Acoustic guitarist Tim Williams was half way from Calgary to Memphis in his journey to compete in the International Blues Challenge when the flight attendant in Houston made her first offer. “I can give you a $150 voucher and a hotel room and meal vouchers and stuff, and have you in Memphis by 8:30 in the morning.”
Williams looked at the monitor with all the delayed and cancelled flights and politely refused. “No thank you. I kinda need to be there tonight. I have to be there at 11:30 tomorrow morning, and I’d rather not gamble.” Now desperate, she doubled the offer. “I can give you $300 and a hotel room, ground transportation and meals and all that stuff.” Williams looked her straight in the eye. “Well, you know, the trouble now is that unless you want to go get my stuff out of baggage, I’m not gonna go on a different flight than my guitars if it’s humanly possible.”
Williams is a blues lifer, and until they changed the eligibility rules a few years ago, he wouldn’t have met the criteria for competing in the IBC. He recorded his first album in 1970 for Epic records, where at 20 years old he handpicked Chris Strachwitz, founder of Arhoolie Records, as his producer. The liner notes of that album were written by the iconic blues historian Pete Welding and the cover photo taken by Jim Marshall.
Soon after that release he emigrated from L.A. to Vancouver, “weary of American’s wars and associations” to quote his Calgary Bluesfest biography. In Canada he’s produced the Juno-nominated Ray Bonneville album, Rough Luck, and co-wrote “Tryin’ To Rope The Wind,” a Billboard World Song Roundup runner-up. Mel Tillis has published his tunes in Nashville, C. J. Chenier covered his “Au Contraire, Mon Frere,” and he’s had several of his own albums released, including Blues Highway and Evenings Among Friends. He plays guitar, banjo, mandolin and bluegrass dobro.
I was one of the judges at this year’s International Blues Challenge who voted him in as best solo/duo act and best guitarist after a stellar set of traditional blues that included Tampa Red’s “Let’s Get Drunk and Truck,” “Sittin’ On Top of The World” on mandolin, and “New Walkin’ Blues” based loosely on a version by Amos Garrett and Geoff Muldaur. He represented the Calgary Blues Music Association in this, their first year belonging to the Blues Foundation. Having sent more than a dozen amateur bands to the IBC as President of The Northeast Blues Society, I found Tim’s reflections on the experience enlightening coming from almost a half century in the business.
Don Wilcock for American Blues Scene: How does it feel to be competing against acts that are, let’s face it, wet behind the ears when compared to you?
Tim Williams: Well, it feels good when you win! (laugh)
Did you have a good feeling going in?
Yeah, I wasn’t sure of myself by any means. Other players and a couple of judges actually after my show said, “You could well win this,” and I kept saying, “Don’t tell me that ’cause you make me nervous.”
Were you nervous? Because you came across as completely relaxed, and you could have been doing this for a Saturday night rent party.
Well, I’ve played those, too. I’m always a little nervous, you know, but you learn. After doing it for a while you learn the tricks to put that at bay and take a little bit of that energy and just let it make the performance keener, you know, like sharper?
So I didn’t warm up too much back stage. I warmed up just enough to make sure the instruments were holding tune and my hands were loose, because you get to be 65 and your hands have got maybe half a million miles on ’em. You know of need to do that, but that’s really all I did. Remember to drink a whole lot of water and not too much coffee and go out and do it.
How do you feel about the venues themselves, and what they do to your chances of scoring in the contest?
I play everything from concert halls to road houses in the course of a week sometimes. The music evolved in bars and jukes and house parties. How true to it are you being if you can’t perform that music outside a concert hall? If you can’t perform it in the kind of environment it was created? How true to the music are you really being?
Do you change the way you perform in any way when you’re in a venue where they’re paying more attention to each other and their drinks than they are to you?
Oh, sure. Sure! Nothing can be more subtle than it is in a listening venue. (If you’re in a noisy bar) even if you’re doing the same songs, the strokes are broader. The rhythm is more intense, maybe not faster, just more pronounced. The guitar is sometimes a little flashier or deliberately flashy as opposed to subtly flashy. The humor is broader if you’re telling jokes or talking to the crowd. Everything is a little bit broader gestures than in a venue the same size where there’s a listening venue.
As a judge, I found trying to compare you to the only other solo/duo act I thought was in contention, Lucius Spiller, was like trying to compare filet mignon to Hawaii. There was not common ground between these two acts.
Yeah, it was odd. I mean he’s got a fabulous voice. His guitar playing is a really unique sort of out there style of playing. I know what you mean. If you put us in a room and had us try and play together even though we both call what we play the blues, it would be kind of difficult to find common ground.
Yeah, I agree.
Matter of fact, your comment reminds me, there was the guy in Australia who was reviewing a festival Steve James and I were at, and he said the difference between Steve’s set and mine was the difference between rape and seduction.
Ooh, which one were you?
Luckily, I was the seducer. He didn’t talk to me for months after that.
You have an unusually eclectic background for a blues performer.
I do occasionally write a tune that fits into Americana, and there was a point in time when I was younger when I thought that that was the only place anybody seemed to be listening, back even before they started calling it Americana. I quit playing for seven years or so and was a cowboy. I just strapped on a Teli and played in a cowboy band to make some money. I worked for ranches and that was my life. I had a little epiphany one day. You know what I play when I’m burned out? I play Big Bill Broonzy. I play Lightnin’ Hopkins. It is still my favorite form of expression. I love Mexican folk music and Tex Mex. I love Cuban music. Growing up in Southern California in the ’60s I acquired a really keen taste for old Hawaiian music.
What are some of your favorite memories?
My first wife was a very upper middle class San Francisco girl, and Lightnin’ Hopkins liked the woman. He was just a tremendous flirt in the same way that Pinetop was, and my wife couldn’t understand a thing he said. We’d all be sitting backstage between shows, and Lightnin would come off with one of his spiels. “You’re so pretty. Why are you hangin’ around with this guitar playin’ punk?” It was all just jive. It was all just passing the time and flirting, but my poor wife would just sit there and look at me and go, “What did he just say?”
How do you feel 40 years later abut that decision to move from California to Canada?
It would have been the right decision for everybody, and I have friends who did come to Canada as draft dodgers then went back under Carter’s amnesty and re-established their ties in the states and are either U.S. residents or who are dual citizens now. I’m a dual citizen. I hold both Canadian and U.S. citizenship, but in my case everything just lined up, and it turned out to be a good move for all kinds of reasons. Canada was enacting what they call Canadian content laws for radio airplay which was a way of guaranteeing that Canadian productions get played instead of just American productions on Canadian radio, and that went into effect right after I got here, which suddenly meant that a kid from L.A., who actually worked in big city recording studios and stuff, could get all the session work that he wanted. The third day I was in Vancouver I got a gig opening for Ramblin’ Jack Elliott in a club and got offers of teaching gigs and studio work and more playing gigs and stuff right away, and the omen seemed right then.
Has winning this changed your life in any way so far, and how do you look at it at this point in your life?
Yeah, I mean you’re interviewing me for one thing. There has been interest in some stuff. There was one guy at the festival, an agent who had been talking about sending me to Europe for two years, but nothing was happening with it, and now he’s quite hot to go on that. There’s gigs coming in. Lotta stuff in Canada, people who wanna have me back or wanna have me play there while the press is still good for winning it. The U.S. ones I’m still trying to figure out. There’s one of ’em, one of the festivals I won that I’m not gonna be able to play ’cause I’m already teaching at a guitar camp in western Canada that same week. Change my life? I don’t know, hopefully so. It’s opening up some airplay in the U.S. that I hadn’t been actively going after which is transmitting into CD sales. I get up every morning with a notice of more downloads or a check on the way or needing more physical units and that’s been happening every day since I got back from Memphis. I was tempted to call up every festival director who stalled me off or hired the local Eric Clapton wannabe acoustic blues player for his festival and tell them all to fuck off.
You can’t do it.
Common sense overtook me.
What do you say to these kids who are just gaga over the fact that they’re on Beale St., and then they miss so much of what it’s about to be there?
Two things. I think one is keep your wits about ya ’cause Beale St. is a party on wheels and you’re there to do something besides party, and the other is dance with the one that brung ya. Do the stuff that won your regional eliminations, the stuff that brought you there. Have enough faith in yourself that you don’t doubt your actual strong suit.