Make plans to see The Williams Brothers Band, May 30 at Clubhouse on Highland, benefitting The Community Kitchens of Birmingham.
While both John and Chas Williams grew up in Mountain Brook playing the guitar, it was Chas who pursued music professionally, moving to Nashville and working as a well-respected session musician for more than three decades. He is also the author of the book The Nashville Number System, a guide to the musical numbering system Nashville musicians have used to communicate and write songs for decades. John remained passionate about music as well while pursuing a career as an insurance executive with the family’s company Molton Allen & Williams.
Portico Mountain Brook Editor-In-Chief Lee Hurley caught up with John and Chas recently to talk about their lives growing up in Mountain Brook and their passion for music.
Tell us about this gig on May 30?
John: We are excited to be playing an original set of music in a very cool atmosphere. Our hope is to leave people wanting more.
Chas: The band is donating its proceeds to Community Kitchens (thecommunitykitchens.org) which serves over 65,000 meals each year to men women and children throughout the Birmingham area.
John: My friend Randy Yarbrough is the Executive Director of Community Kitchens and we are excited to help in any way we can.
When did each of you start playing music and how did you learn?
CHAS: John started taking lessons from Ervin Payne’s studio. I thought that was a great idea because I really loved listening to guitar-driven music. I started taking there also. After a few months I was learning more from listening to and playing along with records; like BB King, Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones.
JOHN: I think I was 13 when I got my first guitar. I still have and play it today – a 1969 Gibson 335. Having an older brother to share music stuff with was really helpful. In fact, it still is today. In high school, I did a short stint at Berklee and that opened my eyes as to how far I needed to go. Music, in a seemingly unique way, always offers room for improvement.
How did your parents encourage your pursuit of music?
CHAS: Mom and Dad were always glad I was chasing after what I loved doing. They were very supportive, but a bit reservedly after visiting some of the dives I was playing. One bar north of Panama City made Mom and Dad really uncomfortable after they discovered that patrons had turned over 20 guns and knives at the door before they were allowed to come in the bar.
Dad frequently said I’ve got a job for you here at the office if you ever want to move back to Birmingham? The only thing is the office job didn’t involve guitar playing. However, the gigs got better and the career path I was on seemed a little more legit to my parents. They encouraged and supported me a lot.
What guitar do you most frequently play on stage?
JOHN: Today I play mostly a Collings acoustic. I just took delivery of a custom tele-style guitar made by a local luthier, Frank Chitwood. It plays and sounds great and I can’t wait to finally gig with it.
CHAS: I mostly play a Fender Telecaster or a James Tyler Stratocaster on stage. Before the Tyler, I played an old Strat exclusively, until it looked like there was no way to replace worn out frets anymore.
I wanted to be a bluegrass banjo player for about 15 years, but my fingers just couldn’t keep up after a while. I bought a Dobro around ’81 and really worked hard on that instrument. The Dobro seems to be a great combination of electric guitar and banjo to me. I started playing Dobro through amps and getting good rock slide sounds.
Duane Marrs, a steel player in Nashville, invented a lap steel that used a cat food can resonator to try and sound like a Dobro. On loud stages, it wouldn’t feedback and sounded reasonably like a Dobro. Duane made one with a guitar-shaped body so you could play standing up with a strap instead of having to set it in your lap. I bought one and replaced the cat food can with some solid countertop material. This gave the slide more sustain and a better rock sound. Joe Glaser (Nashville guitar builder) helped me with a cool pickguard and set the slide up with hot pickups. I was so happy to be able to stand and play. This instrument made so much sense to me because it combined all I knew about electric guitar and Dobro.
Eventually, I ran into a guy named Lynn Ellesworth, who made some of Eddie Van Halen’s earlier guitars. He made me a very cool custom Telecaster shaped electric slide guitar that I designed to play like the Marrs while standing up. I play that a lot with John’s band.
What other instruments do you play?
JOHN: I sing a good bit and play a little piano. I’m also constantly trying to write new tunes. Songwriting is a great outlet for me and it never gets boring. Good ideas show up when you least expect them and disappear when you really need them. Frustrating but ultimately very rewarding.
Y’all are currently working on a new album? When is it available?
JOHN: Yes, we are finishing a record that should be available in 2019. It is all original material and has been a long time in the making. We have recorded everything to date in Charles’ studio and I am very excited about getting it across the goal line.
CHAS: We’ve captured some great vocals from John on a fantastic collection of songs he’s written. We’re probably going to record 2 or 3 more songs and release it.