Watermelon Slim is spending a day off in Lawrenceville, a small town in north-central Pennsylvania along the New York border with one traffic light and a population of fewer than 700.
Over the last few years the politically-minded singer, guitarist, harp player and songwriter has become one of the hottest commodities on the blues circuit. But on this August afternoon he is cooling his heels in a club, talking about how life as a blues road warrior is keeping him apart from a long-time love.
“From beginning of July until the beginning of December, I will be home a total of 12 days,” says Slim, home being Oklahoma City.
But unlike this three bandmates - drummer Michael Newberry, guitarist Ronnie Mack McMullen and bassist Cliff Belcher - Slim isn’t anxious to get back because of family.
“I haven’t got any family living with me at this time,” says Slim, who has a grown daughter, Jessie McCain Dandelion Homans, and a wife, Honour Havoc, from whom he has long been separated. “But I would like to be home more so I can do more painting. ...
“I have dabbled in art and caricature since childhood,” he elaborates. “Now is the time to do it, and the separation between me and my family gives me the solitude to do it.”
Yes, Slim, who works in oils and cites Salvador Dali as his greatest influence, is a man with a surfeit of interests and talent. “I do swim against the current,” he allows.
His biography is as colorful as a Dali canvas. Born William P. Homans 59 years ago in North Carolina, he was raised in Boston and schooled at Middleberry College in Vermont until he enlisted in the army and served in Vietnam. While recuperating in an army hospital he taught himself to play the guitar, using his Zippo lighter as a slide and a plastic pick cut from the top of a coffee can.
In 1973 he recorded his antiwar debut, “Merry Airbrakes,” an album he says is the only known record by a Vietnam vet cut during the war.
For the next 30 years, however, Slim worked mostly as a truck driver. He also put in time as a watermelon farmer, forklift operator, firewood salesman and sawmill worker. He earned degrees in history and journalism from the University of Oregon and a master’s in history from Oklahoma State University. He is a Mensa member.
But after a near-fatal heart attack in 2002, Slim began taking his music career more seriously. As a full-time bluesman since 2003, he has released five albums loaded with gritty, witty songs about blue-collar work, decomposed romance, looming mortality and left-wing politics.
Over the last two years, he has received 12 Blues Music Awards nominations for 2006’s “Watermelon Slim & the Workers” and 2007’s “The Wheel Man.”
In May at the Blues Music Awards, “Watermelon Slim & the Workers” took home Band of the Year honors, and “The Wheel Man” won Album of the Year over CDs by Koko Taylor, Bettye LaVette and Jimmie Vaughan.
In late June, Slim and the boys released “No Paid Holidays,” and it, too, has been well-received. Among the more intriguing tracks is the slide guitar-fueled “Blues for Howard,” about historian, political scientist, social critic and playwright Howard Zinn.
“Howard Zinn is a significant writer of American history,” says Slim of the author of “A People’s History of the United States.” “We were colleagues in the anti-war movement. I was asked to be a part of a video documentary, ‘Speaking Truth to Power,’ and Zinn was one of the people in the documentary. I was asked to write a song, so I wrote ‘Blues for Howard.’”
The song, which would not be out of place on a John Fogerty album, contains the title of one of Zinn’s books, “You Can’t Stay Neutral on a Moving Train,” as well as the line “too much thinkin’ can be hard on a man.” Of the latter, Slim says, “Howard Zinn was an (Air Force) bombardier in World War II, and he had to think hard about his participation afterward. He contributed to the killing of civilians.”
Slim boogies down on “Archetypal Blues No. 2.” “I wrote that in 1974 or 1975, when I was still a young man and had been through Vietnam and the anti-war movement and disillusionment,” he says.
And though he gives props to the artists who inspired him - Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Howlin’ Wolf - “the bigger context is, I could feel my own mortality even back then.”
The chilling “You’re the One I Need” finds Slim in mourning, living through the nightmarish aftermath of a busted relationship. “That’s Ronnie Mack McMullen’s song,” he says. “We worked together on that. That’s his virgin (first) published song.”
At this point Slim decides it is late enough in the day for him to order a single malt Scotch to go with his coffee.
“I like my bourbon, too, and my cognac and my rum,” he says. “I’m not much for the clear liquors. ... I usually only drink Margartitas when I’m bowling. They’re refreshing.”
When the Scotch arrives, however, Slim sends it back. “She brought me ice in my whiskey!” he says.
As the conversation returns to music, Slim notes he will soon be “confabbing with a major country & western songwriter for a country & western album I plan to record before the end of the year.”
After that, he could turn to painting entirely.
“I’m painting three or four paintings a year and making as much as I am making music. I sold a painting the day before we left for this tour and it wasn’t even dry. The buyer gave me the cash for it and it’s sitting drying in my studio now. ... Over time, the mystique of who I am is going to help me.”
// Notes from the Road
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