Hattiesburg, Mississippi, native Webb Wilder has produced one of the most literate, entertaining and flat-out barn-burning musical catalogues of the past couple of decades--which means that he's done more than a few interviews in his day. So before launching into another one, he makes a declaration. "I've been asked everything too many times," he declares in a smooth, gentlemanly baritone. "Everything except 'Why haven't they built a statue to you yet?'"
Despite this comment, Wilder proves more than willing to discuss topics other than public monuments. A man made up of equal parts rockin' daddy, revival preacher and back-alley pitchman, he chats beguilingly about everything from his influences and career highlights to a Dixie-fried belief system that espouses such knee-deep-in-kudzu Wilderisms as "Dream big, but don't get caught napping" and "Trust your gut, even if it's a beer gut." However, he insists, "There's only one credo--the Webb Wilder credo: Work hard, rock hard, eat hard, sleep hard, grow big, and wear glasses if you need them." Wilder, a stout six-and-a-half-footer who sports spectacles and a size thirteen shoe, both gives and lives this advice. "I've always been a big guy," he concedes, "and I've always wanted to call myself fat before someone else did. It also had a lot to do with the anti-heroic nature of my whole persona--the non-Spandex aspect of the way I look. And yet I'm playing loud rock and roll through a Hiwatt."
Indeed, Wilder has churned out five exceptional, critically acclaimed discs (including this year's delightful Acres of Suede, on Watermelon Records) that are characterized by cleverness, charm and crunch. His musical gumbo of power chords, rockabilly twang and Southern-bred boogie and blues has been saddled with numerous terms, including several of Wilder's own invention: "We've called it 'swamp-a-delia' and 'mod-a-billy' and 'VFW metal'--all kinds of things. But let's get real. It's rock and roll. It's a matter of blending things, of being from where I'm from, listening to a lot of English music and being a child of the Sixties--of all these things coming together and doing what works." He claims, "I try to be musically honest. I've never tried to say I'm not a cracker or that I didn't hear the Beatles."
Far from it: Wilder confessed to these very experiences way back in 1986 on It Came Out of Nashville, a recording he made with his back-up band, the Beatnecks. ("'Beatneck' says it all--rednecks listening to the Beatles," he notes.) As he mused at the time, "Just maybe a little boy possessed of the mind of a full-grown man bought a Beatles record at a Gibson's discount store in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and, just maybe, he grew up to become Webb Wilder."
Today Wilder says that the lads from Liverpool "had a tremendous impact on me. I was in the fourth grade, and the only guy in my grade who was already buying albums at the time. But I didn't buy Meet the Beatles when it first came out. I was a little skeptical, because all the jerks liked it, too. I had to learn about universal appeal."
And learn he did: Among his subsequent boyhood purchases were long-players by Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers. Before one record-shop visit, Wilder recalls, "I asked my father what he liked, and he said Hank Williams. So I bought a Hank Williams record--but I listened to it more than he did." Another rootsy discovery was the work of the Johnny Burnette Trio, which Wilder calls "my favorite rockabilly--because it really rocks. It's wild. There are some great people that are in their own league, and they were in theirs. There's the Gene Vincent school of rockabilly, with Cliff Gallup on guitar--fantastic. Buddy Holly, you could write volumes about him being the prototype singer-songwriter/self-contained band. Ricky Nelson, great popster with that rockabilly underpinning. And Elvis, you know, beyond words. But Johnny Burnette has just got a thing."
He felt just as strongly about the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, the Animals, the Faces and the Small Faces. But the artist who's had the most direct impact on Wilder's oeuvre is R.S. Field, his longtime producer, tunesmith and figurative Dr. Frankenstein. The two met at church as kids and played together in bands as teenagers. According to Wilder, "We became best friends and hung out together and wrote songs. He was always more inclined toward songwriting than I was."
A few years later, Wilder landed a job at a Hattiesburg radio station. The match was not made in heaven. "I had been selling easy-listening advertising for WHER, and I was washing out at it pretty bad," he recalls. "Plus I was getting tired of going around in a coat and tie in the Mississippi heat, trying to sell tire-store ads on a 'beautiful music' station. So they said they'd make me a DJ on an AM country station." As he tells it, he played "anything but the new stuff, which was the worst stuff. You know, people bemoan the music that's on country radio now, and I'm with them. But I think I was there for the darkest hour. Bill Anderson had a disco-country hit during the time I was a DJ." Unfortunately, his superiors thought differently. Because he tended to ignore current hits in favor of spinning vintage C&W of the sort that appears on Town & Country, an excellent all-covers effort that Wilder made in 1995, he got the ax.
Eventually, Wilder and Field moved to Nashville, where Field landed a publishing deal that funded the recording of the 1989 Wilder album Hybrid Vigor. A minor classic, the disc contains rip-snorting, Field-penned sendups like the AC/DC-meets-the-traveling-circus anthem "Human Cannonball," and "Cold Front," a Stonesy Savannah stomp. Followups such as 1991's Doo Dad and 1993's Nashville were just as entertaining, benefiting from the down-home humor, Flannery O'Connor characters and humbucking bliss that exemplifies Field's rich compositions.
"Bobby's a different kind of songwriter," Wilder says. "He's got a lot of fresh subject matter and zinger one-liners, and he's a guy who's really good at writing rock and roll, which is something that a lot of songwriters are not good at. He's an incredibly talented and very interesting fellow who could've made a jillion albums of his own but got caught up in being an in-demand, behind-the-scenes guy." Field's production credits include discs by John Mayall and Sonny Landreth, and he's written hits for the Fabulous Thunderbirds, among others.
As for Wilder, he's appeared as an actor in the Peter Bogdanovich feature A Thing Called Love and a series of Field-produced short films known under the blanket title Corn Flicks. In the latter, which won praise from low-budget movie critic Joe Bob Briggs, Wilder portrays a private eye whom he describes as "Fess Parker on Thorazine." But don't expect him to go Hollywood. He still lives in Nashville, even though he's nobody's idea of a typical Music City resident. "I'm sort of like the token integrity guy here," he notes.
Whether or not this makes Wilder worthy of being memorialized in stone is anyone's guess--but he's hopeful that such a tribute will someday come his way. "I think the states are arguing over it now," he says. "They were hung up on the cost of it or something. It's really just tied up in red tape."
Webb Wilder. 8 p.m. Wednesday, September 17, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, $8, 322-2308 or 830-
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