t’s been almost 3 years since cult music legend and Americana icon Webb Wilder has made a local appearance, and in that time, the guitarist and frontman has undergone a long-overdue career resurgence.
Fueled in part by a high-profile stint as one of the most popular alt.country DJs on XM satellite radio, the expanded reissue of his mid-’80s indie debut LP It Came From Nashville, his first brand-new studio album in close to a decade (2005’s appropriately titled About Time), and a live concert DVD (2006’s Tough It Out) Webb and his backing band The Beatnecks are now riding a wave of glowing international PR.
While pretenders to the throne (such as the increasingly popular —and genuinely talented— Unknown Hinson) blatantly tear pages from Wilder’s playbook, longtime fans and new converts alike realize this “electrifying artist” who connects the dots between Elmore James, The Beatles, Johnny Cash, The Ventures, Big Star, Porter wagoner and Tom Petty is one of a kind.
I caught up with The Man by phone at his home in Nashvegas.
This will be your first time in Savannah in almost 3 years. Are you excited to return?
Webb Wilder: I’m already trying to get in shape for Savannah! It’s gonna be something of a van-tastic week. We go from Nashville to Atlanta, then to Tampa. Then to Lake Worth. Then to Savannah. It’s wonderful, and it keeps you buzzed. Music is great. What can I say?
I gotta ask — did you plan to be this busy?
Webb Wilder: No. I’ve not done a lot of planning in my life. (laughs) I wasn’t the guy who sits there at age 20 and maps out his next 3 decades. I just never wanted to stop making records or making music. I could’ve been a bit more aggressive in how I marketed myself, but the ‘90s were kind of a funny time. The industry was reinventing itself a bit, and it’s doing that again now.
Thousands of people were introduced to your music and humor through your stint on XM Radio. Was that an amicable split?
Webb Wilder: That job came along at the perfect time and it didn’t end at the worst possible time. It did end amicably. I was laid off in a belt-tightening sweep. Several people’s heads rolled. I didn’t have any kind of bad relationship with anybody, but the company is like any other huge corporate entity. It did help get my name out there, and my career musically was at a fairly low point. We were still playing live, but there was no new product to promote. There was no good, reliable agent —like we have now— goin’ after it. I was starting to get busier, and was gonna try something crazy — play some dates in Norway and keep the job. The job wound up ending about a week before we were scheduled to leave.
Ever thought about doing your own podcast?
Webb Wilder: People have suggested it to me. Money isn’t my sole motivator, but it would be time consuming and I don’t think it would be profitable in the short run. I’d love to do something like the Bob Dylan or Tom Petty thing, but nobody’s gonna offer me their deal! (laughs) ‘Cause I’m not in that league, but they seem to have some autonomy, and we know they get paid. That’s not daily, it’s weekly. If I had to choose material for a daily show, I wouldn’t have time for myself, and I couldn’t be Webb Wilder.
What was it like to come together with your longtime producer/collaborator R.S. Field and revisit the whole “World of Wilder” once more for the About Time CD?
Webb Wilder: It was a really good experience, and it was overdue. We used a great studio that sadly is not there anymore. It was out in the country, so it was like doing it in Nashville without being in Nashville. R.S. was really focused. We were in the studio almost every day for about a month.
Is it still as much fun as it was during your last big push in the early ‘90s, or more so, now that you aren’t so pressured to succeed?
Webb Wilder: You know, sometimes I really am having more fun. Not that I haven’t had fun all along the way. But, yeah, I realize it’s a privilege to be able to do this. And the costs are high. It takes money to be able to go out and tour, and you gotta get paid something, you know? The fans don’t have to come, but they do. I can appreciate it more and take less for granted. At the end of the day, it’s a gift to be able to do this.
Who’s playing with you in Savannah?
Webb Wilder: The band will be Tom Comet on bass, Jimmy Lester on drums and Tony Bowles on guitar — who played on the live DVD alongside George Bradfute.
What’s spending the most time in your CD player or iPod these days?
Webb Wilder: Well, I really like Jet. I have both their albums, and even though their first went Platinum, I think they deserve more credit than they get. They’ve got the rockin’ thing down, but they’ve got this mid-tempo ballad thing that reminds me of Badfinger, without being just like Badfinger. So, I dig ‘em. I went through a big Tom Petty phase. It’s not like I’m done with him, though! (Laughs) I’m takin’ a break from him right now, but let the record show I’m still a major fan.
The Heartbreakers are one of the few groups from that era that still consistently put on phenomenal live shows. Like Cheap Trick.
Webb Wilder: I love Cheap Trick. They’re just a great band. I saw them and Aerosmith a few years back, and Robin Zander and Steven Tyler were still the most capable singers in rock and roll. Tyler is like Steve Marriot meets Mick Jagger. Robin Zander? He sounds like McCartney singing “I’m Down,” but every song, all night!
Did you catch The Police on the Grammys?
Webb Wilder: Yeah. It all sounded good right up until they took a detour to fern bar land in the middle with that “jazzy breakdown.” (laughs) I want to tell the public — no matter how tempting it may be, don’t blame jazz for that! Jazz doesn’t want anything to do with The Police. (laughs)
What’s the single best thing about being Webb Wilder in 2007?
Webb Wilder: Well, probably the fact that I’m still playing rock and roll music.
If you could change any 3 things about the whole music biz, what would they be?
Webb Wilder: Wow. That’s a tough one. There’s currently more hope for artists on satellite radio, but I would do something to break up the tight formats of terrestrial radio and give the DJs a little freedom to play some of what they wanted to. I would also make it so that artists whose masters are tied up with big corporate entities —that have no intention of doing anything with them— could release them on their own. I have some albums like that. They’re tied up legally, and it’s incredibly frustrating. Finally, I would make the record companies stop insulting people’s intelligence. Everyone knows Americans will eat what they’re served, but that’s not to say we wouldn’t enjoy a good meal! It’s the duty of the record companies to put out something of high value. You can’t just keep pushing junk on the public. They’ll buy the good stuff. But they can’t buy it if you don’t sell it. ç
Tiny Team Concerts and Connect Savannah present Webb Wilder & The Beatnecks with guests The 8-Tracks: 8 pm Sunday at Savannah Smiles. Charge advance $12 tix to this 21+ show at www.tinyteamconcerts.info, or bought with cash at Primary Art Supply, Angel’s BBQ, Le Chai galerie du vin, Annie’s Guitars, Silly Mad CDs and Marigold Beauty Concepts. Remaining tix will be $15 cash at the door the night of the show.