By Ann Wood
Keller Williams is the kind of guitarist who walks into a bar and walks out with another band. He may even rival Grateful Dead front man Jerry Garcia as the musician who has played with anyone who’s any good.
He’s is a dad more than he’s a barfly—he’s home with the kids during the week. Nevertheless, Williams and the five-piece funk-gospel band More Than a Little got to playing together because he purposely showed up to see it in a hometown bar.
“The More Than a Little thing happened as a fluke,” Williams says by phone from his Richmond, Va., home, adding that he knew the drummer, Toby Fairchild, and went out to see the band. He was about the only person in the joint so he was called up onstage by Fairchild, “the upfront singers” Tonya Lazenby-Jackson and Sugah Davis, bassist E.J. Shaw and Gerard Johnson on keys. Williams began improvising on one chord, playing other chords around that one—and that was that.
“It clicked, it really clicked,” he says.
It worked so well that in 2012, the group and the guitarist joined forces to start rehearing for shows and then recorded them, the result of which is the 2013 album “Funk.”
Williams is bringing both his solo show and More Than A Little to Maine on Thursday, Nov. 6. The show begins at 9 p.m. at Port City Music Hall, 504 Congress St., Portland. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 the day of the show, or $45 for preferred seating at www.portcitymusichall.com.
“I will be playing two sets. One set will be my normal solo loop party show, what I call my ‘day job,’” he says, and when More Than a Little hits the stage, there’ll be some shake your bottom funk. “There are going to be elements of gospel and R&B for sure. … It will be a big night of music and lots of interesting grooves and hopefully songs that you have maybe heard done before but done differently.”
Doing songs differently is one of Williams’ big things. He’s known for taking all sorts of songs—from pop to rock to grunge—and turning them into bluegrass.
He’s played some of those tunes with The Travelin’ McCourys—a band featuring Ronnie McCoury on mandolin and Rob McCoury on banjo, the sons of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys once-guitarist Del McCoury.
“It’s an amazing family for sure. I’ve been a bluegrass fan since I was a kid,” Williams says. “The Grateful Dead definitely opened me up to bluegrass music.”
The McCoury boys back their father as part of The Del McCoury Band, but when they strike out on their own as The Travelin’ McCourys they need a replacement picker.
“I think the way we got hooked up is I’m a solo guitarist,” Williams says.
He met up with the boys in Nashville, Tenn., stood around playing for a couple hours, decided it was going to work and booked a show in Florida. “That kind of happened naturally, I think,” he adds.
But bluegrass and The Dead isn’t all that inspires Williams. As the father of Ellie, 10, and Cabell, six, he’s got all sorts of songs running through his head. He says Ellie likes Taylor Swift and Disney music.
“Then there’s the Xbox dance games that have the little sensor that can see your body. I’ve got hours and hours of that logged in as well as roller rink music,” he says, and it gets stuck in his brain. “Sometimes you have to learn them and play them to get them out of your head.”
Which explains why he plays a Taylor Swift song bluegrass-style with the Travelin’ McCourys at festivals. He laughingly agrees that he’s transforming pop songs into bluegrass to get people into the form of American roots music that began with Monroe.
“Not just little girls and Taylor Swift but full on grownups,” Williams says.
He’s picked The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” into bluegrass, and the seminal punk band The Butthole Surfers’ tune “Pepper.” Williams could be called the father of Grunge Grass, which is as it sounds—grunge twisted into bluegrass.
“It was kind of an insult to both genres of grunge and bluegrass,” he says, but adds, “It turns out that the Nirvana and Pearl Jam songs make great bluegrass songs. Who knew?”