“He’s a lovely player, a lovely singer, and a great writer – the real thing.” Martin Simpson.
(Photo: Arlene Avery)
Hailing from Statesboro, Georgia, Brooks Williams is a singer-songwriter, jaw-droppingly good guitar player, and consummate performer, whose music melds blues, Americana and folk into a heady soulful mix. If you’re one of the lucky ones to have seen Brooks Williams playing live, you’ll have come away feeling good, with a huge smile on your face. If, by any chance, you don’t already know Brooks Williams, you’ve sold yourself short – start delving into his excellent back catalogue of around 30 albums immediately.
He’s graced stages along the way with Taj Mahal, John Hammond, Maria Muldaur, Shawn Colvin, Paul Jones, David Bromberg, and more recently toured with Guy Davis and Hans Theessink. His guitar and bottleneck slide playing is legendary; he’s got a sweet, but versatile voice, and is a great song-writer with a ready wit. Watch out too for those covers he does from the blues and jazz back-catalogue as well as more recent stuff, where his reinterpretation of the songs breathes new life into them.
He tours the UK and the US relentlessly and is just about to embark on a tour promoting his album, Work My Claim, which celebrates Brooks’s 30 years as a performing and recording artist.
Gary: So, Brooks, the new album: Work My Claim, is a celebration of 30 years recording and performing. You’ve chosen 12 songs from throughout your career, (plus 4 bonus songs when you buy the CD). You’ve recorded something like 23 solo albums to date, aside from collaborative work – so a lot of songs written and recorded over the years – how did you choose just 12 songs?
Brooks; It was a difficult process. I actually spent a whole year going through the old material. You know, once I finished Lucky Star, I immediately turned my attention to this project because I knew I needed to reacquaint myself with the old songs. So, I spent about a year going through the various albums, listening and then trying to play the songs, seeing which ones felt like they were still relevant. And which ones I was interested in. Because a lot changed over 30 years. But it really was a labour of love to go through those songs.
It was great to reconnect with things and so interesting to find those true moments. Like there’s a track on the record, You Don’t Know My Mind, which is an old Leadbelly track. But when I originally learned it, of course, I didn’t know it was a Leadbelly track because we didn’t have the Internet and there was no book at the library that would help you. People at the local record shop were a good resource, but they didn’t always have all the information. I learned this track from someone on the road, just picked it up while I was travelling around and I re-created it from memory. And of course, I got it wrong. But I like it. And it shows how robust a blues song can be.
Anyway I went through all these songs and I felt like, well, if a song doesn’t want to speak to me now, maybe it’s just one that will continue to exist as it was done 20 or 25 years ago. And those are songs that I’ll still happily play in the gigs. If someone says to me, oh, I’d love to hear this old track from 1993, I’m happy to do it. I just didn’t feel it needed a place on a recording because it’s already got one.
Gary: Yeah, that’s very interesting. But isn’t it a wonderful thing, Brooks, to feel that what you’re doing as an artist has developed and there continues to be great value, and increased value, as time goes on?
Brooks: I feel like the same person who is, you know, sitting in the studio 30 years ago thinking the best was yet to come. And I still feel that now. So, I’m sitting here speaking to you and I’m actually holding a copy of the CD in my hand and thinking it really looks good. I’m so proud of the songs – but I’m still thinking, oh, Gary, I can’t wait for you to hear the songs I’m writing now! And so to always have that sense that there’s the next bit coming. And I really feel that what I’m doing is part of something that’s alive. And I don’t mean that as a reflection just on me. I just mean that music is a very alive thing. And I found a way to sort of swim with it or grab on to it or…jump on board that train.
Gary: You know, I was talking to Rory Block a couple of months ago and she’s just turned 70, I think. And she was fantastic. She said, oh, you know, I feel like I’m just getting started. And I thought that was wonderful. Having turned 60 a couple of years ago myself -which, incidentally, I still can’t believe. And hearing that was very refreshing. And hearing what you’re saying is very refreshing as well, because I know you’ve passed that landmark!
Brooks: Yes! I passed that landmark a year ago now. And I can’t believe it either!
Gary: But that’s a very positive thing to say for sure. Now you’ve got a couple of covers on the album. You’ve mentioned the Leadbelly one. And there’s Dave Alvin’s King of California and Duke Ellington’s I Got It Bad – all great songs. So why did you include them and not other originals?
Brooks: Well, as part of the process I just sent out the call through email, through social media, to people who listen to my music. And I said, this is the project that I’m working on and I would love to hear what your top five songs are. And number one for every single person who sent a response back was King of California. And so I knew without a doubt that that was going to be on there.
And I knew the Leadbelly song would be on there because I felt as though that was such an important milestone for me. To take an old blues song, but to not do it in in the style that people are familiar with and yet stay true to the song. So I kind of figured that had to be there.
And then I Got it Bad. That came about because I went in the studio to make this record and I probably recorded near on 30 tracks digitally. I recorded way more than I needed and it was very apparent straight away that, you know, some of them just didn’t have any extra life in them. They sounded fine but just didn’t have any extra life. But likewise, when I did, I Got It Bad, that one was a real standout performance. I was in the studio with the engineer, Mark Freegard, along with the studio owner, and both of them said, wow, that was really something. And I was already shifting to the next tune. But they said, hang on a second – can we go back to that? We’d like to hear that again, because you kind of went somewhere we’ve not heard you go before. And so it really was their calling it to my attention that made it be on the record.
Sometimes I was using songs I knew well just to stay warmed up in the studio. So even if I wasn’t going to use them, I thought, well, if I sing a couple of takes of this one and I know it well – and I do know the Duke Ellington song really well – I thought this will just be a bridge for me to get to the next song. But in this case, this one stuck. On probably more than two occasions I said to the various people working with me on the record, oh, well, I’m not going to put that one on. And every single time I did, everybody came back to me and said, please put that on!
There were some other songs that didn’t make the record. For example, I have a really enjoyable version of Gambling Man that I did with Hans Theessink. But I thought, well, there’s nothing I would do on this recording that’s going to be better than that. And there were some tracks from my Shreveport Sessions, which I really loved. And even though I recorded them again, it just didn’t feel like they needed to be there. You know, it was one of those gut feelings. And the other thing is that over the course of 30 years, one’s point of view changes. And so there are certain things that I wrote about in earlier years that didn’t seem quite as relevant now or maybe if I were to think about them now, I would think about them differently. I didn’t try to work with those songs.
So in the end, if there was going to be too much deconstruction, I thought, well, I’m so far away from the original, there is no sense in going with this. So, that played a big role in which songs made it.
Gary: You completely reworked Whatever It Takes from Lucky Star, didn’t you?
Brooks: Well, interestingly enough, when I write songs, I write two or three completely different versions of the same song. And I mean completely different tunes. So, the version that you hear on Work My Claim, that’s how I originally wrote the song. And somehow when I was recording Lucky Star, it didn’t seem like it had a place there. I was really kind of struggling with it. So I ended up with a completely alternate version, which is what you hear on Lucky Star. And that’s pretty much how all my original songs work. It’s a bit of a rod to my own back because it makes double the work for everything. But sometimes I don’t know what feel I’m going for until I actually go there and sort of sit in it for a while. Kind of live in that groove and those chord changes. And the basis of all this is, I start with lyrics first. And I write almost the complete lyrics without any music. By the time I get to the music, the lyrics are pretty well set. And then I have room to move.
Gary: Now, looking at this group of songs Brooks, are there one or two that mark particular points in the Brooks William story? Pivotal points maybe?
Brooks: I actually think that’s true for every song there. As I look at the list of songs, every song was important in its time. And it did something that helped take me to where I am now. So every song has a place.
Inland Sailor was the first song that I ever recorded that actually got a fair bit of radio play. I don’t really understand why it did. But that one really propelled me and actually it’s the song that took me to Ireland for the first time. It was getting played and somebody rang me up from Belfast and said, you know, we would like you to come here and play. What’s it going to take to get you here? And it opened up all kinds of doors all over the UK and Ireland. And then also in Canada. That was a real important song for me.
And the song Mercy, Illinois was the first song that I wrote that was a straight-ahead narrative song. And that was a real important turning point, because I was very young and I was looking for a kind of a local idiom, I was trying to capture that Midwestern feel. And that song ended up being one that people focused on. Acoustic Guitar magazine interviewed me about it and I ended up doing the tab and the music and the chords. And it was such a big deal because no one had ever heard of me at that point. So, every song kind of has a place in there. Each song just turned the game around at that point.
Gary: Very Interesting. And of course, a song like Frank Delandry has got its own story.
Brooks: Yeah. Well that song has been very important to me because not only is it a narrative song but it also it tells a story about a guitar player, Frank Delandry from New Orleans, who one day just mysteriously disappeared and was never heard from again. And so, his memory lives on in legend, not that dissimilar from the legend of Robert Johnson. And so that’s a great story in itself. But one of the things that was so interesting about that song is that it’s probably the first of my songs that when people would hear me play it, they would want to play it too. That had never happened before. People would actually be sending me recordings of them playing at their local acoustic club! I never had that happen before.
And then the thing I love about it is that it’s firmly set in that sort of sub-delta region of New Orleans. It’s so set in place and time. Which is a place and a time musically that has had the biggest influence on what I do. And so, I felt like I was paying homage to my elders, so to speak. I think it’s important for us to do that.
Gary: Yeah that’s true. And it’s a very appealing song, Brooks. People warm to it very readily. Now, you had some fine musicians who worked on the album with you?
Brooks: Yeah. I was so lucky. Gary, I was making the record and I put out the call to loads of people – to all my friends. And unfortunately, there were so many that were on the road, who were busy and couldn’t come and be part of it. But what I’m so pleased about is a friend of mine called John McCusker, a lovely Scottish fiddler, was able to join me. He had been on tour with Mark Knopfler all last year, and was only home in Scotland for two days. And he spent one of those days recording my album! I’m absolutely blown away by that because, you know… Mark Knopfler, Brooks Williams…come on! But I was so honoured that he prioritized me. And the same for Christine Collister – I’ve been a big fan of her singing for years. And I’ve always thought that her voice and mine would sit really well together. And she just was so generous and did a beautiful job.
And I was so delighted that I got to work with a couple of young players as well, a fiddle player from Bristol called Aaron Catlow. I met Aaron on tour in Europe last year, and I just loved his playing. And I thought, wow, this is fiddle that’s kind of folky on the one hand, but it’s kind of bluesy – that Papa John Creach kind of kind of thing that used to happen with Jorma back in the day. And yet kind of jazzy and had a Stephane Grappelli feel as well. So I was so delighted that he was able to play. He’s a very big part of this record.
And then I called on my favourite piano player, a young fella from up in Newcastle, called Phil Richardson. He’s a wonderful piano player. And when I was on tour in Germany, I met a wonderful blues harmonica player called Ralf Grottian. It was tricky to meet up with Ralf, but it was good to get him on one or two tracks anyway. And then my old friend from the USA by the name of Jim Henry, whom I made a record with back in the 90s, was able to remotely add some mandolin and some vocals.
And it was just so great that that I was able to put all these pieces together. So, I knew from the beginning, Gary, this was gonna be an acoustic album and I knew it was going to be an acoustic guitar album. I certainly had my resonator guitar and my cigar box guitar there. I had the mandolin there. But I knew once I got started that something was happening. And whenever I recorded anything with those other instruments, it just didn’t feel right. It felt very reminiscent of when I started. We only could afford, all of us in my peer group, one nice guitar. And I remember going into a guitar shop and looking at a National and thinking, oh, one of these days I’m gonna buy a National. It took me years! But I remember all the music that I created in those early days was on one acoustic guitar. So I almost felt like I was going back to my roots in that way as well.
Gary: Brooks, you’re going to go on tour to the U.S. again in March. Then you’re back in the UK and touring for months. I’m looking at your schedule, it just looks – I mean, I’m tired just looking at it! How do you have the energy to do this, Brooks? [Find Brooks’ tour schedule here]
Brooks: I have loads of energy when it comes to playing and singing! And I look after myself as well. But I know that come the end of the year, I’ll be ready for a nice, long holiday.
Gary: Brooks, thank you so much.
[slightly edited for clarity and length]