So many great moments shared with that guy on stages around the country.
Some of it was me sitting in with Yonder [Mountain String Band], but most of that was with the Grateful Grass Trio with Keith Moseley and myself. We’re gonna play Jeff’s song on Monday, the original Grateful Grass “Man Down” situation.
What happened kinda came as a surprise to some folks who maybe weren’t as close but there were signs leading up to it. It really messed with a lot of us really hard. I guess I should mention the Backline company that is starting up. They’re going to be open and operating a helpline for those who need it. I think after what happened with Jeff…then Neal Casal…
There’s a lot of time to get inside your head when you’re a musician. I don’t know who said it, but if you play for thirty years you only really spend two years playing and the rest is just hanging out. There’s a lot of time musicians can get too far inside their heads. It’s a real problem and it can get detrimental to your health. It was a loss that hit us pretty hard and we are gonna go out and celebrate his life and his music. I think the proceeds are going to help his family…his wife and kids. It’s gonna be a time. I’m glad to do it and glad to have known him.
RAV: Thanks for saying and doing that, and for coming on the show. You were one of the first guests I wanted when I started and it was most appreciated.
KW: Thank you buddy. Glad to do it!
Listen to the full Rex-a-Vision podcast episode featuring Keller Williams below:
Rex Thompson’s music scene-focused podcast, Rex-A-Vision, is available on platforms ranging from iTunes, Spotify, Podbean, and YouTube. Rex-A-Vision is an insightful and off-kilter look into the life of working musicians, stage workers, promoters, and more.