Keller Williams' music combines elements of bluegrass, folk, alternative rock, reggae, electronica/dance, jazz, funk, and other assorted genres. He is often described as a 'one-man jam-band' due to his frequent use of live phrase looping with multiple instruments.
Most artists would bristle at the term self-indulgent, but Keller Williams often invokes it in describing his own approach to music. To Williams, being self-indulgent means creating music that satisfies him—if he likes what he’s produced, he figures, then his audience is more likely to embrace it too. If he’s not happy with it, why would they be?
And so, when Williams describes his first-ever all-covers collection, the amusingly titled Thief, as “self-indulgent, like all of my albums,” that signifies not an inwardly pointed diss but a thumbs-up from one of the most tireless musical seekers around. Recorded with the Keels—husband and wife duo Larry and Jenny Keel—Thief is a sequel to the trio’s 2006 collaboration Grass, and to those of us on the receiving end, there’s nothing self-indulgent about it. If anything, it’s about as accessible and welcoming a record as Keller’s ever made.
Granted, Thief does require a certain amount of blind faith on the part of the listener: This is, after all, an album that includes songs originally written and recorded by as wildly diverse an assemblage as anyone’s ever likely to dream up, from Amy Winehouse (“Rehab”) to the Grateful Dead (“Mountains of the Moon”), the Butthole Surfers (“Pepper”) to Kris Kristofferson (“Don’t Cuss That Fiddle,” which opens the album, and “The Year 2003 Minus 25,” which closes it). The set is filled out with tunes by Ryan Adams, the Presidents of the United States of America, the Raconteurs, Patterson Hood, Danny Barnes, Cracker, the Yonder Mountain String Band and Marcy Playground. All over the place, yup, but that’s the way Williams likes it. And in his hands it all makes sense—like everything he’s ever touched, whether from his own pen or someone else’s, it all becomes Keller Williams music.
Since he first appeared on the scene in the early ’90s, Keller Williams has defined the independent artist. Most of his career has been spent performing as a one-man band—his stage shows are built around Keller singing his compositions and choice covers while accompanying himself with an acoustic guitar connected to a Gibson Echoplex delay system that allows him to simulate a full band. 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.”
That history begins in Virginia, where Keller was born 40 years ago, and where he lives today. Growing up just south of Washington, D.C., he remembers being 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.” Those who’ve followed Keller Williams’ recording career to date know that he has given each of his albums a single-word title: Laugh, Buzz, Dance, Home, Loop, Odd, etc. 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.
The naming trend has continued with 2010’s Thief and Kids, respectively a set of cover songs and Williams’ first children’s record. 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 but rather one of his own making. It’s a path that has served him 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 as a one-man band—his stage shows are constructed around Keller singing his compositions and choice cover songs while accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar connected to a Gibson Echoplex delay system that allows him to simulate a full band. 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.”
If it seems as if this is a man who never stops, that would be about right. Having already released the amusingly titled Thief—his all-covers project with the Keels—early in 2010, Williams was getting ready to release Kids, his sixteenth album, in the fall. 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.”
The tracks, with titles like “Car Seat,” “Because I Said So,” “Mama Tooted” and “Taking a Bath,” are witty, catchy and never speak down to the intended audience. All of them will resonate with any parent as well as the little ones. “I was thinking not only of the kid getting it but also of the parents having to listen to it,” Williams says. “That played a large role in the writing of this record. I’ve been in the place of the parent having to sit through something the kid loves but I’m not so into. And the music, of course, had to be light and positive but still organic and not too far away from where my musical head is. This record’s not a compromise from what I normally do.” To coincide with the release of Kids, Williams planned several live dates as a touring member of the Yo Gabba Gabba! tour—and if you have no idea what that is or think it’s a Ramones cover band, you probably don’t have young kids of your own.
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. 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.