Pick up on it…Laughing, Living, and Learning from Webb Wilder
Where do you start with Webb Wilder? You don’t. You just jump in and let the surf do its thing with all its motion, force, grit, and magic. You can use a boogie board—Webb can boogie. You can surf on a long board or a short board because Webb will tell you that “with all the eighth notes flyin’ around and some of those ‘big string’ melody instrumentals”, without meaning to do it, that groove is in there. Body surfing is always an option. After all Webb does sing of being a human cannonball. You can even do the wave skimmer thing if you are so inclined. If there is one thing that Webb Wilder knows it would be using your own driving momentum to get where you want to go while fighting the pushing tide.
I told Mark the other day when he was trying to get me to listen to Muse’s new CD, “You’ve always been more of Brit Techno Pop fan than me. I’m a Roots Rock kind of girl.” Can I get that tattooed on my fanny…mommy please? I like different stuff. I am an explorer. However, my true north will always point to that place where Rhythm & Blues, Country & Western, and Jazz converged. You know that thing that Alan Freed called rock n roll. Today they call it Roots Rock. I work for one of its champions, Ned Hill, and this week I got to talk to one of the movement’s founding fathers—Webb Wilder, the last of the full grown men.
In the opening line of his bio as posted to the Webb Wilder website, it reads,
“Rock for Roots fans and Roots for Rock fans.”.
The song I most identify with Webb Wilder and the Beatnecks is “Tough It Out” and after that it would be “Human Cannonball.”
Without setting out to be, and certainly not stopping though he is, Webb Wilder has become an icon. The number of people that recognize his name is phenomenal though like another rock n roll icon, Buddy Holly, a good portion of that number can’t name a song he’s done. When you play one of their songs, and this is true of both, the listener usually shouts, ‘I love that song’, and calmly you say, ‘Dude that’s Webb Wilder.’ Why compare Webb Wilder to Buddy Holly? Well friends it’s the glasses. You know the spectacles. It’s that eyewear fashion. You should pick up on it, really.
Webb Wilder wasn’t born Webb Wilder. He was born John Webb McMurray. Regardless of that he wasn’t born to a musical family. He wasn’t surrounded by aunts and uncles and cousins all singing and playing the banjo or the dulcimer. When I asked him where he’d gotten his sense of humor I had imagined he was going to point to his family as all big jokers but he didn’t. What he did say is probably more relevant to a healthy sense of humor than most realize. “My biggest influence is television. I was an only child with a big imagination who loved words, language, and music. Still do! I grew up in a house that was often melancholy, but everybody was a real big talker. I was always a class clown….a chatty, bored kid craving attention who could make folks laugh. It’s like the old saying about getting them to laugh with you BEFORE they laugh at you, I suppose. I loved the great comedians on TV as a kid, I gotta say, too.”
His humor, just another facet of his craft that he’s known for, isn’t just in his music or his stage performances; the man can pull off a one–lined zinger as sweet as a Twinkie. I love to laugh. I adore laughing hard. Even more so, is laughing hard enough that I have to run to the bathroom because I don’t really want to wet my pants laughing so hard. When I landed the interview with Wilder I asked a friend who has frequently gone to Webbfest (the term used to refer to a Webb Wilder concert, movie screening, lecture, and comedy routine, and all of the other side show attractions rolled into one) here in BG, if I could pick his brain as to why he was a fan. He, himself, was not helpful but he came baring a DVD that was frankly inspiring. It was called Webb Wilder’s Amazing B Picture Shorts. Yes, watching it I did have to run to the potty more than once. It was like that line from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark when Marion asks Rene “What’s in this stuff?” I was howling, “Who writes this stuff?” So I asked. “Steve Mims and Bobby Field wrote most of the dialogue. I may have had some role in that. I will say that a lot of the snappy one-liners are Bobby’s.” I asked who came up with the Webb Wilder, Private Eye character. Wilder expanded his answer to explain his involvement in film as well.
“As far as the detective character goes, Bobby and I were reading Raymond Changler and watching Andy Griffith. Steve Mims was a film student @ USM in Hattiesburg who worked for Bobby in the office of public relations there. That was a very media concerned kind of job. Anyway, somehow, their chats during the day and our chats at night coupled with R. S.’s giant imagination and Steve’s solid desire to make films melded with my channeling every sad sack, stock yard, front porch Southern eccentric I had ever encountered made the end product come to life. I do think TV helped ‘cuz the voice I speak in that film was very much inspired by Fess Parker’s TV show Daniel Boone!”
If you attend Webbfest this tour than you’ll get to see the latest one—movie short—called “Scattergun”.
Should you decide to Google ‘Webb Wilder’ you most likely find the term ‘multi-media’ applied in the description. Though he’s made movies, he’s also acted in others. He’s been a radio announcer and a narrator. You could say his true talent lies in his ability to market himself in multiple markets. I would say his true talent lies in his ability not to be completely jaded by years of doing so HIMSELF. There’s no huge PR team behind Wilder. There is a slim collection of hand picked professionals, a few friends, and his band-mates. I view him as one of consummate DIY musicians similar to Tommy Womack. Yeah they’ve got some help but the bulk of the work they do themselves. I told him I had interviewed Richard Young of The Kentucky Headhunters recently about
Joe Berry when WLOC-FM Munfordville, KY was still in operation. We
talked about the changing methodology of delivering music to fans. His
son is the drummer for Black Stone Cherry. I posed my question about this change to him like so: From everything I’ve read and can gather, you’ve always been pretty hands on in regards to your career. You’ve quickly adapted to the new tools and vectors out there. He answered with:
“Well, thanks for seeing me in that light! I feel like I’m always behind the times. In many ways, I miss the good old days of labels, budgets, record stores, tour support, A & R people, widespread airplay @ terrestrial radio(God bless D93!), SOMEBODY having a hit single with a Rock and Roll record that SOUNDS like a hit single that changes yer life and professional journalists making good livings in the print media! The internet is great but, it hath slain a great deal I fear.”
I pushed the issue a little further …. “the internet is great but, it has really torn the print media a new one which has affected the quality and quantity of music journalism As well as it’s profile. It has devalued intellectual property, perpetrated untruths (and truths) and a lot more. Sure there’s a lot of good stuff and we all use it every day but, where are all the magazines, record stores, GIGS, etc. Lots of ways to promote (many of which are kind of message in a bottle/shotgun efforts but, the question that arises at every seminar and conference is that of monetization. Musicians, journalists, songwriters, artist managers all need to get paid so they can do what they do and thereby make it available to the public. People are way into this, “Hell, you can make a record on a lap top!” Yeah, and somebody can swim the English Channel. The great, timeless records were made by musicians in studios with somebody who knew what they were doin’ behind the console. PLUS, not everybody’s a boffin/geek technoid! God bless those who are but, give me a studio and an engineer even if it’s in somebody’s house (great!). I don’t know how to turn knobs very well much less work Pro Tools.”
We batted discussions about Nashville and Austin back and forth and obviously there is a button wired to that subject. I asked: Having lived in both and still working in both do you agree that both towns are hard, brutal places to work? Curtis Burch said when I interviewed him recently that ‘Nashville is like crawling through broken glass.’ He isn’t the only artist I’ve interviewed that has used that reference. IS it that bad for you?
“Well, the music business is hard and brutal. Nashville is a center of the music business but, it’s also where some of the most talented people in the world reside which fosters an atmosphere of creativity unlike that of anywhere else in the world. I loved Austin in the ’70s and I’m sure it will always be one of the hipper places. Austinites and Nashvillians may get a little jaded. Who wouldn’t? They’ve both had an almost constant parade of talent for as long as anyone can remember. People like to bitch. Are there artless products coming out of Music Row? Hell, yeah! This has always (just about) been the case. That doesn’t mean it is all bad. Besides, ya’ can’t really have it both ways. If ya’ don’t like that template, then ya’ probably don’t belong in that bag. I have had two major and several indie record deals in my career. None were out of Nashville and none were mainstream Country yet, I was living here (and enjoying it) the whole time. There’s also always something good, too. Moreover, there’s a lot more to Nashville than Music Row. Austin became a lifestyle destination at some point. It used to seem kind of like an art colony first—a little different now but still a cool place. One of the things about Nashville that people fail to remember is its PROFESSIONALISM. Musicians here know how to play. Engineers know how to mix (even if square ass, venal producers restrict their choices. It happened and probably still does. Another story…). Sound men know what they are doin’, etc.”
Also on the Webb Wilder’s Amazing B Picture Shorts are some home movies, if you will, of Wilder and the band in the van going to and from whatever gig. One of the things you get privy to is the doodling of Wilder and his drummer, Jimmy Lester. I asked if with advent of smart phones and iPads if he still doodled on the road. Apparently so. I asked if they had ever considered a book. They have. There really doesn’t seem to be a media that he won’t venture into willingly.
All of that aside, the thing that warmed my heart the most was knowing that John Webb McMurray, aka Webb Wilder, was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Yes home of the University of Southern Mississippi. So this crazy, creative, inexhaustible maniac is just a small town kind of guy. Did I forget Southern? A southern small town guy. So patting my Ned Van Go t-shirt which reads ‘Small town Rock n Roll I typed out my query to one of the founding fathers of the Roots Rock movement. How much of who you are is rooted in being from a small town? How much did growing up in a college town warp your view on what you wanted and where you wanted to go with your life?
“Well, I think it impacted me in lots of ways, many of which I’m not even aware of. Although I may not have known so at the time, Hattiesburg was sorta wonderful to grow up in but, had its share of clique-ishness and snobbery as well. It could get really boring for someone who wasn’t sports inclined back then in a small town Lotsa great memories of the kinda stuff that was part of that place then that reflect the TIMES as well as the place. Many of those things I loved are largely gone from everywhere now, sadly BUT, there are still people making music and appreciating its history so, we all enjoy and lament the trade off between the old and the new. The university part was really great ‘cuz you came into contact with kids and their college professor parents from all over the place who were located there and it gave the place a little more diverse vibe than just the Deep South part. The Deep South (maybe Mississippi in particular) is SO rich and complex. We sorta own humor and tragedy equally. I always refer to the rich Afro Celtic culture that is the Deep South.”
All the while I was reading about Wilder, I would pick and chose tunes from his catalogue and listen. I read somewhere that he’s viewed as one of the world’s most avid music collectors with the knowledge about that music to back it all up. Did I hear someone say he and Greg Martin should dual it out on D93? I distract. All of those influences come to play in his music and his performances. If you read through his discography you’ll note that for most his career he’s worked with R.S. Field. Wilder has skipped around labels though and has seemingly and strangely enough found a home with Blind Pig. This latest record he chose to be more hands on and put more of his own songwriting on it. Previous records would include a few of his, a few of Field’s and well chosen covers. I liked the record. It seemed more cozy and warm and relaxed. Oh wait it’s aptly named, More Like Me. The two tunes I liked the best of this CD, and no I didn’t have sleeve to read, were ‘Come Around’ and ‘Pretty is as Pretty Does.’ Both penned by Wilder.
I asked if they would be concentrating more on this latest CD or what at Webbfest this year. He wrote:
“Actually, we’ve been telling “the loving public” at gigs, on the website and on Facebook that we will (for the first time!) perform the 1991 WW album, “Doo Dad” in it’s entirety as the first set. The second will be whatever we’ve been playing lately with whatever else seems appropriate or more truthfully whatever we are current on.”
When asked him to share is wisdom about making your way on own:
“Let’s see. Keep the show goin’. Nobody likes dead air. Have a sense of humor and let it show somewhere in yer show and yer songs. Try to get the word out one way or another. Treat folks as you would like to be treated. Pay attention to what goes over and what doesn’t. Do some some of what doesn’t if you believe in it but, weigh the consequences. Be good to yer fans. Hell, I don’t know….never quit?”
So that’s it. Laugh about it as much as possible. Let your friends help you. The words of R.S. Fields but cranked out by Webb Wilder and the Beatnecks, “Keep Rockin’ (tough it out) No stoppin’”
And oh Rave On, Sir. Rave on.
Originally published on-line with Amplifier