Keller Williams on His Tom Petty Cover Project With the Hillbenders

Keller Williams is covering the songs of Tom Petty with the Hillbenders.
Keller Williams is covering the songs of Tom Petty with the Hillbenders.
Courtesy of the artist
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Keller Williams is a creative musical force known for his unique improvisational style, much of which he forged while performing as a one-man jam band aided by live looping technology. His infectious and freewheeling approach to performing remains present in whatever setting he finds himself.

With his latest project, PettyGrass, Williams applies his distinct brand of “acoustic dance music” to the works of the late Tom Petty, with some assistance from The Hillbenders. Together, they perform as PettyGrass this Friday at the Boulder Theater. Williams is also working on a new album to be released this fall.

Westword caught up with Williams ahead of the Boulder concert to talk about touring, Tom Petty and more.

Westword: How's it going?

Keller Williams: Great. I'm hangin' out here in Fredericksburg, Virginia, which is where I live.

Have you been out on the road a lot lately?

I play about 110 shows a year these days, but I usually perform between Thursdays and Sundays, and then I'm home for the rest of the week before going out again. So it's about a three and a half days on and three and a half days off arrangement. It's a luxury problem.

So how'd you get into this Tom Petty bluegrass cover project with the Hillbenders?

I guess I got into it by listening to the radio while was I growing up in the ’80s. I could sing about twenty choruses by Tom Petty with no problem at all, but this particular project came about because the day after Christmas, for the last eighteen or nineteen years, I've done a benefit for my local SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). So every year I try to bring in a different project for that. Around 2015, my studio engineer and I put together one that we called PettyGrass, with Jay Starling on dobro and Jeff Covert on guitar, and me on bass. We played fifteen Tom Petty songs bluegrass style, and we rehearsed for it a whole bunch. While we rehearsed, I would do these voice memo recordings, and on the day Tom Petty died I was actually in the studio working on my studio record that is coming out this October. But the day he died, I couldn't focus on what I was doing, and I pulled up those voice-memo recordings, and we ran ’em through the computer and made them sound really cool. Then we mastered them and released them on Soundcloud. They were listened to by the folks in the Hillbenders' camp. The Hillbenders are an amazing band out of Missouri that have traveled the world doing the rock opera Tommy in a bluegrass style. Well, they picked up on my recordings and they initiated this project. So that's the story behind it.

Are there any parts in those Petty songs that are tough to nail?

There's a lot of detail in the songs that the Hillbenders pay attention to, so we're definitely hitting all the licks that you might know from the originals, and we've even added more harmonies than exist in the original versions. It's pretty much a celebration of songs and a huge sing-a-long kind of party.

Are there any favorites that have emerged?

Well, we have twenty in the can. If we play all of them, it goes for more than two hours, so we try to trim it down to about a ninety-minute festival set. But, let's see, songs like "Even the Losers," "The Waiting," "Wildflowers," "Listen to Her Heart," "Refugee"...it goes on. Hit after hit after hit. The couple times I saw Petty, he would step out and say, "You might notice we're playing all the hits, and that's because they're all hits!" [Laughs.] If there's anyone who could say that, it was definitely him. He was legit. The best part about it is just the happiness that is brought by these songs, especially when the choruses hit and people are just singing along, some of them not even realizing that they knew the songs.

You have a new album coming out, right?

It's my first all-instrumental record. It's called Sans, as in "without." In this case: without lyrics. Get it?

Sounds like a winner. Why exactly did you decide to go it alone as a solo performer?

Well, in the beginning my approach was to have that camaraderie that you get with a band and communicate through music. And that's what I did. And then the bands I was in would want to use our money for recording, and I'd want to use the money for rent. So the bands went away and I started playing in the same places that the bands were playing for the same money that those bands were getting. That's usually around 200 bucks for four guys. That was in the ’90s,  around 1997. I wanted more avenues to go down musically, without being able to afford other humans. I wanted to create something in an organic way, so I started looping and creating everything on stage, nothing pre-recorded. Once I started using bass as part of my sound, it started to click and I started to sell tickets. I had the bass in playing position on a stand, so I could sling my guitar around, step on a pedal and play bass on the one. So I figured, this is something that isn't broken, so I'm not going to try and change it. I stuck with it. Once that entered, people started buying tickets, and I started increasing my stage setup. At one point I had several different stations set up. I had all kinds of instruments ready to go.

Do you have a family now?

I do. I have a ten-year-old boy and a thirteen-year-old girl. Today was actually the first day of school.

Do they ever come out on stage with you?

Yeah, I've been doing FloydFest every year here in Virginia. It's a great festival, and it's really kid-friendly. I've played it the past four years. This past year I got my daughter, Ella, on stage to sing with me. It was great.

Is it fun for you to collaborate and play with other musicians these days?

Yeah, the solo looping thing I consider kind of as a day job. It's what I've done the most and what I'm most comfortable doing. I don't have to prepare or rehearse for it. But, yeah, it's nice to get back to the camaraderie of playing with other people. Since I've been able to afford doing it, I've been able to participate in a few really cool projects. My most recent was KWahtro, with Gibb Droll on guitar, Danton Boller on bass and Rodney Holmes on drums. We did a record called Sync that I'm really proud of. And, of course, this PettyGrass project is a blast.

Overall you're having a great time from the sounds of it.

Absolutely. My whole career has been the relentless pursuit of entertaining myself. I set the bar really low, so if my gear shows up after a flight and it's not broken and everything comes off without too many problems, I celebrate.

Are you looking forward to coming out to Colorado?

Yeah, always. I've been very fortunate to be able to play that great state quite a bit.

PettyGrass with Keller Williams & the Hillbenders; with Trout Steak Revival, 7:30 p.m. Friday, September 7, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, Boulder, $25.

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