Keller Williams is one busy guy.
From playing solo with his famous live acoustic looping station to jamming with Keller Williams Trio, More Than A Little (an R&B group), Grateful Grass (bluegrass interpretations of Grateful Dead tunes), Keller & The Keels (Williams with Larry and Jenny Keel), Keller Williams with the Travelin’ McCourys (Williams with the show-stopping bluegrass band), Grateful Gospel (Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia songs in the style of gospel music), Keller Williams KWahtro (Williams, Gibb Droll, Danton Boller, and Rodney Holmes) and The WMDS (Williams with Keith Moseley, Gibb Droll and Jeff Sipe), and PettyGrass (bluegrass versions of Tom Petty’s catalog), there’s not much downtime.
But that’s just how Williams, who released two new albums in 2017 and will release another in October, likes it.
The “Acoustic Dance Music” wizard plays with a number of his projects this summer, taking over The Stage on Bay with a solo set this weekend. We talked to Williams about long-distance collaboration, transforming rock songs into bluegrass standards, and what a day in the life of one of music’s busiest players looks like.
You’re about to kick off a big summer. What’s a normal day off at home look like for you?
I play a lot and trying to come up with ideas. I’ve got two kids that are doing the camp thing...I’m trying to go and be a part of that, the drop-off and the pick-up and hanging with them. Me and the wife are going to see U2 tonight, that will be exciting.
I’m trying to be present when I’m home. I’m usually gone every weekend. There are guitars in almost every room, and I’m constantly noodling, coming up with different ideas and lyrics.
Last we spoke, you were really excited about KWahtro—y’all released your first album last year. What was that process like?
The record’s called Sync. It came together just by playing live and really developing those songs onstage. Each member has their own thing going, we're in different towns with different projects, so everybody recorded it in their own space at their own leisure. The whole process took about six to seven months, it seems...the way it came together and the way it sounds, at least in my opinion, is four guys playing in the same room at the same time.
You collaborate with lots of folks in different places with busy schedules...is this typically the way you have to record with others?
I think so. It would be nice to be able to really take months, even a couple weeks at once, just to do a project. I definitely used to record like that. I would book a week in the studio and have everything all prepared going in and then kind of try to do the entire project in that amount of time. Like the Keller and The Keels records. Those are recorded in a couple days each. Play the songs in the studio a couple times, I'd sing them live, and then The Keels would go back and overdub harmonies.
I have a new instrumental record coming out in October, and that record was done just a few hours at a time over the course of several months. I’m just now starting on a different record with actual vocals. The recording process is a lot of fun.
In making the instrumental record, are you writing melody lines where vocals typically would be? What are the arrangements like?
There are several instrumental songs I’ve recorded and played live for the past 20 years or so, so some of those are just solo acoustic guitar songs that have never seen a bassline or drum part. Remaking those songs I’ve been playing for years, you approach it with your new prowess and style, and then you start to add these basslines and drum parts and they really transform into something different than what they started as...it’s totally exciting.
It started with the acoustic versions, then the really fun part is to program the drums with midi controllers using state-of-the-art DJ technology and computers, lining up samples and really cool loops, taking the acoustic guitar and upright bass and mixing them with electronic drums and natural-sounding samples and loops. It really feels like I’m slowly getting closer to my acoustic dance music vision!
Speaking of acoustic, you released a new acoustic solo album last year, too, Raw.
It was released the same day as Sync, and that came out for the almost sole purpose of 27 shows I co-billed with Leo Kottke, who is an amazing hero of mine. Nothing in my arsenal of records really showed what I was doing on that tour, which was no loops, just acoustic guitar and vocals. That's how that record came out...it was so basic and raw. Play the songs and go.
You’ve also got some Pettygrass shows this summer.
It’s so exciting. At the end of the day, it’s a celebration of songs. It could be looked at as a novelty project, but there’s something about everybody singing the same words at the same time that makes me feel good.
How did you arrange those songs for bluegrass?
I guess I have the mind where anything can be a bluegrass song. You think about the two-beat of bluegrass, where the bass is the kick drum and the mandolin is the snare, and together...boom-kssh, boom-kssh, boom-kssh. You can take just about any Tom Petty song, sing them in in the tempo he sings them in, and double-time the music so you're not speeding up the lyrics, you're singing in the same tempo and it's letting those amazing songs shine the way they were written. It mysteriously works.
How did you select songs? Are these personal favorites, crowd favorites...?
I never really had a Tom Petty record, but for some reason I could sing 15 radio hits straight through without thinking. I think it's being a product of the radio in the '70s and '80s. I personally picked 15 of my top favorite hits...and the ones that made the list are really fun to play.
What can Savannahians expect from this upcoming show?
I'm bringing my looping gear and it'll be what I call my "day job," something I'm the most comfortable doing. Deeply roots in solo acoustic guitar that walks the line of dance music with nothing prerecorded. Everything is recorded onstage with lots of room for error—and always, the errors make it more interesting to play off of those improvisations.