John Webb McMurray was a guitar–playing, rock ‘n’ roll–loving kid from Hattiesburg, Miss. In 1981, he starred in the first of a series of short films as Webb Wilder, Private Eye — a hillbilly gumshoe with a dry wit, a briefcase full of trailer park gags, and a guitar case full of rockabilly, surf, honky–tonk and R&B licks.
By 1986, when Landslide Records released the hard–rocking, hard–drinking album It Came From Nashville, the cartoonish film noir dick and the irreverent singer–songwriter–bandleader were one and the same guy.
He’s Webb Wilder, The Last of the Full Grown Men. Pleased to meet you, ma’am.
He came close a few times, but Wilder — despite a reputation as one of rock’s true renaissance men, a writer of witty tunes and a way–cool live performer — never became what you’d call a household name.
Which is a durn shame, because there’s no one out there like him — a soulful amalgam of Link Wray, Dex Romweber, Roy Orbison, John Hiatt, Elvis Costello, Johnny Cash, C.W. McCall and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Them glasses are cool.
Wilder and his band, the Beatnecks, play their first Savannah show in three years this weekend at Loco’s.
We rang Wilder at his home in Nashville and plied him with questions.
To me, your music has always been just rock ‘n’ roll. These days, I’ve noticed that it’s now referred to, quite specifically, as “Roots Rock.”
Webb Wilder: I’m glad you think it’s rock ‘n’ roll. I think everything I’ve ever done is rock ‘n’ roll, really. The Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, and Van Morrison and The Band and the Faces, and even their predecessors like Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis, all these people embraced all sorts of genres. And wrote their songs and did their covers almost by whim. Almost the hallmark of a good album was an album that had a lot of variety.
When I came along, things had changed to where people wanted you to be some kind of one–trick pony, so they could market that. It’s easier to market. All of my albums have usually had — to use a dumb–ass description — a slow song, or a ballad. And some different leanings, country, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll.
But I think the term “Roots Rock” has been around for a long time. Creedence was called that way back when. And we just always sort of accepted that we would be called “roots rockers,” or something worse. Because there’s a rootsy sensibility to it.
When you arrived on the scene, you had created this character, Webb Wilder. How much of him was really you?
Webb Wilder: I was always sort of a mimic, and a people–watcher. Southerners are very colorful people, you know, and I grew up in the deep, insular South. So when it came time to do that film (Webb Wilder, Private Eye, 1981) I just tried to channel a lot of the stuff I had absorbed. The voice came from Fess Parker as Daniel Boone, and by the time we did the Horror Hayride movie about 10 years later, it was a little more cynical. Little more of a Jerry Lee kind of a guy.
We used to really lean on the shtick live, and quite possibly we should be doing it more now — except if you don’t change, you’re dead.
Not only are you never too small to hit the big time, you’re never too big to get a reality check. I always say “Loved by dozens,” and there are 11 people in town who have heard of me. Sometimes it’s a strange niche to occupy.
You grew up in Mississippi in the ‘60s. How did the British Invasion affect you?
Webb Wilder: Looking back, I kind of gravitated towards the bluesier ones, the Kinks, the Animals. The Kinks were multi–dimensional, but they were roots rockers. The Rolling Stones are fascinating in many ways to me. The Stones have always been “a roots bands for rock fans, and a rock band for roots fans.” And that’s kind of what we’ve always tried to do with our thing.
Hattiesburg is about an hour north of Biloxi. What was the happening music around there at the time?
Webb Wilder: A lot of bands had a huge R&B/soul component. Being the fact that you’re in Mississippi, and an Afro–Celtic culture to begin with, that was great dance music. And it was some of the hit music of the day.
And then when the Beatle thing happened there was a shift, so a repertoire would be made up of “Ferry Cross the Mersey,” by Gerry & the Pacemakers, and “Midnight Hour.” And then by the time my band came along ... we were younger than those guys. We didn’t have and keyboards, we didn’t have any horns, we didn’t have any chops. We didn’t have any gear! We were just a baby band in junior high. And psychedelic music was coming out!
So we kind of inherited this teen–center repertoire — so we would do “Mustang Sally” and “Midnight Hour,” then we’d try to tackle something like “Refried Boogie” by Canned Heat, that was like 20 minutes long. Or “The Ballad of You, Me and Pooneil” by Jefferson Airplane.
And I was watching all the great country music television shows. Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton.
Through Pete Townshend interviews, it was “Who is this Mose Allison guy? Who is Eddie Cochran?”
When the second wave hit — Yes and King Crimson and the prog–rock bands — that was good for about an album. I found myself gravitating much more to Free, and the Faces, and the bluesier stuff.
By that time, we would go to the Warehouse in New Orleans and see the Faces. We saw Badfinger and a lot of great people. And I saw Ray Charles in Hattiesburg.
Then you moved to Austin, in the mid ‘70s. I bet that was interesting.
Webb Wilder: That was a great, eclectic, no–holds–barred art colony. It was just great. And then we discovered Johnny Burnette and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio, and rockabilly, and somehow the new music explosion with Graham Parker and Elvis Costello and that stuff opened the floodgates for the rockabilly thing, the Stray Cats and all that. So I really did my time studying a lot of rockabilly stuff and performing it.
Then you figure, OK, what kind of music am I supposed to make?
I just call it all rock ‘n’ roll.
Webb Wilder & the Beatnecks
Where: Loco’s Grill & Pub, 301 W. Broughton St.
When: At 9 p.m. Saturday, April 28