Paul Williams – There’s a higher power
Nashville has a bigger bluegrass community than you might think, and many of its brightest lights gathered in late July at the Gibson Showcase — an odd kind of listening room/restaurant/luthiery tacked onto the Opry Mills Mall — to celebrate the release of a new tribute to Jimmy Martin, the self-proclaimed King of Bluegrass.
Warm applause greeted the core group of musicians who participated in the recording of the album — guitarist/lead singer Audie Blaylock, fiddler Mike Cleveland, bassist/producer Ben Isaacs, and of course banjo player, baritone vocalist and (like Martin) IBMA Hall of Honor member J.D. Crowe. Martin, soldiering through ill health, is enjoying a well-deserved revival of interest, and basked in the adulation.
But the loudest applause greeted an artist whose long absence from bluegrass has rendered him almost invisible, if not forgotten: Paul Williams, tenor singer, mandolin player, and composer of many of Martin’s most striking numbers during the five years (1958-63) he was a Sunny Mountain Boy. When he took center stage and launched into the opening line of “Steppin’ Stone”, the soaring honky-tonk bluegrass lament he’d written and sung some 42 years ago (and in the same key as his original performance!), the crowd went wild.
Ever the showman, Martin made his own well-timed appearance later in the evening, and his reunion with Crowe and Williams made for some powerful music. As the hits — “My Walking Shoes”, “Prayer Bells Of Heaven”, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”, and more — rolled on, it was clear the trio still had the energy and precision of bygone years. But if 2004 can be marked as the year in which Jimmy’s claim to the bluegrass crown finally caught the ear of more than the bluegrass faithful, it may also turn out to be the year in which Paul Williams, too, at last gets his due.
After almost completely retiring from the bluegrass scene for more than three decades, the Wythe County, Virginia, native has slowly re-emerged — and not just as a former Sunny Mountain Boy receiving long-delayed recognition, but as a compelling songwriter and Christian artist. For it was religious conviction that took him elsewhere those 30 years, and while he is happy to rejoin the world of bluegrass as an honored guest, it is with bluegrass gospel that Paul Williams is seeking to make a new mark on the music he loves.
Doyle Lawson, who knows whereof he speaks, puts Williams’ legacy like this: “When I want to hear Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys, I like to hear Jimmy and J.D. and Paul Williams.”
He came into this world in 1935 as Paul Humphrey. “We had a two-story house, an old farmhouse,” he recalls while sitting in the living room of his modest, neatly furnished home in Morristown, Tennessee. “And I went to sleep many a time listening to my daddy playing the fiddle downstairs in the living room. He just fiddled for his own enjoyment, and I get to thinking about it now, and listening to some of the fiddle players I’m acquainted with playing the old-time songs, it made me realize, my dad was pretty good.”
Still, though his father gave him a mandolin when he was 9, he learned to play it mostly from family friends, not family members. “I had two brothers that played guitar, and they would play with my dad, but I had to kind of get off to the side and try to follow along, you know,” he says with a chuckle. His friend Jimmy Williams had an uncle who showed him some things — “he played a lot of the old hornpipes and instrumentals and things like that” — but he was learning guitar, too, and by the time he was 12, he was playing guitar with Jimmy and another friend in a group that was doing weekly shows on WYVE in Wytheville and WBOV in Galax.
His break, and a change in his name, came when he was not quite 15. The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, one of the first groups to adopt the Monroe sound that would come to be called bluegrass, were well established on WHIS, a 5,000-watt station in Bluefield, West Virginia. The group’s leader, bassist “Cousin” Ezra Cline, announced they were holding auditions. Paul Humphrey and Jimmy Williams went, and Cline allowed that they weren’t bad.
“He said, ‘What do you boys go by?’ So Jimmy spoke up and said, ‘The Williams Brothers.’ Back then, there were a lot of brothers in this kind of music, and we thought, that’s the way to go. Well, Ezra hired us and said he would pay us $5 a day. And in those days, we used to help shock wheat or put up hay for 50 cents a day, so at $5 a day, we thought we’d hit the jackpot. So it was Ezra Cline and the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers featuring Jimmy and Paul, the Williams Brothers, and we were on WHIS six mornings a week. We did that for something like 20 months, and then Jimmy got a job with Mac Wiseman, playing mandolin and singing tenor — he could sing high as the moon — over at WPAQ over in Mt. Airy, North Carolina. And that left Paul Williams.”
Williams made his first recordings with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers in 1952, when the group traveled to Nashville to record four sides — three of them Williams originals — for RCA Victor. Before he left the band at the end of 1953, they’d made ten more, including his first real keeper, “My Brown Eyed Darling”. Available on a Bear Family compilation (Windy Mountain: The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers), the recordings show the Fiddlers as a rough, energetic group, with Williams’ sharp, high-pitched (he’d sing lead on verses and then jump to the tenor harmony on choruses) and emotive voice the outstanding feature of the band’s sound.