The story reads like nearly every rise-to-success story ever written about a musician. It begins in Fredericksburg, Virginia with a quirky boy sitting outside country taverns and restaurants listening to the muffled music coming through walls that he’s to young to venture into. A few years after teaching himself how to play the guitar, he’s up onstage at those same taverns and restaurants, 16 years old and passionately performing with nothing but two bare feet and an acoustic guitar to a few regulars and friends from around town who come to support him.
The musician is Keller Williams, a folky bluegrass singer/songwriter who’s garnered a large cult following amongst festival-goers of the jam-band scene over the last 15 years. Self-taught from the age of 13, a career in music seemed as if it were fate from early on.
“All I ever did was sing and play songs—I never focused on things like schoolwork,” Keller Williams chuckles. “When I was 16, I did a live audition for this restaurant owner and he said I could play in the back for tips. At the time I think it was called the Rappahannock Inn. I played there a few times and then began performing around the area.”
His passionate, loose style of guitar quickly gathered him a following in the Virginia area. After several years of playing around his home state, Williams moved out to Telluride, Colorado, where he played by night and skied by day. Williams says that he played at small bars during the week for very little money, but the gigs came along with the added perk of free ski passes.
It was also in the Rocky Mountains that he met a group that would change his career drastically.
“My relationship with String Cheese Incident started strictly on a fan level. I gave them a copy of my CD. It was during the day, and they all came to my gig at night. Next thing I know I started opening gigs round the country with them. I have a lot of appreciation for them—they’ve definitely done a lot for me,” Williams says.
The years go by, the crowds get larger, and the restaurants and taverns fade into concert venues and festivals. Songs become more mature, collaborators more numerous, and instrumentation becomes more experimental as the boy crisscrosses the country singing his songs to whoever’s kind enough to listen.
It was in 1997 that Williams began touring the country in his first Winnebago, something that’s become a signature for him amongst his fans.
“It was a Chevy Blazer with a custom pop-up camper,” Williams says. “I’ve had about five mobile homes since then though.”
Williams admits that he no longer travels in a mobile home, but he speaks fondly of the experience. Traveling the country in the big rides, he became enveloped in the jam-band festival culture. He began experimenting with all sorts of musical instruments and styles. He speaks emphatically about the several musicians that have become his friends and collaborators during the course of his career. His collaborative repertoire boasts such names as Victor Wooten, Charlie Hunter, and Bob Weir.
“Folks playing on this scene just seem to get along really well,” Williams says. “People like to have different energies on stage and I think that it’s easiest to do your show with people you get along with. Because of that, ‘sit-ins’ are big in the group of folks I play with.”
Williams’s music has branched out over time as well. Though he still sports bare feet when performing, he is no longer bound to his acoustic guitar. His instrumental arsenal now includes several electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards, bass, mouth flugel, and other various electronic gadgets and gizmos.
His hallmark—though many die-hard fans would dispute its significance—is his looping machine. Williams’s improvised jams are often aided by his Gibson Echoplex Digital Pro looping machine that allows him to record several tracks while on stage and play them back simultaneously, making Williams, to many, the ultimate “one-man jam”.
“After hours and hours of being on the stage solo, I began wanting to create more of a dance vibe; wanting different paths to go down. I wanted to just make it more interesting for myself,” Williams says.
Overall, however, Williams remains clear on what he thinks is the most integral part of the musical culture he’s grown to know so well: “I think the energy found in a jam band consists of the audience, really.”
Williams says that each audience provides a different feeling, a different energy that the performers can vibe off of. Williams speaks from an array of live experience that has brought him before crowds of 10-15 to larger listening rooms that hold up to 2,000 to massive festivals like Bonnaroo that attract more than 50,000 people.
“There’s an adrenaline rush from getting in front of a big audience, but there’s something to be said about the smaller crowd. I love it all, but I don’t get to do the smaller crowds as much as I’d like to,” Williams says.
Williams has now returned to reside in his hometown of Fredericksburg, Virginia. In June, he released a live DVD, Sight, that captures his energetic live performance in front of a small crowd at Mr. Small’s Theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He continues to tour and to deliver the same caliber performances that have enchanted audiences and brought him to where he is today.
His skin has thickened after years on the road, and it’s been almost two decades since the boy first played at that small Virginia tavern. His fingers callused from years of performing, he stands on stage before a festival crowd that outnumbers his hometown’s population. He flashes the same charming smile and launches into a two-hour set with the same two bare feet, acoustic guitar, and passion that have accompanied him from the humble beginnings he still embraces.
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// Notes from the Road
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