Brooks Williams is a singer-songwriter-guitarist from Statesboro, Georgia, who has been entertaining audiences all over the world with his original material and reworked blues songs for over 25 years. He’s been ranked as one of the Top 100 Acoustic Guitarist and is one of the coolest vocalists you’re ever likely to hear. If you go to a Brooks Williams gig you’ll be dazzled by his guitar work, charmed by his singing, and drawn out of yourself by the stories in his songs. But more than that, you’ll go away with a big smile on your face which will last all week. According to americanaUK, Brooks is “impossible not to like.”
Blues Matters says simply, Brooks Williams is “…classy, tasteful, bright and hugely enjoyable!”
Gary: Tell us a bit about your relationship with the blues, Brooks. If you look at your albums, it looks like your interest in the blues has developed over the past few years.
Brooks: I’d say that fundamentally the blues has always been the bedrock of my musical understanding. The blues cadence, the musical, the lyrical cadence. Coming from Statesboro Georgia, it’s in the rhythm of life there!
I left Georgia to go to university in Boston when I was seventeen and I was eager to get away from home, to spread my wings. In Boston, what I found myself doing was more acoustic, singer-songwriter, jazzy stuff – there was this contemporary thing that was happening there at the time and I got swept up in that. That was the mid-late 80s, and blues was at a real low ebb. Especially in America. But in those days, even though I was doing this contemporary acoustic thing, I was still immediately identified as having blues roots. I was asked to support people like Taj Mahal, John Hammond, Maria Muldaur, Rory Block, David Bromberg – and they were playing the smallest venues, because there was no big audience for blues [at that time]. And as I look back now, I think – what an amazing opportunity to see these fantastic blues artists in very intimate, 40 seat venues.
Gary: So have you noticed the appetite for blues music change?
Brooks: It’s definitely changed since then. Promoters kept putting me with these sort of artists and although I fell into that very easily, I was with record companies that saw me as doing this new acoustic thing. So I was quite split in my feelings about what I should do – because my performances were quite different from my recordings. I did a lot more bottleneck guitar in my gigs. But when I’d get in the studio, the engineers would say, oh that bottleneck thing’s noisy, we don’t like that sound, can we clean that up? I was in my twenties and I thought, well, they must know better.
So I would say that what’s happened to me and the blues is a growing realization of how important the blues is to what I do – as a writer, as a player. I came to this point of crisis, when the record industry was beginning to implode, when downloading was starting to happen, and my record company practically went out of business. (They just hadn’t anticipated the change in the market.) I found myself done with my record deal, didn’t know what to do. I was really struggling and I had a young family at the time…and I really seriously thought about packing in music and looking for something else to do.
And meanwhile I was getting phone calls and emails from people asking me to come and do gigs – not based around a record or anything, just come and play. I’d go to these gigs and I just started playing what I knew – which was Statesboro Blues, Weeping Willow Blues, Belfast Blues and so on. That’s what I played at home, that’s what I loved. I had no set list, I’d just play what I wanted. And what happened was – I had a great time! And even more importantly, the audience had a great time! And the more I just went with the flow, the better it got.
And that’s where I began to introduce blues back into my recorded work. And it was a revelation – it was like closing the page on one chapter of my life and opening another. And I’ve never looked back.
Gary: And what you often do is to take an old blues song and rework it and breathe new life into it – what do you think is the enduring appeal of these old songs?
Blind Willie Johnson
Brooks: Well, it’s the timeless lyric. The lyric to do with suffering and injustice is timeless. And alienation. We often think of that being the territory of the poor and disenfranchised financially – which is very true – but equally, I would say it’s about moral poverty. This sense of being disenfranchised is something most people can relate to. So what I find enduring in those old blues songs is they link to wherever we are in the strata. Like Soul of a Man by Blind Willie Johnson – that’s a timeless song, he’s captured something there.
And it doesn’t matter whether you’re in the palace or the poorhouse…
Gary: …that’s a question facing us all?
Brooks: Yes, that’s right. And then equally, back to your question, I have such respect for those players who can recreate the pre-war blues sound or the 50s blues sound – but for a lot of people, the minute they hear that old sound, they switch off. So I’ve been looking for ways to introduce this great timeless music in a way that an audience is going to listen to long enough to get it.
Gary: So looking back at some of these old artists, who are your favourites, your heroes?
Blind Boy Fuller
Brooks: It tends to be the acoustic players. I’m a big fan of the Blind Boy Fuller school of playing, that Piedmont blues. As an acoustic guitarist, I just kind of relate to that. And Mississippi John Hurt is a great story teller – I love songs that have a good story in them. More so than lyrics that just hang on a hook and so on. But in the early days, I listened to Blind Willie Johnson and Fred McDowell – those were my early influences.
Gary: And these guys were great guitarists as well….
Brooks: Yes, I really, really liked that. And then, of course, being from Statesboro Georgia, I have to listen to Blind Willie McTell – I have to! And what a beautiful singer – I love his musicality.
And a later guy who influenced how I play the blues, rhythmically – although he’s not strictly speaking a blues player – is Snooks Eaglin, from New Orleans. He has such a universal way of playing the song – playing the bass line, the chords, and some lead – and he sang!
Gary: And of course you have a song about Lightnin’ Hopkins…
Brooks: Right. When I’m in a Texas mood – the way he plays, that slow delivery, he’s great.
Gary: I read a biography of Blind Willie McTell recently – Hand Me Down My Travelling Shoes. Really enjoyed it, very nicely written.
Brooks: Yes, that’s a very detailed biography, packed with so much information. When my wife and I were on tour earlier this year we were in Georgia and one afternoon we drove up to where Blind Willie McTell is buried. It’s in Thomson, Georgia, which is a little speck on the map between Augusta and Atlanta – it’s a stop on the way, but that’s where his music came from. And it made me really value that book even more, because you really would have had to dig to get information on Willie McTell – he was from the middle of nowhere!
Gary: To change direction slightly, Brooks, you recently made a trip to Africa to work with some kids there who don’t have too many opportunities. Can you tell us a bit about that adventure?
Brooks: That was amazing. It was very challenging because the cultural differences are enormous. We were with a charity there which hooked us up with children in schools, doing music, dance, movement to music. From the schools’ point of view it was about getting English language into the schools. From our point of view, we were bringing Western music to the schools. Now, funnily enough, the missionaries had already been there years before, so everyone’s sense of music was old gospel and folk songs. But they’d done something to these old songs – they changed the lyrics and they added this marvelous life to the songs. It was amazing!
Pashua School, Tanzania
In East Africa they don’t really have an instrumental culture, it’s all about drums and voices. So I brought my resonator guitar – largely because it’s really rugged and it was really difficult terrain where we were. And these children had never seen a guitar or seen someone play one in person. And the most amazing thing that really excited me was trying to teach them a 12 bar blues. It was a really simple blues – Good Mornin’ Blues, an old Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee song. In a blues song there’s a gap between the lines, the ‘response’ part of the ‘call and response’, where the music vamps around the chord changes. The kids didn’t know what to do with those gaps in the lyrics! They just raced ahead and just could not get the sense of there being space to wait to sing the next line – until we got them dancing. Now if they had a dance to do, they could keep time, but otherwise they just couldn’t stop themselves going on with the song. And that was fascinating. How would they want to change a 12 bar blues and make it their own. It got me thinking: what would an East Africa 12-bar blues look like?
Brooks teaches guitar
We were in Tanzania for about 2 weeks and were in the classroom every day. 70 kids in a class, 12 classes a day! We were exhausted! But what happened was – in about the middle of the 1st week – the 10, 11, 12 year-olds came into class something they’d made at home that resembled a guitar. Maybe a broom handle stuck to an old watering can, with a bit of twine for a strap. And you could see the wheels in their minds turning: how can they make a guitar more like mine? And I thought to myself – how long until they put a nail in the top of the broom handle and another nail in the base of the watering can and put a piece of wire between them? How long until they start twanging? And of course I had my slide there – and I thought, how long until they pick up a bit of metal or glass and slide it along that piece of wire? I was imagining something like an early rural South plantation era musical experience.
It was an amazing experience. And one that, musically speaking, has been…gestating… percolating…. in my mind since. Everything they did was rhythmically based, and so joyful, even in their poverty. It has influenced how I look at rhythm.
Gary: That is one of the things about going to the developing world, where you meet people who have nothing and yet they’re joyful, or they are so hospitable to you, when you have so much and they have so little. It’s a remarkable thing to experience.
Brooks: Yes it is. I did a few gigs in a dusty square and the people came out and they would be hundreds deep and closing in…and we would get them dancing.
My favourite memory was the final concert/celebration that we did. We had hired this guy to bring a sound system. He brought it in the back of a pick-up truck and it was massive. Nobody knew how to work it. So I ended up running the sound as well as performing. The students sat for hours in the afternoon sun and the local dignitaries were there giving speeches in Swahili. At one point the head of the school board got up and gave a speech about the honoured guests and so on, and then he looked at me and he said, “Would you play something?” So I stepped up to the front, plugged in the resonator guitar and started playing the opening riff to Boom Boom, the John Lee Hooker song. I was no more than 2 bars into the tune when all 800 kids got to their feet and came towards the makeshift stage, and there in the dust they all started dancing to this lone guitar. I thought: the dignitaries are going to be a bit cross about this. Well, the dignitaries were not: they got off the platform and came down into the dust and were dancing as well! The place went bonkers!
I thought: there’s something in this music. John Lee Hooker had this riff which I sort of developed, but it linked with these children in East Africa and they were on their feet dancing. After it was over and the kids sat down, a little boy got up and whispered something to the head teacher. The head teacher then came to me and told me that this boy had been so inspired by what had been happening, that he’d composed a rap and he’d like to perform it for everyone – now! And he wants me to play guitar for him.
So this little boy, ten years old, in dirty trousers and a ripped jumper, takes a wireless microphone and begins to rap – with the attitude! He had the hand in the trousers – the whole bit. He did this rap in Swahili and I did a little funky groove on guitar for him. And everybody just went crazy. I was deeply touched, and when it was over I asked the director what he’d been rapping about, and he said, “thank you friend for coming, for bringing your music and your guitar, we’ve never heard this before, and we hope you’ll come back soon and we’ll dance again.”
And I thought, how can we get this boy a guitar – because this music is just waiting to pour out of him. It was a powerful moment. But made sober by the reality that the future for this boy is probably very grim, mostly because of AIDS. If the boys do survive to become men, what kind of work will they do? The last thing he needs is a guitar, there are other things he needs a lot more, but you can’t help but wonder.
What they’ve given to me is a sense of this: when you sing, you sing from the heart. They sang from the heart. Also, music is meant to be moved to, which is a good reminder for a solo performer, that you can move to what you’re doing.
Gary: This whole sense of music touching people – John Lee Hooker said, blues is a healer. And if you ever go to a Bruce Springsteen concert – it’s a spiritual experience. And he seems to have this sense of the redemptive power of the music to touch people, but clearly what you’ve been talking about is pretty much the same thing…
Brooks: Yes. Exactly right. I do think music transcends barriers and boundaries. And I know I have been deeply touched and deeply healed, if you will, by music. It’s a powerful conduit. I get frustrated when I lose sight of this and I get all wrapped up in the details.
Gary: It touches you emotionally – and as sophisticated Westerners, that’s something we’re often not that comfortable with.
Couple of final questions. You made an album this year called State of the Union with Boo Hewerdine. Have you been pleased at the way that’s been received?
Brooks: Yes very much so. At first we thought maybe we’d do an EP and maybe one local gig for charity. But when we got to the studio, we just loved the simplicity of it – two acoustic guitars and two voices. We didn’t labour over any of the takes, we just played it in the moment. We were finished recording in a day and a half. Shortly after, it got picked up by a label and then a tour was put together.
The tour went very well and the whole thing got stronger and stronger. There’s something in the way Boo thinks about music – as an English songwriter, with a very sophisticated ironic and quick-witted Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello type of song writing – that I can relate to. And he seems to find a link with my blues/American/roots thing. When were gigging I kinda know where he’s going and he kinda knows where I’m going, and we know how to sing together.
We’re just about to begin the 2nd part of the tour in November. Then we’re looking to make a new record in the new year. It’s the first time I’ve worked in a serious duo and had a serious collaboration.
Gary: But you’ve a solo project that you’ve just completed as well?
Brooks: Yes. I do want to keep my solo thing going alongside State of the Union.
Gary: What can we expect to hear?
Brooks: Well the songs are definitely more evidently rooted in the blues tradition than the songs I write for State of the Union. Plus, I had some fantastic guests join me as well. Martin Simpson came in for one track – the Doc Watson classic, Deep River Blues – that was just mind-blowing! A young banjo player from Sheffield called Rowan Rheingans and a harmonic player from Cambridge called Steve Lockwood joined me on a few tracks as well. The other tracks are based around a trio of me with a great double bass player called Andy Seward and an exciting drummer called Keith Angel. But the thing I love the most about this new album – probably on the back of going to Africa and on the back of working with Boo – is that I’ve been in a very creative writing phase, so I really like all the songs. Plus I’ve learned a little bit about irony in my years in the UK. Americans, as you know, don’t do irony! We’re not naturally endowed that way, but I’ve been learning how great irony can be, so I’ve introduced this into a few songs!
Gary: And a few bluesy numbers?
Brooks: Yes definitely – a cover of Deep River Blues, Mercury Blues and some originals that are very much in the a traditional roots/blues song style.
Gary: We’re looking forward to it. Thanks, Brooks.
Brooks Williams: Weeping Willow Blues
Brooks Williams, acoustic guitar & slide