When Keller Williams takes the stage with his bluegrass side project the Travelin’ McCourys, he admits that he’s a bit out of his element. Williams built his reputation playing 10- and 12-string guitars through a loop pedal, so when it comes to bluegrass guitar, he’s not exactly one of Bill Monroe’s boys.
Williams has ventured into the world of serious bluegrass before. Last year, he collaborated with Larry and Jenny Keel on a dynamic album titled Thief. His recent work with the Travelin’ McCourys, featuring the children of Del McCoury, has yielded similarly impressive results.
“The McCourys know full well that I can’t produce a 30-second flat-picking solo in the traditional style, but what I can produce is a 30-second vocal solo that emulates or imitates a flat-picking solo,” says Williams. “For some strange reason, unbeknownst to me, they’re OK with that, which kind of blows me away.”
Williams respects the McCourys’ willingness to step outside of their comfort zone with him. As for Williams himself, he’s an artist who knows no boundaries. In the last year alone, he’s released a children’s album, Kids, and he began to add matinee family performances before his regular evening shows in some markets. In December, he’ll release Bass, his first album where he exclusively holds down the low end, utilizing a fretless Fender Jazz bass and classic four-string Precision bass.
“No guitar was used on the record,” explains Williams, who recorded the 11-track disc with a trio he calls Kdubalicious, featuring Jay Starling on keyboards and Mark D on drums. “It’s very reggae/dub/funk, and I’ve been pretty obsessed with it. It’s really awesome, being the leader of a band and playing bass. The amount of power that comes out of the bass tones, compared to the guitar, is a whole new really cool direction. I love it. Compared to my other records, it’s sonically very different. It’s pretty fresh.”
At this week’s two-night stint at the Pour House, Williams will have a much smaller guitar arsenal than he’s brought in the past, but the P-Bass will be on board. Two years ago, Williams came to town on the Guitar Store Tour, decking out his stage with 25 instruments that he pulled from throughout the night. These days, he’s adjusted his touring schedule to put him at home on weekdays, allowing him to spend more time with his two children, ages three and seven.
“We’re definitely simplifying and focusing on the music and less on the stage set up. I’ve been having a really good time making as much music with the small amount I bring,” says Williams.
Williams recently transitioned back to the six-string guitars on which he learned to play. His 12-string Guild was once a fixture of his live performance, but it’s been retired. It now hangs on the wall in his living room.
“The older I get, the harder it is to constantly play a 12-string,” says Williams, who turned 41 this year. He’s clearly balancing his renowned boundless musical energy with a focused desire to be there for his kids’ childhood.
“I’m still cool to them, and I’ve been told by so many people that that element of life is limited, and that there’s going to be a time shortly where I’m not going to be cool anymore,” says Williams. “I’m just going on what the elders before me say, that ‘My kid is 13, and he wants me to drop him off down the street.’ I’m prepared for that. I just want to make sure I’m around for the cool years.”
These days, Williams squeezes his 120 show annual average into two-and-three day weekends throughout the year. And for much of the time, he plays songs with kid-pleasing titles like “Car Seat,” “Taking a Bath,” and the ever-popular, “Mama Tooted.”
For his two nights in Charleston, Williams decided to bill the first performance as an all-request show, no small venture for a man with 16 albums and a history of covers, ranging from the Grateful Dead to the Butthole Surfers. Instead of taking song requests online or via Facebook, as he’s done for similar shows in the past, fans will submit their requests when they enter the show.
“I’m trying to make it a little more spontaneous,” he explains. “There will be plenty of requests that I know and plenty I don’t know. Sometimes I’ll have fun with it and try to play songs that I don’t know, just for fun. It’s kind of like camaraderie with the audience.”
What covers have proved most difficult to learn or adapt to acoustic guitar over the years?
“There’s a song by Camper Van Beethoven, ‘Still Wishing the Course,’ that was a sticky one. And it was tough teaching a bluegrass version of ‘Dancing Fool’ by Frank Zappa to the Keels,” recalls Williams, who often releases covers and quirky new originals on his website for fans to download and comment on. “I want to let the audience know that I’m one of them. I’m a fan of music first and a musician second.”