The number of projects to which Keller Williams is devoted as both a solo artist and collaborator would make most musicians’ heads explode, but for Keller, they’re all steps — very necessary steps — into what the irreverent guitarist and singer calls “the world of different.”
That’s part of what’s preserved Keller’s long-held reputation as one of the scene’s singular presences, and endeared him to an ever-growing list of friends and collaborators that stretches to the farthest reaches of the jam scene and elsewhere. In the past few years alone, he’s toured and jammed with countless musicians in a dozen genres, made a children’s music album, made an album entirely focused on his under-heralded skills as a bassist, and recorded at least two more albums’ worth of music that hasn’t even been released yet because there just hasn’t been time to properly slot it.
Keller still has plenty of 2012 dates left, including an appearance at the Jomeokee Music & Arts Festival, Sept. 14-16 in Pinnacle, North Carolina. But his next project — details of which he revealed to Hidden Track in a recent interview — may be his most intriguing yet. Read on for those details, what brought Keller together with the fabled McCoury clan among other recent co-conspirators, and why that “world of different” continues to hold so much appeal.
HIDDEN TRACK: So a lot to get into, Keller, but I wanted to start with this ongoing collaboration with the McCourys. You’re playing Jomeokee with the Traveling McCourys and you guys released a whole album, Pick, in July. This seems like it really went beyond just a basic collaboration. How long have you known the McCourys?
KELLER WILLIAMS: I’ve spent the past decade crossing paths at festivals with the Del McCoury Band. My love for bluegrass music is great and there’s something real special about the McCoury band — the word “perfect” comes to mind with that band when you’re talking about that genre. Look at the way they lean into the mic and they’re leaning back when other people are soloing and not hitting anyone with their instrument neck. They’ve got that dialed in and it’s so incredibly entertaining to watch. I’ve always been a huge fan of them.
In the past couple of years, they ventured out into the Traveling McCourys, basically the band without Del, and trying out guitarists when Del isn’t there. Me being a solo artist and jumping around to different projects, it seemed like a good thing to try. So we got together in Nashville and stood in a circle and picked songs for two hours before we even started to record anything. And we just kind of started winging at at gigs, and it turned the corner and now I’m part of this vocal corps I’ve never been a part of before. It’s been a long time since I got chill bumps on stage, and I do all the time with this.
HT: So you were simpatico with the McCourys pretty much right away?
KW: Pretty much. Their understanding of the formula of bluegrass is what really shines. Jazz, you know, is a similar genre to bluegrass in that you can gather a wide variety of musicians and they can work in the situation. They allowed me into their world, like they have with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Lee Boys. All that shows just how incredibly open-minded they are and how fearless they are. They’ll play in the key of F, for example, which isn’t exactly normal for bluegrass.
HT: Bluegrass creeps into a lot of what you’ve done in the past, though. Had you ever considered doing an album focused entirely on bluegrass?
KW: Well, I did albums with the Keels that were bluegrass oriented but this was different from that in the sense of grooves and the spacing obviously. With that it was less instruments and more air, more space instead of notes. But the notes added by the McCourys are just incredible. We’d do a couple of versions of each song and each version would be great in its own way and be different — it was tricky to pick the ones that made that record. But it definitely wasn’t a stretch. It’s all about turning on people that wouldn’t necessarily be interested in bluegrass and the McCourys are all about that and accept it.
HT: Will there be more Keller-McCourys collaboration?
KW: I can only hope more shows. We’ve got Jomeokee coming up and we’ll do New Year’s in Nashville. We’re talking about hopefully putting together a West Coast run in the spring of 2013
HT: You keep moving, Keller. How are you choosing projects these days?
KW: I’m trying to venture out into the land of different. There are many years where I’ve continued the same projects and that’s just for the love of the project as well as the opportunity that arises. But it’s where my imagination takes me. I will tell you, I had my first rehearsals yesterday with an R&B band. I’ve got the original versions of my tunes, I’ve got bluegrass and reggae versions of my tunes, and now I’m working on these R&B soulful gospel versions. I’m playing with some incredibly soulful folks from Richmond, Virginia. That’s the newest thing I have. I am extremely infatuated with this and just the idea of writing arrangements for the songs in [this style].
HT: What kind of band is this?
KW: It’s a six piece group: bass, drums, keys, guitar and two female singers. This is so exciting and so different and so soulful. I mean, my songs are pretty simple — I stay away from math and a whole lot of counting, so it’s easy for these folks to pick up on them. These are folks very dialed in to the Virginia R&B scene. They all do church gigs. This is very, exactly what I want and I’m really looking forward to this.
Every year I do a string of shows between Christmas and New Year’s, and New Year’s like I said is going to be Nashville. But Dec. 26 to 30 we’ll be doing a string of shows. This is going to be really interesting. I’m going to try to rehearse this band once a week until then.
HT: I don’t think we’ve heard anything about this. How long have you been working on this band?
KW: Since yesterday! [laughs] The thought had been there to do this run with the McCourys and that was a possibility, but the time between Christmas and New Year’s is a sacred family time in the McCoury world. Children and grandchildren are home, they’re all home, and we finally just decided to save our show for New Year’s. So I was given the green light to go ahead with this.
It’s in the very early stages. My drummer, [Virginia staple and Keller alumnus] Toby Fairchild, who I played with in the Added Bonus a few years ago, assembled this band. I was able to sit in with them once — it was a Tuesday night gig at a local bar — and it was really special. So I kept that tucked away in mind, and the idea was finally ready to present itself. I probably shouldn’t be saying so much, but there, you’re the first to know about this.
HT: Much appreciated! Can you clue us into dates and locations for that late December run?
KW: They’re unconfirmed as of right now but the way I’m trying to lay it out is December 26 in Fredericksburg [Virginia], December 27 in Wilmington, N.C., December 28 in Charlotte, December 29 in Norfolk, Virginia, and December 30 in Richmond. Then for New Year’s I’ll drive to Nashville, play a loopless set — a natural acoustic set without any help from any kind of electronics — and then we’ll have the Traveling McCourys do a set and then let the Del McCoury Band close it up naturally.
HT: Sounds exciting and is something we’ll be watching. I did want to ask you, by the way, about Bass, which came out a year ago. What compelled you to do an album focused primarily on your bass playing?
KW: It’s another attempt to step into the world of different. I’ve done a lot of albums and never not had guitar on them, but it’s not a stretch for me to play the bass and sing and feel super comfortable with it. The amazing power the bass has, and just being able to direct a band while on bass, it’s just this incredible, audible power. It’s a whole different vibe than the acoustic guitar and a whole different energy. It was a blast.
My bass thing started with an infatuation with Jaco Pastorius, but also kind of started with Keith Moseley, too. I remember being on tour with String Cheese a while back and his wife was getting ready to have their first child. They asked me to learn like 20 or 22 songs on bass just in case Keith had to leave the tour early. The baby came on time, but then I was left with this 40-hour week I’d put in learning 20 String Cheese songs. From there, the bass made its way onto my stage and into the loops and all that.
HT: What else is on the horizon for you?
KW: One thing I’m doing is a follow-up to the  Rex record I did which was Grateful Dead songs as Grateful Grass. There’s that. Also, I have an album called Keys that is just piano and vocals. That was made about a year ago and I never found the right spot to release it. Then, I want to do a full circle record with just me on acoustic guitar and vocals. The name for that is pending; there’s no real rush to do it. But that’s me and my crazy mind. Someday I will release all of this stuff.
HT: Jomeokee is one of the major dates for you this fall, but you’ve been out on the festival scene all over this year. What’s your read on the festival climate right now? Crowds good, people making it out?
KW: There was that period where festivals were on the rise and then there were so many of them. The ones still hanging in there now, you definitely give a lot of credit to them, people doing them have a grip on the correct way of doing things and the science in running them well. A lot of the ones still happening are really special for that reason. Jomeokee especially look to be an incredible event. I just saw the lineup of the day I’m playing and that’s got me so excited from a music lover sense. I see so many of my friends. It’s going to be very cool.