Keller Williams:Thief On The Run

For his first-ever, all covers album, the multi-talented Keller Williams didn’t exactly stay in his comfort zone.  Sure, there are Grateful Dead and Yonder Mountain String Band tracks in there, but those are smattered in-between rather unique takes on the Butthole Surfers, The Raconteurs and Marcys Playground.  Hell, he even tackles Amy Winehouse’s aptly titled, “Rehab.” 

Thief, his latest collaboration with The Keels, is a striking collection, but when put through the Keller lens, the picture becomes clear.  He’s absorbed a little bit of his stylistic approach from many different artists and thousands of eclectic songs.  And as he notes, when it comes down to it, “every song makes a good bluegrass song.”

With the album out this week, a summer tour mapped out, and some big dates performing with the Rhythm Devils fast approaching, Keller is busier than ever.  Luckily we stole a little bit of his time – it’s only fair.

You worked with the Keels a few years ago on the Grass album, but how did you first meet, and eventually begin working together?

Well, I want to say I met Larry at this bar in Fredericksburg, [Va] where I live now, probably in like the early 90s.  Maybe at an open mic, or maybe his band came down and opened for my band on a Tuesday night or something…you know, one of those things, I’m not really sure.  But I was a fan of his band, McGraw Gap, and they had that whole band play on my second record, which was called Buzz – that was probably like ’95 that we played together – and since then we’ve just been crossing paths, and festivals, and playing different shows.   And like you said, in 2006 we released a record, and this new one is kind of like a follow-up to that one. 

With this new album, consisting of all covers, you offer rather distinct versions of each song.  I’m curious what your process was for tackling each one? 

The idea for both the records that I’ve done with the Keels is pretty much sit down, and play and sing the songs live, and then go back and overdub the harmonies; focus on the music and the lead vocals, and pretty much every song is like that.  It’s all of us playing live at the same time.  I was in a booth, but could still see everybody, and Larry and Jenny were separated between these little half-walls with insulation on them and whatnot.  But we were all playing at the same time, and just overdid the vocals.  And that’s pretty much how it worked out.  The whole record was done in two sessions.

I wanted to get your thoughts on a couple of the more striking tracks – starting with Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab.” 

Well I think every song makes a good bluegrass song, and that one just a little bit more so than the others [laughs].  It’s a good song man…it’s very catchy, and when it came out, you kind of knew that she was gonna be famous  – nobody knew she was gonna be such a train-wreck – but it’s a great song and it’s fun to do…really, really fast.

The title track off of Ryan Adams’ Cold Roses record, which is such a great album.  

I guess maybe I heard Phil and Friends, Phil Lesh, do that song first.  I guess he did it with Ryan Adams.  Ryan and Phil did a couple shows together, and that’s kind of where I got turned on to that particular tune.  And then after they did more shows without Ryan Adams, they continued to do that song.  And then I got the record.  So I heard other people’s versions before I actually heard his version.  And I think mine is different from any of the other ones.  But it’s a good song…it’s eerie.  You know, Ryan Adams, he’s a great songwriter, a great poet…and I’m a fan.  

The Raconteurs track, “Switch and the Spur.”

[Laughs] You know, that’s ah…I’ve been getting a lot of compliments on that one.  When I do that live it kind of comes out of nowhere.  A lot more people know that song than I thought would.  That is just the perfect bluegrass song.  Very, ‘out in the western desert, get bit by a snake, hallucinations’ thing – it’s really easy to do that one.    

And a last one, which doesn’t seem like an obvious choice…the Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper.”

Yeah, it’s bizarre.  All of my records are very self-indulgent, and I can’t expect everyone to really get it the way I get it.  But I do play that song in like the ski towns, and not even in the ski towns, but the ski towns seem to get it a little bit more.  It didn’t really matter where I played it.  I played it as a slow bluegrass number and people just screamed it back at me.  Like everyone knows that song.  Well not everybody, I don’t think Larry or Jenny ever heard that song before [laughs], but the people that know it, love it and scream it back, and it was just really obvious to do that one.  Yeah, it’s definitely not an obvious bluegrass…none of them are really obvious bluegrass songs, but they work really well as bluegrass songs.  At least in my experience, and in my head, and to the reaction I get when I play them live.  That’s pretty much where a lot of the songs came from, the process, the reaction at the live shows.

You bookend the album with two Kris Kristofferson songs, “Don’t Cuss The Fiddle” and “The Year 2003 Minus 25.”  His voice takes me right back to my childhood, as my parents would play that constantly when I was a little kid.  I can see that Star is Born album cover in my sleep   What was his influence on you as a songwriter?

Well my parents were big Willie Nelson fans, and there was a record we had on record as well as on 8-track, and that was the Waylon and Willie album.  And those two songs, when you say I sandwiched them with Kris Kristofferson songs, I learned those songs from the Waylon and Willie record.  So it kind of all goes along with the thief, and doing the covers, and people doing other people’s music.  From the Waylon and Willie record, there are a lot of songs on there…I don’t know if they wrote hardly any of them.   And that was a big record for me as a kid.  And then kind of changing things around, and doing bluegrass as opposed to 70’s country, which is how I learned it.  And those are two songs that me and the Keels have done live a few times.  The last one we’ve been doing since the first time we got together, so they were easy choices.   And just like The Star Is Born from your past, that’s a record from my past that was very influential when I got older.   

Any songs you guys were working through that just didn’t make the cut?

Well on the first record I did a Mother Hips song [“Stunt Double”], and there was another Mother Hips song we were going to do, but I guess I planned…we rehearsed like fifteen songs for the record and ended up recording thirteen, and I think the Mother Hips, we just didn’t have time for it. 

The first time I saw you perform was opening for The String Cheese Incident back in the late 90’s at the Somerville Theatre, which seems like a lifetime ago.  Now that you’re turning 40, and many of your peers have come and gone, and here you are, you’ve released over a dozen albums or so, still touring…are you comfortable at this point in your career?

Well I’m surprised I’ve been able to make a living at it for so long.  The albums, I think Thief is like fourteen or fifteen, I’m not sure, it depends on if you’re counting these online releases and stuff.  But am I surprised?  Yeah.  Sure.  I’m definitely surprised I’ve been able to pull it off for as long as I have.  And I’m very, very lucky to have an incredible core base of folks that come to my shows, and keep it rolling.  I’m very, very lucky.  And it’s like with any kind of music, genre, or band…there’s ups and downs, and I’ve had ups and downs as far as numbers and venues and stuff.  And I’m definitely rolling into some sort of comfort level where I’m figuring out what venues to play, and the right sized venues for the amount of people who come to my shows.  So it’s working, and I’m having a good time.  I’ve adapted this weekend mentality now, maintaining a bit of a balance between the family life and the rock ‘n roll life.  Well I guess it’s a rock ‘n roll life [laughs].  Hell yeah it’s rock ‘n roll! [laughs].  But yeah, you go out and do the rock ‘n roll thing on the weekends and the family thing during the week.  It’s been really healthy for me…it’s fun.  I’m enjoying it more. 

What about the upcoming Rhythm Devils shows this summer?     

I’m very excited about that.  There’s a big mystery about how that’s gonna go down musically, and arrangements and what not.  But I’m extremely excited to be on stage – in a band!   To play with Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann is truly an honor for me, and a rush.  Andy Hess is a fantastic bass player that I remember seeing with John Scofield, and all his years with Gov’t Mule.  And Davy Knowles I’m excited to play with him.  I’ve checked him out online, but I’m not that familiar with his stuff.  He seems like a real chick magnet, so that’s gonna be real interesting [laughs].

Are you gonna have the whole Keller rig on stage?

No, I don’t think so.  Mickey is hinting…I think that’s one of Mickey’s ideas, for me and him to go on these tangents, but I’m not really sure how that’s gonna work out.  That’s part of the mystery as well.  But I did buy a new electric guitar for the gig…very excited.  Yeah, I’m excited about playing rhythm guitar and really getting into percussion.  I think there’s gonna be a no-holds-barred type of idea, in that we’re gonna take these jams into these instant futuristic elements, incorporating the different technologies that Mickey has been playing with the past couple of years.  So I’m hoping to touch on some electronica with these players.  Electronica is a word that might be furthest from your mind, but I’m thinking that could be a possibility.  And like I said, there’s this huge mystery about this thing and I’m really excited about checking it out. 

What are your thoughts on String Cheese getting back together?

I think it’s fantastic.  They sold Red Rocks in what was it… thirty minutes.  That by itself shows that people are ready, and wanting it, so it’s completely justified for their return.  Plus all the guys in the band are jonesing to play together and feel that energy again.  And I’m really excited…I think they’re doing it right, and not touring.  Not going out and trying to fill a bunch of theaters.  They’re doing selective areas, and specific venues, and I think it’s going to be nothing but positive for not only the band, but everyone who’s going to be in attendance. 

Will we see you out there at all?

As of right now I’m not on any of the shows, but I will definitely be at, at least two of the nine shows.

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