Find anyone whos a Webb Wilder fan, and theyll more than likely be able to tell you in excrutiating detail exactly when, where and how they first became aware of his music.
For some it came courtesy of a lone, mysterious song on a mix tape from a friend. A song that they simply couldnt get out of their head. For others, it may have been through a chance sighting at a juke joint or nightclub in the later part of the 1980s. many may have simply seen intriguing promotional photos of he and his original backing group The Beatnecks, and decided they had to find out what was up with those guys.
Still others may have caught one of the many late-night airings of his star turn in the tongue-in-cheek short film Webb Wilder: Private Eye, on the long-gone USA Network series Night Flight.
One thing is for sure, however: Webbs imposingly quirky presence, sonorous baritone, gift of gab and way with a six-string has endeared him to adventurous rock and roll fans the world over.
Though he has repeatedly brushed up against mainstream stardom, he has never quite broken out of cult status. But, oh, what a cult it is.
Over the course of 5 classic albums of nouveau-retro rhythm & blues, hes carved a unique niche for himself and his various bandmates. Loved by some for his easygoing stage presence and by others for his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of a wide swath of American roots music, Wilder who bills himself under such anachronistic handles as The Last of The Full-Grown Men or The Last of The Boarding House People is one of a kind.
An electrifying artist whose oft-repeated credo Work Hard, Rock Hard, Sleep Hard, Eat Hard, Grow Big, Wear Glasses If You Need em has becoming a hipster mantra of sorts for those in the know, succeeds on two levels, for not only does the existence of such an ideology lend a stiff, Jack Webb-esque attitude to the anything-goes world of rock music, but it also gently pokes sly fun at this admittedly non-traditional showman, humanizing him, and thus endearing him greatly to his audience.
Me? Well, I first caught Webb at Johnson City, Tennessees famed listening room The Down Home in 1985, not long after The Beatnecks had first begun to play outside Wilders adopted hometown of Nashville. After a typically frenetic show of non-stop twang-rock and soul that had the packed house literally bouncin off the walls, (to borrow a phrase from one of Webbs own songs) I walked away feeling as though Id finally found a band that exemplified all that I thought was cool about rock and roll music.
Wilder chuckles as he acknowledges that he gets a similar reaction from lots of new converts.
Yeah, we get that a lot. Im kind of surprised by that response. Im humbled by it, actually. Sometimes it feels weird, and you want to try and talk em out of it! (Laughs) Like, hey man, its not that big a deal!
And yet, there is something about the man and his persona that carries a lot of weight with folks. Used copies of his albums, all of which are currently out-of-print, fetch up to $40 apiece on eBay, and there are many folks around the globe who have either his logo, his credo, or his visage tattooed on the body.
So what is it about this humble, laid-back cat from Hattiesburg, Mississippi that strikes such a chord in people?
Its very basic, opines Wilder from his Nashville home. Like, if I were to describe it to somebody who says, what do you do up there? Well, weve got two guitars, bass and drums, you know. And youve got a guy who looks like anything but a rock star. He sings in this voice thats more like Sleepy Labeefs than Roger Daltrys.
At this point, I interrupt Webb to point out that he might as well stop right there, since the average person has no idea who (Sun Records rockabilly star) Sleepy Labeef even is.
Oh, yeah, I know! Thats a real pit, you know, cause they ask you what kind of music you play, and you go, rock and roll, and you can just tell theyre not the least bit satisfied with that answer.
And yet, at heart, its correct. Wilders music, first with The Beatnecks (a too-clever appellation designed to clue listeners into the bands mixture of both Beatle-esque Britpop and redneck swamp-rock that was dropped after too many mistook them for Beatniks), then later under his name alone, and now with his current backing group The Nashvegans (a play on Las Vegas, thank you very much not on shunning meat) is a fascinating mixture of British Invasion blues (think Them), Bay Area psychedelic exploration (think Flamin Groovies), golden age country and western (think Waymore Jennings) and early 50s rock and roll with the emphasis on the roll.
I kinda hate terms and categories, says Wilder, but eventually, you just have to say roots-rock, because thats the tag youre stuck with. I never used to feel comfortable with that, but now I actually wish more people knew what it meant.
Some call my music swampadelic, and that really throws em for a loop. Unfortunately, what were sometimes tagged by and of course, this is all semantics, right but theyll call us country-rock. Which is a wonderful genre of music that I simply dont happen to play! Its like Poco, The Eagles, Buffalo Springfield. I love all that stuff, but its just not accurate. I do appreciate that if I say rock and roll, it covers a lot of ground. On a good night, we kind of go from Johnny Burnette to The Who in the same song.
According to Webb, the key to understanding the concept behind his music is the idea that he and his bandmates all have very eclectic record collections, and they work hard to discover the common denominators between diferent types of popular organic music.
Also, he says, your own limitations come into play. What you cant do, and what keys you can sing in help to give you a style. I just think Im the guy with the low voice who liked all these records where people sang really high. So you sorta get the guitar influences from those records and the vocal influences from some other records.
Were guys from the South, who were born into the firmament if you will of the rockabilly blues thing. We were bound to discover and feel it, and it couldnt help but resonate in us. Yet, we were exposed to any number of British Invasions. That really clicked for Bobby and I.
The Bobby he mentions is longtime collaborator and childhood friend Bobby R.S. Field, a Grammy-nominated producer and songwriter also known to liner note addicts as The Ionizer.
Originally a member of the band, he left The Beatnecks within months of their formation, and has rarely been seen onstage since. However, he has remained onboard behind-the-scenes as the bands principal songwriter and producer. Hes also done engineering work and as a guest musician on all of Webbs albums.
Hes a unique guy, and I think what we have among other things is something that I really think is precious in that we go back to the same town, and to the same influences. Like Keith Richards and Mick Jagger do. Like the guys in U2 do. Thats why it was such a blow to lose him from the band early on. Cause when you have even two guys in a band who shared that adolescent experience of rock and roll together, who share influences and dialects and just common frames of reference and went to concerts, and came up through other bands together... Thats a very precious thing, and the next best thing to it, is for him to still be involved.
Webb admits that while he laid low for a brief while in the early 1990s and concentrated on acting in films and doing voice over work, he never stopped playing live. In fact, during that time period, he released two of his finest albums, Town & Country and Acres of Suede. yet, just about the time he became re-enthused with getting his musical career back up to speed, the industry itself had started to change, and he found it noticeably harder to connect with his diehard fans.
Well, a lot of the clubs I played on my circuit, just arent there anymore. For example, we used to play the Night Flight in Savannah. That was a great place, but its gone, just like so many others that were great for us. Now, in the bigger cities theres always some other club to kind of replace them when they go, but in the smaller markets, such is not always the case.
These days, Webb spends a great deal of time on the air as one of the most popular DJs on the commercial-free XM Satellite Radio Network. His channel X Country features the best in Alternative Country and Americana, and is introducing a whole new crowd to his unique humor and excellent taste in music. But he still relishes playing live, and if anything, gets more out of it now, than he has in years.
I think just from doing it so much, Im a little bit more comfortable in my artistic skin. And although I try to remember the Bruce Springsteen quote of, always do your best because theres someone there whos never seen you before, I used to feel really uptight. Like everything was some kind of showcase situation. Thats probably a good and bad double-edged sword of the whole Nashville experience.
Now, Im in my element, and Im celebrating that on stage. Im there for me, and I get a lot out of doing it. It breathes a little more these days, if that makes any sense.
I didnt set out to make it that way. The gigs are a little more precious, and I feel like Im the most me I ever am when Im on stage.
Webb Wilder & The Nashvegans play American Legion Post #135 (1108 Bull Street), Friday, June 11th. The 8-Tracks start at 9 pm. Webb goes on at 10:15 pm. Tickets are $10 in advance (available at The Legion Bar and Marigold Beauty Concepts), or $14 at the door. You must be 21.