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Priceless expression when space is possession: A conversation with Keller Williams

Keller Williams. Keller Williams.

When it comes to Keller Williams, there are three key elements of his storied live performances — experimentation, fun, unity. 

Hailing from Virginia, the beloved singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has been crisscrossing the country with his singular blend of acoustic, jam and dance music for the better part of the last 30 years.

When Williams’ initially came upon the national touring scene in the early 1990s, he was at the forefront of a new era of jam and improvisational music that mixed folk, bluegrass, electronica, alternative rock and jazz. 

It was a sonic movement that, alongside Williams, also included pioneering acts Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon, The Larry Keel Experience, and The String Cheese Incident — all of which remain collaborative partners whenever the occasion may arise.

And yet, Williams’ was unique in his musical pursuits as a “one man jam band.” He was not only a solo act, but a freewheelin’ troubadour roaming the highways and stages of America. He continually aims to blur the lines between performer and audience each night, always in the name of peace, happiness and good times. 

Williams is a true melodic chameleon, a passionate musician who can slide onto any stage with any group (in any capacity or setting) and seamlessly elevate the improvisational possibilities of a show unfolding before the eyes and ears of the listener — a talent he has honed to perfection throughout the decades.

Smoky Mountain News: Where does that very carefree nature come from within you, onstage and off?

Keller Williams: I think it comes from me being an audience member and what I would want to see. The last thing I want to see is any kind of drama or conflict, you know? 

There’s definitely dark songs and minor keys, but that’s different. As far as a stage presence goes, I mean, if I’m in the audience, I want to feel comfortable. And so, I kind of make sure I’m comfortable onstage to try to give off that vibe of hoping that people are comfortable in the audience enough to where they can be uninhibited. 

Smoky Mountain News: You’ve recently turned 50. I was curious about how as you approached that number, what’s your perspective on the road to the here and now? 

Keller Williams: Well, I’ve got nothing but love and just sheer amazement for the fact that I’m still able to do what I’m doing. I couldn’t really have done it without people coming to the shows, and especially promoters who bring the people to the shows. 

I guess once I set my mind to it as a teenager — you know, that this was going to be “the path” — it was this mentality from the get-go of like, “I’ll do it.” 

Smoky Mountain News: Well, there definitely comes a point where you have a conversation early on in your head that says, “Hell or high water, this is what I’m doing. And then everything after that is just details.” 

Keller Williams: That’s right. And I got comfortable in a bucket seat, woke up in a rest area, slammed on the brakes a few times — that made you stronger. And then a lot of the whole Grateful Dead world, I learned how to travel thrifty in my own world of playing music as a solo act. I mean, we’re talking the early to mid-1990s. 

SMN: Having this life of creating music, performing music and traveling the world, being around all these different people that you’ve interacted with, what has that taught you about what it means to be a human being? 

KW: As a performer, I’m onstage in front of people that are paying to be there. As a human being — the way my life is right now — I have a job and that is to make people maybe forget the outside and join in my imagery. So, that’s kind of my purpose, other than being the absolute best father and husband that I could possibly be. 

That’s definitely the first, but in order to support everybody, the second is definitely right there and gives me a reason to play 110 shows, which I probably would anyway, because I truly enjoy it. I’d do it for free. And I get paid to be away from them and to deal with middle seats on misconnections and things like that. 

The stage stuff is all for the joy and love of that kind of energy that’s brought. And that’s kind of what I’ve learned as a human — that’s my job until they stop coming. 

SMN: It is what it is, so I might as well have fun doing it. 

KW: Yeah. Well, first priority is head. Take care of [your] head first. Have a good time. Hopefully, the rest of fall into place. I take having fun very seriously.

 

Want to go?

There will be a drive-in concert with singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Keller Williams Friday, Nov. 13, at the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds.

The show begins at 7:30 p.m. Gates open at 6 p.m. Social distancing and Covid-19 protocol will be in place. Meals are available to pre-purchase. 

Hosted by The Grey Eagle and Worthwhile Sounds, tickets are available at www.thegreyeagle.com.

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