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Josh Williams: Ready for Anything

20 December 2012

Though only in his early thirties, Josh Williams has been a fixture on the bluegrass scene for well over a decade. He’s both a sought-after sideman and an established bandleader. Among flatpickers, he attained Guitar God status long ago, with a raft of awards to prove it. For all that, Williams doesn’t convey the kind of jaded, guarded attitude you might expect from someone with his track record. We caught up with Williams and his band at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. As you’ll see, he didn’t dodge any of our questions…

Do you know that cloying expression, “A little bird told me…?” For a fair number of folks, bluegrass fans and otherwise, it was indeed a little bird who told them about Josh Williams. Some 18 months ago, at the Doyle Lawson Bluegrass Festival, Williams and his band were rolling through one of his best known songs, “Mordecai,” when a small bird landed right on Williams hand…and stayed there. The episode was captured for posterity by the intrepid Ted Lehmann and has since been viewed by thousands on YouTube. In my estimation it trumps “Charlie Bit My Finger” in every category: warmth, humor and weirdness.

Perhaps the most astounding thing about the Josh Williams Bird Incident is the fact that Williams and the band never skipped a beat. They carried right on to the end of the song. I’ve never seen any performer more capable of rolling with the punches than Williams. And it isn’t as if he just gamely soldiers on in the face of adversity. It might be an overstatement to say that he flirts with disaster, but— as is apparent from his no-set-list policy— he certainly courts the unexpected.

I learned this the first time I took my camera to a Williams show. I was shooting video of him playing a hot number when he broke a string. Rather than wait for them to limp through the rest of the song, I turned off the camera, figuring I’d save the pixels and battery power. To my everlasting regret, I therefore missed what happened next: Williams casually pulled a pack of strings from his back pocket, thumbed through the package, found the correct string and threaded the replacement onto his guitar. He kept singing through all this, and when the solo break came around, he was all tuned up and ready to go.

A year or two after that experience, Williams was playing on the giant main stage at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival when the whole sound system shut down. Most bands would have stood there shrugging or shuffled off the stage. Williams & Co. ran down into the audience and resumed their show, totally, truly unplugged. You can see a bit of video from that set here. The crowd was so enchanted that they seemed vaguely disappointed when the power finally came back on.

Williams’ unflappability seems of a piece with his open, unvarnished personality. On stage and off, he has an easygoing candor that can take you by surprise. How many world-class musicians have you heard say that they don’t practice every day, or that there are times when they need a break from music? Among the other offhand assertions that Williams tosses off in the video clip above are a) that he doesn’t read much music, b) that he doesn’t even think much about keys and scales and c) that he doesn’t give much credence to technical do’s and don’ts. If you heard these views divorced from Williams’ music, you’d imagine him to be the Bad Boy of Bluegrass, a “punk picker” so to speak, but in fact Williams is a virtuoso of the first order.

Williams’ legions of fans should stay tuned, because we’ve got a whole series of videos featuring Josh and his band coming up. As we’ll see in those pieces, Williams likes to explore the line between bluegrass and traditional country music, and indeed you get a taste of that mixture in our first video clip above. The song the boys are running through backstage is Dwight Yoakam’s ode to his coal mining grandfather, “The Miner’s Prayer.” With it’s high and lonesome chorus seasoned with just a hint of Bakersfield twang, it’s a great fit for Williams’ sound.

Yer Pal— Curly

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