Lins Honeyman talked to the singer/songwriter from Statesboro, Georgia, BROOKS WILLIAMS
With a recording career that has clocked up in the region of 24 albums in just over quarter of a century, it would reasonable to suggest that Statesboro, Georgia-born singer/songwriter and guitarist Brooks Williams had every right to take it easy for a while. However, 2016 has seen the veteran troubadour release two albums - the full-banded 'My Turn Now' and the solo blues covers collection 'Brooks' Blues' - as well as maintaining a busy gigging schedule that sees him spending time both here in his adopted home country and in the US.
Most recently, Williams teamed up with fellow American bluesman Guy Davis for a UK tour titled Inside The Delta and, as anyone who caught one of their shows will testify, Williams' intricate and seemingly effortless guitar playing - alternating between six string acoustic, resonator and cigar box guitars - is something of a joy to behold. Add to the mix a warm and deceptively powerful vocal delivery together with his invitingly friendly on and off stage demeanour and it's clear that the years spent honing his craft have paid off.
Following a move from his Statesboro home to Boston in his teens, Williams started off cutting his teeth by playing up to six nights a week in various bars and clubs in the Massachusetts city before releasing his debut EP 'Red Guitar Plays Blue' which was issued on his own label back in 1989. Hot on the heels of this initial release, Williams would go on to independently issue two albums 'North From Statesboro' and 'How The Night-Time Sings' before signing for Green Linnet Records for much of his '90s output. Keen to take charge of his own musical destiny, 2004 saw Williams return to his own Red Guitar Blue Music label and subsequent albums have almost exclusively been released this way.
Whilst the earlier part of his career saw Williams very much in the singer/songwriter mould, recent times have seen him move stylistically to more of a blues footing - something that has been cemented by his permanent relocation six years ago to the UK where the blues scene has experienced something of a renaissance. From his base in England, Williams continues to extensively tour the US and Europe appearing at clubs and festivals whilst collaborations with the likes of renowned British singer/songwriter Boo Hewerdine and appearances alongside luminaries such as Taj Mahal and John Hammond have helped bring Williams the recognition he deserves.
I caught up with Brooks at the Edinburgh Blues Club an hour or so before his and Guy Davis' final appearance on the Inside The Delta tour and I asked him how he came to release not one but two albums in 2016. Brooks explained, "I probably wouldn't normally have done two albums in the one year but, since we had this tour coming up and because I've learnt from experience that people come up to you after the show and ask what record has the material you've just played, I thought I should probably collect the songs I would be playing live onto the one recording. It was great fun to do and we did it old school. I went into the studio with one of my favourite producers and engineers - a guy called Andy Bell - and we did it in three days. Just like those old Robert Johnson records. Just sit down, do two or three takes and move on."
The choice to record 'Brooks' Blues' completely solo was a deliberate one, as Brooks advised: "I spend most of the year just playing on my own so I develop these guitar and vocal arrangements that are very much based around what I do at a venue. I didn't want to complicate matters for this recording when the way I know these songs is me sitting around playing them as they are. I decided to have the courage to stay true to the way I was already playing them rather than thinking about putting in a double bass here and a harmonica there. You end up chasing your tail most of the time doing that."
With songs by the likes of Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith and Memphis Slim popping up on his latest album, I asked Brooks how he settled on which numbers to cover. "I'd spent a good portion of the year listening to some old blues records and I went further afield than I had done before," he replied. "I listened to some Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and those kinds of artists. I went to the less obvious places and I realised that, at the end of the day, you're just hearing them sing the song. A song is a song, after all - it's just easy sometimes, when we have the veil of the blues, to forget that it's a song or a story first."
Having been born in the Georgian city mentioned in the famous Blind Willie McTell song, I suggested it was more or less his birth right for the much-covered "Statesboro Blues" to appear on his latest release. "I actually resisted playing 'Statesboro Blues' for many years because I love those iconic versions by Blind Willie McTell, Taj Mahal or the Allman Brothers and I didn't know what I could add to it," he confessed. "Then I found that people expected me to play it because it states in my bio that I was born in Statesboro so, by default, I had to bring it into the show and it forced me to look at the song anew. I ended up changing the key - it's typically done in D but I moved it over to A and changed the whole guitar figure. I don't really remember the process but I remember it felt different from other songs and that's what I wanted. I wanted to have it as something unique to me."
With a busy performance schedule that sees him cover a multitude of miles every year, it's clear that the appetite for Brooks' kind of music remains undiminished and I asked him to pinpoint why blues music in particular continues to appeal to people. "One of the things that the blues has always served up is that there is a really good groove to it," he suggested. "First of all, whether it's a band, a duo or solo, you're probably not going to be bored. You're going to have something that's got a bit of a rhythm or groove to it. It's fun and it'll make you want to move which I think separates it perhaps from folk music which sometimes doesn't have an appeal outside of that idiom. There's a sense of party to blues music and I think that's fundamentally because it was music that was meant to go with celebration. It was music to dance to, have a block party with or music to play at a juke joint."
Brooks continued, "Secondly, although we can look back with the advantage of time and education, the lyrics of those old blues songs tap into some fundamental human feelings and I think that's why people connect with it. The joy of falling in love with someone is the same no matter how you wrap it up but it's just so fresh in the blues and it's the same when someone's talking about being treated wrong. It's so basic but it taps into the deepest emotion of human nature of needing to feel like you belong."
I suggested that far from conforming to the stereotyped image of being depressing music, the blues - especially the gospel blues strain of the genre - is packed full of hope. "Absolutely," agreed Brooks. "Even when we move out of the gospel blues side of things, there are still songs that are a statement about not letting something take me down - 'I'm going to be ok, I'm going to rectify this situation.' They're lyrics of action which is quite different to just being a blues song about not feeling great or being down-hearted. Instead, the singer's saying that you've done me wrong but I'm done with being upset about it and I'm not going to let it take me down. There's a power in that. I've never thought of the blues as being sad music - I find it incredibly passionate, packed full of emotion and with lots of humour."
With a couple of gospel blues songs taking their place on 'Brooks' Blues', it's clear that both the sacred and secular strands of the blues are intertwined. "I play a venue in Texas called the Camp Street Café and it's not that far from Houston where (legendary bluesman) Lightnin' Hopkins came from," Brooks recalled. "There are people still alive today who remember Lightnin' coming up for the weekend and he would play on Friday night and then do another show on Saturday and then you'd think that was him finished. Then, on Sunday morning, he would go to church and play in the church service. I asked some old fella who had been there what Lightnin' would play on the Sunday morning and he told me he'd just play the same songs but with different lyrics! That makes sense because there is a link between gospel and the blues - they really do go hand in hand. Of course, the subject matter is completely different but essentially the music comes from the same source."
With a brace of albums under his belt in 2016, I asked Brooks to tell me how the well-received 'My Turn Now' came about. "For that one, I wanted to make a record with a band. I wanted to tap into the more rhythmic groove aspects of my playing and I also wanted to base it around the resonator guitar. I wanted to play some electric guitar as well and I thought that the body of songs that I had would be a good vehicle for both of these things. I had to leave my acoustic guitar at home so [it prevented] me [from] reverting back to it during recording and it forced me to look at other options like the cigar box, the Telecaster, the National guitars for the sound. I went for this tight little combo sound - almost like a three piece - and I'm really pleased with how it turned out."
With a recording career spanning nearly three decades and a continued dedication to honing his craft, Brooks has become something of an example to people starting out in the music industry and, from time to time, he runs guitar workshops to impart some of his knowledge. I asked Brooks to cast his mind back to how he himself got started in music. "When you're a teenager, you don't think that where you grow up is cool," he said with a smile. "I have a wonderful family but there wasn't any of my kind of music in my home and, where I was, there wasn't any live music that I could be involved in that felt right to me. My father came to me because he could tell I wasn't very good at school - I just loved to play my guitar - and he found a small university close to Boston which was about 1600 miles from Georgia. He asked me if I wanted to go and see it so I went along. The university was absolutely wrong for me but what was right was that, in Boston, it had - and still does have - a thriving music scene. I fell right into it. Outside the little bedsit I was renting was a bar called the Wayward Duck and there were bands playing there seven nights a week. There were open mic sessions which gave me the opportunity to play live and that's where I began to think I could actually do this."
A further and far more uprooting move would occur later on in his career. Brooks took up the story: "I moved over to England nearly seven years ago. I met my wife Jo who works as a compere at events like the Cambridge and Ely Folk Festivals. A few years earlier, she introduced me on stage at one of them and we just hit it off. We stayed friends for a couple of years and I'd come over on tour and say hello and that was about it. As the time went on, it became very apparent to both of us that there was a little more going on! We thought about keeping a home in both countries but it was so expensive. We looked at our families and the logistics of our work and we put all the pieces together and didn't look back. It's fantastic being over in the UK and it's given me the opportunity to take time and look at what I've done previously because moving to a different country comes as a natural end to a chapter. It gives you the chance think about what you've liked up until then and what things you might change.
"Also, it's a different scene and there are different audiences," Brooks added. "The thing I noticed whilst I was still in the US was that I'd come over to the UK on tour and the audiences would, in a way, hold a mirror up to me and say 'this is what we like and what we think you should sound like' and it would always be the roots songs rather than the more contemporary things which, in America at the time, there was more of a lean towards. I would come back from the tours in the UK and realise that the roots thing really fitted and felt good. Audiences over here are tuned into blues, country, bluegrass and old time music and they really get it."
With the well-received Inside The Delta tour nearly at an end, I asked Brooks how he came to hook up with renowned New York blues singer Guy Davis for this particular series of double header gigs. Brooks responded, "I've known Guy for a long time. We started on the American scene around the same time and he went straight into the blues scene whereas I was more in the singer/songwriter vein. Our paths didn't cross much because, over there, those worlds are kept pretty separate but we were aware of each other because we'd occasionally appear at the same festival. Just in the last few years, I reconnected with Guy's manager -who I'd known for a long time - and we got to talking about how great it would be for the two of us to do a tour. I went to America for a tour and, whilst I was there, we tried a couple of shows together and the rest is history."
With his latest tour nearly completed and two albums released in the same year, Brooks would have every right to cut himself some slack in 2017. "I am working on a collection of songs that I know at some point will be my next album," he advised in closing. "Because I've had such a busy year this year, I don't feel under any pressure to finish it. I feel like I'm working at a really good pace. I'm also doing a tour next autumn with Boo Hewerdine - we made a couple of records together a few years ago - so we're getting together to write some new songs. That should keep me out of trouble for a while!"The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.