A Prodigal Son: Brooks Williams Plays the Role of Americana Ambassador
It’s rare that the title of this column carries a double meaning, but in the case of that traipsing troubadour Brooks Williams, the underlying message comes to the fore. Williams is, after all, an American transplant who currently makes his home in the U.K. – literally Americana abroad. It’s significant, then, that he still purveys a sound commonly associated with his native soil – that is, traditional folk and blues.
Williams hails from Statesboro, Georgia, a town that loaned its name to one of the most searing blues tunes in bluesman Blind Willie McTell’s classic catalog, “Statesboro Blues.” And that rich, rootsy sound is an integral part of Williams’ stock and trade.
Though he was bred in Georgia, Williams’ career grew in Boston while he was still in his late teens. He gradually expanded his reach by playing the clubs and coffeehouses of New England and New York, developing his affable style and an intuitive insight into the revered roots music tradition handed down to him by artists who had come before.
Therein lies the irony. While Williams has been well-received in Great Britain, he’s still sadly unappreciated back home. It’s not through lack of trying, however. He has no less than 20 solo albums to his credit, along with several compilations and a pair of collaborations with former Bible frontman Boo Hewardine that they’ve appropriately dubbed State of the Union.
“My tours in the U.K. and Europe are vital to my music,” Williams told me in a recent interview. “Years ago I literally found my ‘voice’ on U.K. festival stages, in Irish singer-songwriter bars, and in the blues clubs of The Netherlands and Belgium. These audiences know their Americana – in many ways even better than we do – and they reflected that back to me, by their response, by what I sounded like. For example, as I was born in Statesboro, Georgia, they were looking for a little bit of that Georgia groove in my songs. Since I now live in the U.K. and tour at least half the year in both the U.K. and Europe, my shows here keep me on the high road – or perhaps I should say, on the low-down and dirty road.”
The English guitarist Martin Simpson says of Williams, “I’ve known Brooks for many years. He’s a lovely player, a lovely singer, and a great writer and a lovely man. The real thing.”
The British folk journal Dirty Linen praised him, claiming, “A consummate artist, Williams ranks among America’s musical treasures.” The influential magazine Americana UK summed him up succinctly by simply stating that “Williams is impossible not to like.”
Indeed, for those in the know, there’s no doubting Williams’ abilities and dexterity. An exceptional guitarist, sublime singer, and committed road warrior, he tours tirelessly in England and abroad, with frequent festival appearances, guitar workshops, and stateside excursions integrated into an extensive travel schedule that’s found him sharing stages with the likes of Taj Mahal, John Hammond, Eddi Reader, Paul Jones, Billy Bragg, Little Feat, Maria Muldaur, Shawn Colvin, and Leo Kottke, among many.
“One weekend recently,” he says, “I played a folk festival on Friday night, a country festival on Saturday night, and a jazz festival on Sunday afternoon. I played essentially the same type of set for each festival. The only difference between each of the gigs was my wardrobe, which is pretty cool. But it says a lot about the audiences’ broad grasp of American roots music. They have a way of inspiring me to keep it real and sing these songs with the voice ‘what I was born with!’”