Keller Williams’ latest CD, Funk is being touted as something of a surprise album. Considering that Williams is known for playing acoustic music that often has leaned toward folk, that’s understandable.
But to Williams, the Funk album, which was culled from a series of 2012 concerts with a band that includes bass, drums, keyboards and a pair of female singers, takes him back to one of his core stylistic influences.
“It feels very normal and a natural progression,” Williams said of Funk in an early November phone interview. “It’s always kind of been there for me, that right-hand rhythm of keeping that back beat. I’ve always wanted to create some kind of dance vibe, even in the solo acoustic realm. It doesn’t feel like a departure for me at all.”
In fact, funk is one of his earliest musical loves.
“I lived just south of Washington, D.C., and in the early ’80s Chuck Brown and Troublefunk were these massive go-go bands,” Williams said. “Once I got into like sixth or seventh grade, I remember I played trombone in the little symphonic band in middle school. Then I was like the first grade to be the eighth grade in the high school in the city and I got to be in the marching band. And all the kick drummers, the band director and all of the drummers and percussion, everyone was super, super into the go-go (sound). … I think that’s where it started.”
Circumstances took Williams and his music in directions that made some of his influences – including funk – less obvious than they might have otherwise been.
“When I was a teenager, when I was first starting to play, the idea was always to play in bands, play with groups, have a camaraderie, have this certain connection through music,” he said. “That was always the idea. Then it came around to making a living at it and I couldn’t afford to be in a band.”
So Williams, 43, started out playing solo acoustic, releasing a debut album, Freek, in 1994 that reflected that approach. But it wasn’t long before he started to stretch the solo form, using live looping on stage to create other instrumental parts and give the illusion that he was accompanied by multiple musicians. He gained an early following opening for jam bands, and as his popularity grew, he soon started headlining.
“Then after many years of that, I’m kind of allowing myself to get back into the original plan, which is to make something bigger than what you can do by yourself,” he said.
In 1999, he released Breathe in collaboration with the String Cheese Incident. And since the mid-2000s, he has formed several projects, including Keller & The Keels (a bluegrass band with Larry and Jenny Keel), a group with bassist Keith Moseley, guitarist Gibb Droll and drummer Jeff Sipe that toured as the WMDs, a collaboration with the Travelin’ McCourys (bluegrass legend Del McCoury’s band), and More Than A Little, the band that has toured with Williams behind the Funk CD.
When Williams plays at the Aiken Bluegrass Festival on May 10, he’ll play a solo set and a set with the Travelin’ McCourys.
“The Travelin’ McCourys is definitely a wonder in my world,” he said. “I’m so surprised they’ve allowed it to go on as long as it has, and we have such a good time together. I really appreciate that.”