Jason D Williams with Dale Watson and Sleepy La Beef at The Hitone Cafe in Memphis, TN
Heavenly Sight: A Vision Out of Blindness
We begin this month with a very special show that we recorded during the holidays. Each Christmas, Memphis piano legend, Jason D. Williams puts on a benefit show that he calls “Jinglebilly.” It’s a frenetic, anything-goes, roots-rock extravaganza. This year was extra special as he was joined by legendary country/rockabilly superstars Dale Watson and Sleepy LaBeef.
We continue our guest series, Heavenly Sight: A Vision Out of Blindness.
This explains why the Kansas City Star Pronounced Jason D. Williams as “the past and future of rock & roll.” The Beacon Journal dubbed him as “The worlds greatest piano player.” Most importantly this reminds you of why you got into rock & roll in the first place, to get a little wild. After seeing a live show there will be no doubt why fans and critics alike agree with that summation of the dynamic piano player from Memphis.
Jason’s’ style is difficult to describe. From Classical to Rockabilly to County to Jazz and on to Rock & Roll, Jason D. adapts to each different concert setting he performs.
Early in 2010, Williams, who recorded for RCA and Sun Records in the 1980s and ’90s, was set to return to the recording fold with Todd Snider as his producer. The two had discussed the covers they would tackle and tape had started to roll when they decided to try something different. Snider had become entranced by Williams’ ability to create poetry on the spot and thought his words could easily become lyrics.
Almost instantly, many of the songs they had worked up were tossed and Williams went to town, making up songs as he went along. It’s the way rappers and poets work, Snider and Williams figured, so why not apply that to country and rock ‘n’ roll?
“This is how I pictured the Rolling Stones recording ‘Exile on Main Street ‘,” Snider notes. “Jason would say something, then start playing and we’d say let’s chase one and drop the other. You end up spending just a hours on some of the songs.
“Some of the longer ones needed editing so we’d cut them down and do another take. I have never worked like that before. It was exciting to be part of it.”
Williams and Snider drew on all sorts of inspiration. “Big Red Green One” got started after Williams saw those words written in a piece of tape in the studio. “If You ever Saw a Baby with It’s Pud” arose from Snider challenging Williams to create a song the way a rapper would free-style. For “White Trash,” a call was placed to one of Williams’ longtime friends to get a verbal description of his hometown in Arkansas. “Mr. Jesus” was done to make each other laugh
“What am I Gonna Do” was one of the songs that went on for awhile. They did 12 verses on the spot, shortened it and recorded the edited version the next day. And the song meant to be played at last call at bars across America, “To Hell With You,” sprang from a jam session after Williams came up with the line “I never dated a man like Merle Haggard.”
Once they got started, Snider brought in Dan Baird and Keith Christopher, both formerly of the Georgia Satellites, to help shape the tunes. “We felt like we were part of something unique as the songwriting was coming alive,” Snider says.
Although their original meeting was in Memphis where Williams is based, the recording took place in Nashville. “We felt like we were making rock n roll in the heart of country,” Williams says.
The rock ‘n’ roll history of Memphis looms large in Williams’ world. He recorded for Sun Records, the early label home of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and the man who first took Williams on the road, rockabilly legend Sleepy LaBeef.
At the age of 16, Williams left his tiny hometown of El Dorado, Ark., to perform with LaBeef who had set up a base of operations in northeast Massachusetts.
Williams, who continues to work with LaBeef, went solo in the late 1980s and had a gig booked at the Peabody in Memphis. A snowstorm followed him into town that prevented anyone from leaving or entering the city. Williams’ quickly attracted a following and the Peabody management gave him a permanent gig at the hotel.
He left after signing with RCA, which released his first album “Tore Up,” and he stayed on the road after Sun issued “Wild” in 1993. “Rock All Night,” released in 2004, captured the power of his blend of honky tonk country and Memphis rock ‘n’ roll.
Williams has continued to tour and performs up to 200 shows per year. Having a visual appeal on par with his musical talent has led to numerous television appearances, among them “Regis and Kathie Lee,” “Nashville Now,” “Entertainment Tonight” and various shows on MTYV and VH1.
A wild man onstage, he has been compared to Jerry Lee Lewis so often that rumors started in Memphis that he was the Killer’s son.
The influence of Lewis comes through in his high-energy performances, Williams says, but his songs get him to a different place. As he says, “It’s Jerry Lee Lewis meets Jackson Pollock and Jerry Lee Lewis meets Joe Namath.”
“I will always revere Jerry Lee Lewis,” Williams says. “Jerry Lee alway likes to say he did everything in one take and I like that approach. Now of course plenty of the songs on the album are third, fourth or fifth takes, but I like the fact that you are hearing what the performers were thinking at that very exact moment.”
Though Dale Watson’s recording career spans two decades, the maverick country traditionalist has never before released an album like this. “There’s nothing here that’s retro,” insists Dale of Carryin’ On. “I was really hoping to make a record with today’s technology, but with the musicians who played on the music I grew up on. I’m pretty happy with the way we’ve merged today with yesterday on this album. It will remind people of the old records, but it sounds like something new.”
The new album on a new label marks a fresh start for Watson, a major leap from the hardscrabble honky-tonk that has won him an international following, earned him induction into the Austin Music Hall of Fame and established him as a leading crusader against the “Nashville Rash” plaguing the country music industry. Without compromising his musical values, he sounds here like a singer with nothing to prove and no one to fight. The angry young man has matured. The result, says Dale, is “the pinnacle of what I’ve done, in terms of the songs, the production, the musicianship.”
The project features a dream band of Nashville A-Team studio alumni, virtuosos whose playing graces so many of the “countrypolitan” classics of the 1960s and ‘70s that remain touchstones for Watson. Steel guitarist Lloyd Green, whose resume extends from Johnny Cash and George Jones through the Byrds and Paul McCartney, helped Watson assemble the band, with guitarist Pete Wade and pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins providing the nucleus. Add fiddler Glenn Duncan, acoustic bassist Dennis Crouch and the seasoning of background vocals on many of the tracks, and you’ve got more a polished sound than the rougher, roadhouse style that has dominated Watson’s career.
Yet the results are pure Dale Watson. He produced the sessions. He wrote all the material. He even financed the project, so that there would be no concessions to outside forces. And it was his decision to loosen his own grip, to see what some studio masters would bring to his music, to make a recording in Nashville that would have a different feel than his live shows and previous releases with his great Texas band, the Lonestars.
“You just take a leap of faith,” says Watson. “The control freak that I am had to let go and let them interpret the songs. When I’m writing a song, I have definite ideas on signature licks and how a solo’s going to go. But when you do a studio session with Nashville musicians, you pretty much have to trust them to do what they do—if you’ve got some heavy hitters like I’ve got. I don’t want to go over there and tell Lloyd Green, ‘Play it like this.’” I got the guys I wanted to play on it, the songs I wanted to record, and I think I came out with the best record I’ve done to date.”
Born in Alabama, raised outside Houston, based in Austin, Watson came to country music early and naturally. His truck driving father moonlighted as a country singer, and his older brothers had bands as well. Dale remembers receiving his first guitar at age 7 and starting to write songs shortly after—“the same stuff I’m writing about now,” he says with a laugh.
During his formative years in Pasadena, Texas (the town on the Houston outskirts that Gilley’s would put on the musical map), he began playing the local honky-tonks while still in high school. “I was definitely an outsider,” he says of those days. “All my friends were pretty much an older crowd. The people my age were listening to the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. I didn’t necessarily think it was bad—it just wasn’t what connected with me. I grew up with the music my dad listened to. I inherited his record collection, and I’m as big a Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams and Buck Owens fan as he is.”
The kind of country Watson loved had fallen from favor when he moved to Nashville in 1981 to launch his career. He fared a little better after relocating to Los Angeles, where his traditionalism attracted Curb Records, and he released a couple of singles in 1990. Yet he ultimately decided that Texas was the natural habitat for his brand of music, and he quickly won a popular following, along with a record deal with Hightone Records, after moving to Austin in the mid-‘90s. His 1995 debut album, Cheatin’ Heart Attack,and its “Nashville Rash” anthem spread his renown across the Atlantic, with Europe remaining a popular stronghold for Watson.
His musical roots and values remain very much in evidence throughout Carryin’ On, but the maturity of the material, the ambition of the arrangements and the subtlety of his vocal performances distinguish the album from so much of Watson’s earlier work. The title song sets the tone, with its reflective ruminations on the morning after a long night’s partying: “Crashin’ into 40, might better think about growin’ up,” he sings “You got a wife and kid that lean on you/ Brother are you strong enough?” By the end of the song, it’s plain that the singer is looking in the mirror.
“Ain’t That Livin’” offers the flip side of that theme, a companion piece that celebrates the enduring pleasures of domestic contentment over a night’s excitement. “You’re Always on My Mind” channels vintage George Jones, while the cantina balladry of “For a Little While” sounds like a Marty Robbins classic. On “Heart of Stone,” Watson offers the most nuanced vocal performance of his career. It’s the sound of a man in full command of his artistry and one who has found peace with himself. Even the hardcore drinking song, “Tequila, Whiskey and Beer, Oh My!” has a playfulness to it, as Dale hails the bartender as “the Wizard of Booze.”
“I let go of the angry young man a good while back,” he says. “When you try to fight something, it’s more of a struggle. I’ve just learned to do what I do. The people that appreciate what we do are out there and multiplying. It’s just gotten bigger and better when I’m spending less time attacking what I don’t like and more embracing what I love.”
Sleepy LaBeef became the ultimate rockabilly survivor, his live performances retaining the same raw power as he approached his eighth decade that they had in the years when he was among the music’s pioneers. He was born Thomas Paulsley LaBeff in Smackover, AR. The 6’7″ singer has heavily lidded eyes which make him appear half-asleep, hence his nickname. He was raised on a melon farm and grew up hearing both country and blues music. LaBeef moved to Houston at age 18, working at several odd jobs before beginning to sing gospel music on local radio shows. Soon he was working with a band of his own at local bars, and he appeared on the Houston Jamboree and Louisiana Hayride radio programs. The new rockabilly style fit his blazing voice perfectly, and in the late ’50s he recorded about a dozen sides in that style for various labels. His first single, “I’m Through,” was released in 1957 on Starday. Sometimes he was billed as Tommy LaBeff or Sleepy LaBeff.
LaBeef moved to Nashville in 1964 and soon was signed to Columbia. In the 1960s he recorded mostly straight country music. His sixth single for the label, “Every Day,” provided LaBeef with his chart debut in 1968, and after moving to Shelby Singleton’s Plantation label in 1969, he hit the Top 20 with his version of “Blackland Farmer,” Frankie Miller’s heartfelt ode to the soil. The late ’60s also saw the towering baritone’s film debut in the bizarre Southern drive-in horror musical The Exotic Ones; LaBeef played a swamp monster.
LaBeef moved to Sun Records in the mid-’70s after Singleton acquired that original institution of rockabilly, and there he reconnected with his rockabilly roots. Singles such as “Thunder Road,” “There Ain’t Much After Taxes,” and “Boogie Woogie Country Girl” saw little chart action but helped form the beginnings of the LaBeef legend as his indefatigable touring exposed audiences to his wildman energy. LaBeef remains more popular in Europe than in the U.S. and appeared at England’s Wembley Festival twice. Among his U.S. fans was soul-music historian Peter Guralnick, who saw LaBeef perform in Massachusetts in 1977 and praised his performances in a widely read article.
That plus the general revival of rockabilly around 1980 at the hands of such groups as the Stray Cats paved the way for the emergence of Sleepy LaBeef, rockabilly revivalist.
He signed to Rounder in 1981 and released It Ain’t What You Eat (It’s the Way How You Chew It) in the U.S. and in Europe. The live album Nothin’ but the Truth gave CD buyers a taste of the booming vocals and slashing guitar that had made LaBeef a prime club attraction. LaBeef returned to regular recording in the mid-’90s, releasing several more albums on Rounder: Strange Things Happening (1994) and I’ll Never Lay My Guitar Down (1996) contained a variety of country and blues tunes and revealed the depth of LaBeef’s musical experiences. Four years later, he issued Tomorrow Never Comes, which featured guest vocals from Maria Muldaur. Compilations of the numerous unissued tracks from earlier in LaBeef’s career began to surface in the early 2000s, and by that time Sleepy was nothing less than a rockabilly legend. ~ James Manheim, Rovi