The following interview was conducted via email, which allowed for some incredibly detailed answers on Jack’s part that I have elected to leave almost entirely intact, interjecting my own spin on things only to keep the narrative flow of the article going. Enjoy, and be sure and check out all of Jack’s music via the link on his name, below.
You probably don’t know Jack Williams, or his music, unless you’ve been lucky enough to catch one of his house concerts or folk festival appearances at places like Kerrville or Folk Alliance. That’s probably okay with Williams, who long ago traded aspirations of rock ‘n’ roll stardom for the life of an itinerant working musician. After many years of traveling with rock bands, jazz combos, playing anywhere he could get paid to play music, Williams took a detour into folk music with his 1997 album Across the Winterline, which in retrospect has become a template for everything he’s done since. Don’t Let Go, Williams’ new CD on the Wind River label, is the first exception to what has been an impressive run of acoustic folk/blues albums filled with Williams’ own vividly articulated song narratives. The collection features Williams and his usual band of acoustic musicians (which has remained remarkably constant since 1997) trotting out a batch of other people’s songs, with the thematic connection that they’re all songs by artists that had a profound effect on Williams’ own career and musical style. Ray Charles, The Band, Frank Sinatra, Jerry Butler, Hank Williams, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and Procol Harum all make this list, with some songs that will be familiar standards and others more obscure but equally rich gems.
“Every time I made another album of original tunes I knew I would someday pay homage to the artists, writers and styles which were the origins of my own music,” Williams says, “Over many years, I imagined the songs which would be included, songs which had a profound impact on how I would write and perform my own music. I knew it was coming, and I’ve planned it for a long time. I’m thrilled that I’ve actually done it, and I’m happy with the result.”
Williams is possibly unique in the folk music world, in that he didn’t grow up within its sometimes limiting confines. His years of apprenticeship in other disciplines fed into a musical vocabulary that surfaces time and time again in his own songs, and it is revealing to hear the direct links where some of that inspiration came from.
‘It has always been important to me to let listeners know where my music came from,” Williams says. “Especially in workshops and retreats where I try to help musicians develop their own music, I’ve realized the importance of showing guitarists that good guitar music can be created without necessarily studying guitar music, that songs can be written without studying the work of songwriters, and great music can be created without modeling it on any one particular instrument, sound or style.” It was this wide-ranging and open minded musical worldview that indirectly resulted in the new CD, Williams reveals.
“In my performances, I often talk about and explore my eclectic background in a “stream-of-consciousness” medley which wanders through the musical styles which influenced me,” He says, “The ever-growing medley inspired me to finally record the tribute album.”’
Just like somebody with a large record collection can have difficulty sometimes in deciding what to listen to, given the sheer breadth of possibilities ( Not to mention those who in this digital age may have thousands upon thousands of songs on their iPod alone), one might imagine that it was a tough job to determine what songs to choose for a retrospective of one’s own taste in music.
“Some songs were unavoidable, in that they–perhaps as much as the writers or performers–brought about some major change or growth in my approach to music,” Williams says. “Sometimes the selection was extremely difficult, especially when I had been drawing from a writer or artist’s large output–as with Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Hank Williams, The Band, and Jesse Winchester. Since I’ve performed hundreds of songs written by these folks, I had a hard time choosing just one. Ray Charles loomed so large in my growth that he is represented by more than the single song, “Hallelujah I Love Her So.” It was his interpretation of “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” and “That Lucky Old Sun” which taught me how I wanted to sing them, even though I had learned the songs from earlier performances by others like Frankie Laine.” NOt every decision was an agonizing one, though, Williams says.
“Some songs were obvious–in the case of “A Salty Dog”, the fact that such a song could exist had a powerful impact on me, even if there were no “Procol Harum”. I had half-a-dozen Doo-Wop songs which I had to choose from, songs which my early bands had played and had such a great time singing. The title song, “Don’t Let Go” – sung by my hero Roy Hamilton, has always been on the list, along with “Aunt Hagar’s Blues”, “He Will Break Your Heart”, “Wish I Was (A Willow Tree)”, “The Heart of Saturday Night”, “Bye Bye Blackbird”, and one or two more. There were a handful of great instrumentals from the 50s which were difficult to choose from, but I settled on Percy Faith’s “Delicado” even though I considered “Blue Tango”, “The Third Man Theme”, and many others, and ending with “Rebel Rouser” was a no-brainer for me.”
What makes the collection hang together as a Jack Williams album is the fact that he used the same instrumental ensemble as he has on his sets of original music. Dubbed “The Winterline Band,” sometimes, in reference to the Williams album they played on first, their acoustic nature–banjo, fiddle, mandolin, upright bass–accentuates Williams’ own exceptional skills on guitar. They’re also accomplished enough to make the transitions required here from rock to jazz to country and back, without sounding out of their depth or inappropriate for the material. Williams admits he considered bringing in some musical ringers and expanding some arrangements to fit the songs.
“I considered it, but not for long,” Williams says. “I believed duplicating the sound and ensemble which would be expected for such songs would, to me, have made them more commonplace. So I decided to play them with my usual group of musical friends, in part to let it be known that good music doesn’t always require a specific ensemble in order to make it effective. One of my favorite tracks on the album is George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland”. The cynical ear might hear this version – and other arrangements on the CD as parodies, but they aren’t. I recorded this one in a straight-forward manner, with love, thinking of jazz in the way I had played it in the 50s and 60s, and even did my best to improvise vocally in a manner which represented my old style, since having lost my “trumpet-lip”, I could hardly play the piece the way I did years ago. In a jazz ensemble, I would’ve had a couple of other instruments – sax, trombone, etc – play “accents” against the melody and harmonize the bridge. Having the highly-unlikely jazz instruments, banjo and mandolin, available for the task, I created parts for them which were the same as I’d have written for horns. “King Harvest”, by my favorite rock group, The Band, is equally satisfying to me without electric guitar, organ, piano, and drums. Much music is created specifically for the ensemble, but the best song songs are created for their own sake, which works for me in this setting. Also, a symphony orchestra backing a rock band is definitely not required to effectively perform “A Salty Dog”. And, having an ensemble of instruments usually found in a bluegrass ensemble play Doo-Wop, is both amusing and immensely satisfying musically.”
One of Williams’ longest lasting musical partnerships was serving as the accompanist to Mickey Newbury in the years preceding that great songwriter’s passing, and there is a Newbury song included here, “Wish I Was (A Willow Tree).” To hear Jack tell it, his choices for a tribute to his old friend were limited.
“Mickey wrote his songs with his beautiful voice as a tool, and he wrote them for that voice,” Williams says, “Fortunately, his songs were written in a simple melodic style which made them accessible to other singers who were also possessed of strong voices. However, not having been born with the necessary set of pipes, I gave up on many attempts to sing his songs because I didn’t find musical satisfaction in my performance of them. I found that I was, however, able to perform three Mickey Newbury songs out of the hundreds that I played with him on guitar: “Why You Been Gone So Long” (which Williams has recorded previously), “East Kentucky”, and “Wish I Was (a Willow Tree)”.”
Anyone familiar with Williams’ own original music can certainly hear the elements of artists like Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and even Jesse Winchester present in his music, but the inclusion of songs associated with Sinatra and some others are harder to infer. Williams sees it as not just the obvious influences that shaped his music but the totality of his life experience, which includes fifty years in the business of playing music.
“I know many musicians and writers today who draw only from their experience with contemporary artists and writers, but who rarely look back into our collective musical past for inspiration,” He says. “I meet many aspiring writers and musicians in workshops who tell me that they’d like to write or play as I do. I express the impossibility by telling them that, in order to accomplish this, they’d have to start from scratch, live my 64 years, listen to many many different forms of music and try their hand at playing them–jazz, rock, classical, R&B, country, bluegrass, Latin, etc. I was raised listening to everything from the Dorsey Brothers and the pop tunes of the mid-40s to Brahms, Mozart and Chopin. I was fortunate to have grown up with none of the pressures of today’s corporate music-biz to lead me down a narrow path. I played folk songs on the ukelele from the time I was four, pop and classical piano from age six, jazz (and rock) on the trumpet from age nine, and then I discovered the guitar at age fifteen and used it to play more styles than just the rock and roll which I’d discovered could earn money–and eventually a living. I’m so grateful I felt no peer-pressure to listen to only what was “cool” at any given time. I’m sure in the 50s and early 60s I was considered the supreme “nerd” for openly enjoying musical styles which weren’t on every kid’s radio, but I was given a “pass” because I played rock guitar. How grateful I am that I not only enjoyed that music, but that I tried my best to play it all. “Rebel Rouser”? What 16-year-old guitarist wouldn’t be profoundly affected by that magical 50s stuff? Charlie Parker? Sharply attuned to musicality-plus-virtuosity, I was simply moved and astounded by what I heard in his music, and that of Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Mingus and even the earlier Dixieland players, especially Louis Armstrong. Frank Sinatra? That was a hard choice. I chose one song which was a hit for him because it represented an era and an easy style which affected me strongly. In fact, my choosing “Young at Heart” was a way to pay homage to two influences: Sinatra and my late friend, Harry Nilsson, who redefined the song in his latter-day version. Perhaps I would feel as lost as some of the young writer/performers I know today if I hadn’t embraced all the music which surrounded me in my life, lost and without a clear direction toward a satisfying musical style drawn from the love for and involvement with the many facets of popular music of the 20th Century.”
As a songwriter, a self-described music lover, and experienced performer, Williams is hesitant when asked what he considers are the qualities of a “good” song.
“We’re headed into extremely subjective territory here,” He says when the question comes up. “Please bear in mind that my tastes in music have become totally non-representative of the tastes of our times, and even of the tastes of many of my songwriting colleagues. Nowadays, there is a premium placed on the “craft” of songwriting. Many listeners have “learned to hear” the fine-tuned craftmanship and economy of a “song well-written”. Many of these listeners, in turning their attention toward these somewhat technical facets of writing have come to ignore– or forget, over-rule, or suppress–what I regard as the more important, less-obvious elements of a “good song”. Less obvious also means “less-identifiable”, unfortunately, for a coherent answer to the question. Song by song is the best approach, rather than some hastily-assembled set of criteria for a “good song”.
I’ll begin by saying that, although I admire an artist’s high level of technical skill in writing or performing, this, as an end in itself, is extremely unsatisfying to me. As a good friend and music-writer once wrote about my music, “He’d rather move you than dazzle you”. I’d rather be moved by a piece of music than dazzled. Also, I’m rarely moved by a piece or song which lacks in true melodic content. Thus, you have my choices of the inspirational and ultimately emotionally satisfying “Biloxi”, “The Heart of Saturday Night”, “Tomorrow Is Such a Long Time”, “That Lucky Old Sun”, “Come Rain Or Come Shine”, “A Salty Dog”, “Wish I Was”, and “Bye Bye Blackbird”. Maybe, with the aid of an archaeologist’s or jeweler’s tools, we might scratch the surface of what moves me (or anyone else) about these songs. For most of them, simplicity is the biggest culprit. But simplicity certainly isn’t enough. I think what makes a song great is the mindful expression of a combination of the deep personal experiences and sharpest observations during a writer’s life, recalled through the long, loving development of the artistic skills necessary for true, free, direct and simple self-expression.
Other songs included on the album I considered “memorable” and “good” for other reasons. Most are just supremely enjoyable to perform and hear: “Sittin’ On Top of the World”, for example. I haven’t a clue what makes this song so infectious and so memorable. Whatever magic it contains drove the Mississippi Sheiks, Bill Monroe, Cream, Dylan, Bryan Bowers, and hundreds of others to record it. It was so powerful that it drove many writers to later “steal” its melodic ideas and form to create new songs. I’m still baffled by the magic of Hank Williams’ songs. I love playing Ray Charles’ songs as much as I enjoy hearing them played. Great jazz pieces lend themselves to melodic, rhythmic and chordal exploration by each new player or group. Thus, it was a challenge, great fun, and untimately satisfying to create an arrangement of “Lullaby of Birdland” for a truly odd-ball “jazz” ensemble, and still try to perform it honestly.
Some songs completely ignore “how things are done” and take their own adventurous ways. W.C. Handy’s “Aunt Hagar’s Blues” was just great to play in a Dixieland band and lent itself, remarkably, to a new setting with only guitar and gospel-style voices. Handy had no pressures to keep him from doing wonderfully different things – chordally and lyrically – with his songs, and “Aunt Hagar” is my favorite of these, a song which reminds a writer that there are no rules and offers permission to be adventurous.
Other songs just contain their own magic and, to some ears, are simply irresistible. Musicians are frequently drawn back in time to play new versions of Jerry Butler’s “He Will Break Your Heart”, or “Gotta Travel On”, or Roy Hamilton’s “Don’t Let Go”. Simple, and even mindless lyrics, can, in the right setting and attitude, be fulfilling and inexplicably meaningful, whether or not they are well crafted.”
Suffice it to say, there isn’t a note on a Jack Williams CD that isn’t “well crafted” in every sense of the word–emotional, exceptional, musical, inspirational–that he can come up with. For a sense of where he’s coming from, see the new CD, Don’t Let Go, and if this is your first exposure to his half-century of accumulated musical knowledge, do yourself a favor and seek out his other albums as well.