20 Years of Making Music
Those who’ve followed Keller Williams’ recording career to date know that he has given each of his albums a single-syllable title: FREEK, BUZZ, SPUN, BREATHE, LOOP, LAUGH, HOME, DANCE, STAGE, GRASS, DREAM, TWELVE, LIVE, ODD, THIEF, KIDS, BASS, PICK, FUNK, and most recently, VAPE (released April 20, 2015). Each title serves not only as a concise summation of the concept guiding the particular project but also as another piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is Keller Williams. GRASS, for example, is a bluegrass recording, cut with the husband-wife duo the Keels. STAGE is a live album and DREAM the end product of a wish list: Keller collaborating with some of his greatest musical heroes. THIEF is a set of unexpected cover songs. And KIDS offers up, you guessed it, Williams’ first and possibly only children’s record.
The naming trend continued with 2012’s BASS and PICK, respectively a set of songs where Keller plays bass and William’s collaboration with royal bluegrass family The Travelin’ McCourys. With VAPE, released in April 2015 – Keller celebrates his 20th official album release. What all of the titles reveal, when taken together, is an artist of great stylistic breadth and infinite imagination, a singer, songwriter and musician, always on a quest for the new. Keller Williams has never followed the prescribed path laid out by the conventional music business, nor has he taken the prescribed meds laid out by his team of conventional doctors. Instead, he has taken the A.D.D. path (Artistic, Determined, Dedication). It’s a path that has served him quite well.
Since he first appeared on the scene in the early ’90s, Williams has defined the term independent artist. And his recordings tell only half the story. Keller built his reputation initially on his engaging live performances, no two of which are ever alike. For most of his career he has performed solo. His stage shows are rooted around Keller singing his compositions and choice cover songs, while accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. With the use of today’s technology, Keller creates samples on the fly in front of the audience, a technique called live phrase sampling or looping, With nothing pre-recorded, the end result often leans toward a hybrid of alternative folk and groovy electronica. A genre Keller jokingly calls “acoustic dance music” or ADM.”
That approach, Williams explains, was derived from “hours of playing solo with just a guitar and a microphone, and then wanting to go down different avenues musically. I couldn’t afford humans and didn’t want to step into the cheesy world of automated sequencers where you hit a button and the whole band starts to play, then you’ve got to solo along or sing on top of it. I wanted something more organic yet with a dance groove that I could create myself.”
Williams’ solo live shows—and his ability to improvise to his determinedly quirky tunes despite the absence of an actual band—quickly became the stuff of legend, and his audience grew exponentially when word spread about this exciting, unpredictable performer. Once he began releasing recordings, starting with 1994’s FREEK, Williams was embraced by an even wider community of music fans, particularly the jam band crowd. While his live gigs have largely been solo affairs, Williams has nearly always used his albums as a forum for collaborations with fellow musicians. An alliance with The String Cheese Incident on 1999’s BREATHE marked Williams’ first release on the band’s label SCI Fidelity Records, an imprint he still partners with today for recordings. DREAM, Keller’s 2007 release, found him in the company of such iconic musicians as the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, banjo master Béla Fleck, bass great Victor Wooten, American musician/poet Michael Franti and many others.
“That album took, from start to release time,” says Williams, “about three years. The object was to get people that I admire musically to play my stuff, so when I’m old I can crank this album in my pimped-out golf cart and have something that I’m really proud of. I was going for the historical effect for my own personal listening pleasure.
“Each record,” he continues, “is a little snapshot of history. I like to think of it as a period piece for an artist. Each record is a little bit different but all of them have some kind of common thread, which is my musical ability as far as I can take it. I enjoy making records. In some people’s eyes, they’re a dying breed, but I’m very passionate about it. They document where my head is at that time in my career and where I am in my songwriting.”
Williams’ story begins in Fredericksburg, Virginia, just south of Washington, D.C. There he was exposed to a wide variety of music at an early age, starting with country and bluegrass and working his way up through hip-hop and go-go, a brand of funk particular to that part of the country. Once he began playing guitar, Williams’ sphere expanded to what he calls “the post-pseudo-skateboarder punk-rock rebellious type of thing, Black Flag and Sex Pistols and Ramones, Dead Kennedys, things like that. That slid into the more melodic college rock, like the Cure and the Cult, the Smiths, R.E.M.’s first five or six records.”
Then came the Grateful Dead, a seminal influence on Williams’ own music. “I studied and learned their music and went to the shows,” he says, adding that the impact of Jerry Garcia on his attitude toward music remains incalculable. Another major influence was Michael Hedges, the late virtuoso acoustic guitarist. “He was really excelling in a whole different world from what I knew,” says Williams.
After relocating to Colorado, further exposure to bluegrass music and progressive acoustic artists such as Béla Fleck and the Flecktones also had a major impression on Williams. As he began to develop his own distinctive compositional and performing style, Williams incorporated all of the lessons he’d learned from the long list of artists who’d found their way into his world, then filtered their music through his own experiences until something wholly unique emerged. The list of artists whose music he has covered either in concert or on his recordings constitutes a mind-blowing spread: songs originally performed by everyone from Pink Floyd and Ozzy Osbourne to Ani DiFranco and old-school rappers the Sugar Hill Gang!
When he first started out, Williams played in regional bands but also performed as a solo artist, “me sitting on a stool playing covers, like a happy hour situation,” he says. “I’d get dinner and maybe tips. There were bands in high school and in college. But it turned out I could get the same money playing solo that I was getting with the band. Around that time I was also doing temporary jobs and I was making the same amount playing music as I was scraping mortar out of the cracks of cinder block walls for eight hours in the summertime at minimum wage. So it seemed like the obvious choice was to play music. I started to work and over the years I incorporated more technology. The looping thing started to happen and tickets were sold and people came to shows, so there wasn’t any reason to fix something that wasn’t broken.”
What Williams calls “the looping thing” is actually a big part of what has made him such a compelling live performer. “Basically, I have these machines that are essentially delay units,” he explains. “What I do is step on a button and sing or play something. Then I step on the same button in time and it repeats what I just played or sang. Once that initial loop is created, I can layer on a bass line or a drum line and then have this layer that I just created in front of an audience that I could sing over and solo over. Nothing is pre-recorded. Everything is created onstage in front of the audience.”
If it sounds complicated, it is: but the basic thrust is that the technology has allowed Williams to go out on tour week after week, year after year, and play music by himself—without limiting his sound to what we most often associate with the solo singer-songwriter: a guy strumming a guitar and singing. With his arsenal of tech toys, Williams can expand his reach onstage by, in essence, jamming with himself.
But these days, Keller also performs often with live humans. The summer of 2010 found Keller sharing a bus with two of his biggest heroes, former Grateful Dead drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, as a member of their powerhouse assemblage the Rhythm Devils. “That was a very surreal experience,” Williams says. “We rehearsed for a few days and then we were on a bus with 12 people, two of them being the original drummers from the Grateful Dead.” In 2013 and 2014, Keller also performed with Dead bassist Phil Lesh as part of Phil & Friends.
Williams has also toured as part of a string trio with singer/guitarist Larry Keel and his wife, singer/bassist Jenny Keel, hitting key stops on the bluegrass festival circuit. And he has a band of his own, with Keller on rhythm guitar and vocals, Jeff Sipe on drums, Keith Moseley on bass and Gibb Droll on lead guitar. They toured throughout the spring of 2007 to the fall of 2008, and subsequently released a double live record with a companion DVD. In true Keller Williams fashion, it’s called Live.
If it seems as if this is a man who never stops, that would be about right. Keller released the amusingly titled THIEF—his all-covers project with the Keels—early in 2010, and KIDS, his sixteenth album, in the fall of that same year. A father of two himself, Williams was, of course, inspired by his own offspring but, he says, some of the songs were written before his children were born. “When Not For Kids Only by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman came out, I knew that there was hope for me with kids music,” he says. “I was really attached to that record.” The songwriting for Kids, Keller says, “was not necessarily singing to the kids. A lot of it was me singing from the perspective of the kids. That was my plan, to get on their wavelength, on their level, and be one of them, so it’s kind of like one of their friends singing to them.”
In 2011, BASS found the multi-instrumentalist only playing bass guitar. BASS was also the first album to be recorded with Keller’s live reggae-funk band Kdubalicious, which in addition to Keller on bass and vocals, features Jay Starling on keyboards and Mark D on drums. On the other end of the spectrum – but just as tasty – is Keller’s 2012 release PICK. This collaboration featuring Keller Williams with The Travelin’ McCourys is a classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts—although the parts are rather massive on their own, to be sure. “Performing with The Travelin’ McCourys is one of my favorite things to do in the world,” Keller explains. “This project has struck a special chord with me [pun intended]. It is very addictive.”
Indeed, Keller always enjoys working with a band. In 2014 he stepped out with his 6-piece funk band dubbed More Than a Little, which draws from the Richmond, VA R&B/gospel scene including a pair of show stealing female singers. The resulting album, FUNK, is a sexy live recording that pays deep homage to the genre’s roots.
Today, Keller Williams’ 20th official album release, VAPE, finds the prolific singer/songwriter/guitarist offering up 10 original tracks – some road tested and some brand new. With a hugely successful career spanning two decades under his belt, the music on VAPE somehow finds Keller more confident delivering his signature, often off-the-wall storytelling. Backed by a variety of fellow musicians including Samuel Grisman/bass, John Kadlecik/guitar, Ronnie McCoury/mandolin, Rob McCoury/banjo, and others – Keller’s playing has never been more precise and versatile.
And as if all of this doesn’t keep him busy enough, Keller’s thirst for music of all kinds has also led him to the world of radio. For the past several years he has hosted Keller’s Cellar, a weekly syndicated program available on both terrestrial stations and online at www.kellerwilliams.net. Williams describes the show as “a self-indulgent, hour-long narrated mix tape of stuff I’m into. It’s rule-less except for what the FCC says we can’t do. I don’t play contemporary country music. I don’t play contemporary Christian music—however, there is possibly some old gospel. I don’t play opera. Everything else is fair game. World music from all around—African music from all the countries, jazz, funk, reggae, techno, chill, lounge, lounge singers, rub-a-dub, dancehall. I pretty much stay away from smooth jazz. It’s definitely a fun outlet for me. I’m trying to do something different.”
Something different. That, we can assume, is how it will always be with Keller Williams.