Holy shit – he’s making music with real, live people that aren’t himself. Seriously. Flesh-and-blood, Homo Sapien, evolutionary theory, opposable thumbs human beings. Although it may be a shock after growing accustomed to Keller Williams’ musical solo role-playing, his newest album Grass features married couple Larry and Jenny Keel, members of (the obviously titled band) The Keels, on guitar and upright bass. Keller joins them on a mini 12-string guitar, minus four of the strings.
“I’ve known Larry and Jenny for a long time and I guess it was more of a comfort thing as far as wanting to do a record,” Keller told buzz last week, describing the reason behind his collaboration with the Keels. “We got together and did a bunch of shows, and then the record happened really simply … we tracked [it] in about thirteen hours.”
Keller, who keeps a tradition of one-syllable album titles because “it’s easy,” further expressed his inner simplicity with Grass’ cover art – a picture he took with his own digital camera of an upright bass and two guitars laying in a grass median between two parking lots at the recording studio.
He may be easygoing, yes, but don’t make the mistake of considering Keller to be lazy when it comes to music – the man has variety, evident throughout his new album. The trio provides their own bluegrass versions of classics such as Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall,” Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (called “Mary Jane’s Last Breakdown”), “I’m Just Here to Get My Baby out of Jail,” and a couple of tunes by Jerry Garcia. Although heavy with covers, Keller still makes sure to include original pieces, like the bouncy, impossible-to-resist-the-urge-to-dance “Goof Balls,” as well as “Crater in the Backyard,” a song dealing with the issue of suburban overdevelopment, reminiscent of Joni Mitchell’s “Got ‘Till It’s Gone.”
Keller, who grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia, owned a guitar at age three but didn’t play it until he first started learning basic chords at age thirteen. Four years of practice later, he began to take his hobby a lot more seriously.
“I was 17, and at that point I had worked different jobs – in a [frozen] yogurt shop, all types of landscaping, [and] at a temporary agency. You would go in, and then they’d send you out to some construction site … for eight hours a day, five days a week, doing different stuff that construction workers didn’t want to do. Once I was able to sit on a stool and play music for three hours and make money, I realized that was what I wanted to do for a living,” Keller said.
Keller’s first gig was on the back porch of a restaurant that was so small it only fit four tables. Continuing along a humble road, he moved on to a country club’s happy hour, where he had to bus and move tables to make room for his equipment. In case you didn’t catch that, “Keller” as in Keller Williams, the laidback acoustic jazz-funk artist with a jam band fan following, and “country club” were just used in the same sentence. Crazy.
Anyway, Keller moved to Colorado in 1995, and wandered around from 1997 to 2000 playing at restaurants and little bars, trying to earn enough money to survive. Luckily for him, Keller wasn’t new to this road – a decade earlier he lived the hippy dream by following around the Dead.
“I would work these menial jobs for six to eight weeks, save all my money, then go to ten shows. When I started, my first shows were in ’87, and you could just camp out and stay there and pitch a tent on the concrete parking lot. Finally, when I was able to get work on my own, I already had that experience [of traveling during the day and traveling at night] and it was really easy to adapt to touring life, since the Dead tour taught me all kinds of valuable lessons,” Keller said.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t have prepared for all of the things he’s experienced on tours, both other and his own. One time, while attending a Dead show at Indiana’s Deer Creek Music Center, fans rushed and tore down the fence, resulting in a cancellation of their second show – the last Dead show he planned on seeing that year. Another time, on his own tour, his own personal dream of having a “double decker double wide” was crushed – literally.
“We were on tour a couple of years ago opening for Michael Franti. We rented a double decker bus from England and drove it to Holland. The driver wasn’t familiar with the roads, and [how] the tunnels start really high and get lower and lower as you go through them. We went into a tunnel that was about two feet too small for the bus. We totally destroyed this bus – we went in and crunched it. The driver freaked out, put it in reverse, and stepped on it [to] back the bus out of the tunnel, which peeled the top of the bus open like a sardine can,” he recalled. Of course, in typical Keller fashion, he ended the story with, “It was just the coolest thing.”
Q&A with Keller Williams
What up and coming/popular artists are you a fan of?
I really like Xavier Rudd, [he’s a] fantastic solo artist from Australia. Charlie Hunter. Kaki King is a brilliant young guitarist. I’m finding myself liking Death Cab for Cutie for some reason.
I don’t have any of their albums, but they have a fantastic publicist and they’re all over the TV.
If you weren’t playing music professionally, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I’d probably be a DJ, trying to work at a radio station during they day and then spinning records at night. If that wasn’t the case, I’d do something outside – some kind of landscaping, or work as a lifeguard.
If you could collaborate with any dead or alive artist, who would you chose?
Keller Williams will be performing at 9 p.m. at the Canopy Club on April 2. Tickets are $20.