“As players, we aspire toward this touch,” says acoustic guitar ace Brooks Williams, “this fine line between being really rock solid on the fretboard, and being so loose that it’s like butter.” Williams is conducting a music workshop before his appearance that evening at a Swift Creek house concert in Raleigh.
“Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello are brilliant singer-songwriters,” he adds, “but they aren’t guitar players, are they?” It’s people like Tony Rice, or The Dixie Dregs’ Steve Morse, who possess that light touch, a touch that Williams’ hero Tuck Andress (of Tuck & Patti) describes as “treating the strings like they’re red hot.”
While his name is not exactly a household word, Brooks Williams knows something about “the touch.” He’s a legend among guitar geeks like the admirers attending his workshop. A 42-year-old “fret monster” from Statesboro, Ga., Williams migrated to the Boston area and has since released 12 CDs. He’s a familiar face in jazz guitar magazines. But defining his music is no simple task.
To scan the liner notes of his latest releases, Skiffle-Bop, Little Lion, or Dead Sea Cafe (a compilation on Raleigh’s Silent Planet label), is to encounter a staggering variety of musical and literary influences. There’s Brazilian composer Caetano Veloso and accordionist Luiz Gonzaga; Larry Coryell and Pat Metheny; Django Reinhardt and Joseph Spence; Richard Thompson and Elmore James; Blind Willie Johnson and Beethoven (rendered in bossa nova). There are Appalachian folk hymns and Senegalese guitar numbers, along with references to poems by T.S. Eliot and Francis Thompson. Writers like Frederick Buechner, Barbara Kingsolver, Annie Dillard, and Anne LaMott inform his work. The name Skiffle-Bop, in fact, is an homage to the British fusion of country-blues and swing plus the jazz of the 1940s.
Not exactly what you’d expect from the son of an Episcopal minister and a classical choral singer. Or is it?
“I feel like I’ve accumulated interests as I’ve gone,” Williams says. “I was just like any other kid. Except, early on, I was exposed to a lot of different types of music. My mother did choral music, and that can be some heavy stuff. And I had to go not only to her performances, but often to her rehearsals, because we didn’t have a babysitter. So I’m 9 years old, listening to whatever the famous pop group was at that time, and at the same time I’m listening to Mahler. I might be listening to Handel, and Fleetwood Mac.”
The important part, he says, was that it was live. And … it was loud.
“When I was in my teens, I was a big fan of Deep Purple. And what I loved about them was the sheer volume. Well, you know, a symphony orchestra–if you’re sitting up front–has just as much volume. They can knock you off your seat, you know?”
But it was two acoustic guitarists, Phil Keaggy and Michael Hedges, who really pulled the chair out from under Williams. “I was 17, at a point when my mind was really open, and when I heard those players, there was no turning back,” he says. “They’re the type of guitarists who make other players say, ‘I never want to play again.’ But I said, ‘Wow, so you can do that on the guitar? That’s in my guitar, too?’ I credit them with inspiring me to find all of that sound.”
And there was a lot of sound to be found. Williams began in his younger days, listening to blues and jazz records, unaware that two or three different guitar parts might be overdubbed. Instead, he tried to play all the parts at the same time–with some measure of success. And if that wasn’t enough, he started playing his guitar like a drum. As a solo acoustic act in his early career, he kept hearing the double kick drum of the Allman Brothers in his head while he played. “I’d think, how am I going to get that into my music?”
He tells his workshop audience how he figured it out. “I want to give a sense that the groove never stops,” he explains, “so I’m relentless with the pick, and when I’m not picking the strings, I’m hitting the body of the guitar.” Today, he describes this “percussion discussion” as the singular challenge of his career. “When you work with a drummer, and you’re already a percussive player, you’re kind of stealing the guy’s job.”
Another challenge has been coming to terms with his roots and identity.
A product of the South, he was the only member of his family to move away. “I really fell in love with the North,” he says. “It felt like home–especially Boston. But it’s funny, as I get older, I know I’m not from there. I have no roots there. I ask myself the question: Did I bail on the South too soon? Should I have stuck around a little longer, and what could have happened? Would I be playing a shiny National guitar?”
Faith is part of the challenge, too. Williams describes himself as a Christian, and remembers a kind of epiphany he experienced after coming off the road one year and going to church up north around Easter. “I was remembering a lot,” he says. “I was reminded that as a child I would go to these services all the time–there was no choice, you went cause it was dad’s work. I was sitting there thinking, ‘This is great, I’ve been too long gone from this.’ And this woman sat down at the piano and started playing this real simple little hymn, and I just had to learn it on guitar.” The song was a traditional number called, “What Wondrous Love.”
That’s when Williams says he became serious about Christianity and hooked up with a group of “broad-minded individuals” who shared his interest not only in music and literature, but in social and economic issues. “They really took religion out of being just words,” he says. “They were very involved, and had the idea that your faith would go hand in hand with your action–that you would do something, and that it would really make a difference in your community.”
While Williams’ musical mentors are many, it’s faith that informs his lyrics. “I feel very strongly that we’re on a journey,” he says. “If we are thinking humans, if we are tuned in to life, and we are interested in growth, it’s a journey. And that’s hard–journeys aren’t easy. And that’s not exactly front page news in our culture: We don’t want to hear about the struggle.”
Still, Williams continues his personal and musical journey, struggles and all. “Down on the streets they’re selling lies and preaching greed,” he sings on “Seven Sisters,” named for a chain of mountains on the horizon of his Northampton, Mass., home. But the song also conveys a sense of optimism and a vision of renewal: “The coyote’s running again in these hills/The salmon’s swimming again in the river/The trees are returning to the mountainside/And if they can come back, maybe there’s hope for this man.”
It’s a feeling shared by the guys who came out for Williams’ workshop.
“Beyond his ability to reach out with his guitar,” says musician Mike Wilson from Raleigh, “he also has a message. Something to say with his heart, as well as his hands.”