Keller Williams

GRATEFUL MUSIC: Tell me how you got introduced to the Grateful Dead and just take you on that path that led you to forming Grateful Grass and this upcoming performance at Skull and Roses.

KELLER WILLIAMS: Sure. Well, I guess my, my relationship with the Grateful Dead started in probably 1986 when I started hearing the first music by them. I think it was the Reckoning record, which was the live acoustic record, that really hooked me with the “Deep Elem” and the “Dire Wolf” and the “Bird Song” and “Cassidy.” That record has really opened up my eyes to acoustic music and how it could be taken into different places.

That led to my first show in 1987, the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. That led to more shows, obviously, and led to working hard and making as much money as I can and then going out and doing 10 shows and coming home broke and starting over.

Like a lot of us, Grateful Dead music became a soundtrack to our lives. Actually before Jerry died, I started really putting what I had learned on Grateful Dead tour into my own tour, traveling thrifty and things of that nature. Putting those skills that I learned traveling with the Dead into doing my own gigs. As I’m doing my own gigs, in my early to late teens and early twenties, it was easy to play Grateful Dead songs. At these places where I was playing, which was mostly restaurants and bars, not necessarily music venues or places where people would come to hear music. You just go there and there happened to be a guy playing and I was that guy.

Then I would play Grateful Dead songs. Then you’d get like a little contingency of people that were interested and then that kind of led to a little more of a community outside the parking lot. Skip ahead to 2006 where I was playing at the Fillmore. It’s a huge place and we were trying to do something creative to hopefully increase ticket sales. At the time, Keith Moseley was living around Boulder. He’s a bass player for String Cheese Incident. Of course the late great Jeff Austin was also living around there. They both were off on the day that I was playing. I sent them recordings of my arrangements and we rehearsed in the afternoon and did the set. We recorded the set and gave that set to the Rex foundation. I think that Rex Foundation set from the Fillmore went on to create a nice little profit for the Rex Foundation, which I’m very proud of.

That’s just how it started. Then it would just go into different festivals where I would, I would look at the lineup of the festivals and see if anyone in those festivals would want to get together for aesthetic Grateful Dead music and skip ahead a couple of years and then there’s like 20 people throughout the country that know the same 20 Dead songs in my arrangement. Then I could just pick and  fly in different people from different places. And a lot of times each time the Grateful Grass set would go on they would… It’d be a completely different band from the last one.

Recently there’s been a couple of bands that I’ve actually got to join up with, so it’s not necessarily a five pieces that’s never met before, which happened has happened before. But it’s like full bands taking me in like The Infamous Stringdusters. I’ve done probably about 10 Grateful Grass shows with them. A fantastic band out of Charlottesville, Virginia named Love Cannon. I’ve done a bunch of shows with them as well.

Coming to Skull and Roses are my good friends, The Hillbenders of Missouri and we’ve done a couple of Grateful Grass shows together. We really enjoyed it. But we did a whole year’s worth of Petty Grass together. We got to know each other really well and got to understand each other’s playing styles. And at the same time all the guys knew all those songs too.

After a bunch of Tom Petty shows that we were doing, we just started sound checking [inaudible 00:08:31] Dead songs because we all knew him anyway. And I’m really excited to bring them to Skull and Roses. It’s a really cool event that’s seems to be very coveted by the Grateful Dead family. And I think, I think folks are going to dig it.

Well thank you, that was an excellent answer.

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Right, nice.

Photograph © C. Taylor Crothers

GRATEFUL MUSIC: Do you listen to any of their long form electric stuff? Do you have a favorite “Dark Star?” Do you sit there and 40 minutes and listen to  Jerry surfing through the cosmos??

KELLER WILLIAMS: I love “Dark Star.” I definitely… The Live Dead, that’s always been my go-to. That’s just that first one I really got into and then it’s got that epic “St. Stephen” and the next thing and the :”11.” I’ll tell you what did it for me, I mean I love all the old ‘72 through ‘80 explorations on everything. But what really fascinated me was the introduction of Jerry’s MIDI in ‘89. I want to say it was at the Warlock Show in Hampton Coliseum and the fall of ‘89. They had announced that show a week earlier and you could only get tickets either at the Coliseum or at the two other tickets establishments in the area.

I was going to school, atVirginia Wesleyan College, which is on the border of Norfolk and Virginia Beach. So we were getting wire transfers from folks of all over the place who are… Because you couldn’t get tickets anywhere else. I think two Hampton holds like 13,000 or something. We were getting all kinds of wire transfers from folks who wanted us to go get tickets. It was a real big deal. I think it was like the first set, maybe “Bird Song” that Jerry kind of unleashed the MIDI. All of a sudden in “Bird Song” there was just this perfect flute that just cut through. I’ve just been fascinating with that ever since and then you look at the whole Without a Net, which is the live record, I think that came out in maybe ‘90 that was covering I think that time period of ‘89 and “Feel Like a Stranger” too. I think it was really hot on that one.

That’s the stuff I really get into. It’s finding really interesting middy stuff that Jerry got into. For example, there’s a Mickey Hart record out called RAMU, R-A-M-U, and there is a song on there called “Jerry” and that those are samples of Jerry and Mickey studio [inaudible 00:12:41] working on different MIDI samples that he’s playing. You can totally hear Jerry’s signature playing through these MIDI configurations. And that’s the kind of stuff that really got me.

But driving around, listening to Channel 23, you never know. Sometimes we never really know what song it is. It’s just some incredible jam until you hear kind of like a kind of like a hint of when it’s coming out as, “Oh yeah, this is Uncle John’s band,” and going into that crazy seven part, “This is ‘Playing in the Band.” If you cut into it right in the middle you never really know what it is. And I always find that fascinating and I always stay with it and crank it and just kind of try to guess what it is on the coming out side.

I’ve been there too on stage playing this stuff before and gotten so deep into the jam that a lot of us forget what song we started with until someone gives us a little hint. “Oh yeah, that’s right. That’s what we’re doing.” I doubt the Dead -r were ever that far off where they forgot where they were. But I certainly have.

GRATEFUL MUSIC: Have you ever played with members of the Grateful Dead?

KELLER WILLIAMS: Yes, I had. I’ve done three or four shows with film friends Phil and Friends. I’ve sat in with Bob, I sang with RatDog a few times.

I’ve done a couple tours with Bob Weir and we’ve probably played maybe 20 times together and like a three tour thing over the past 10 years. I was in a few weeks of their Rhythm Devils. Bill and Mickey on the West Coast. It was very surreal experiences on all fronts. Being able to sit and just hang out and talk with your heroes, much less actually be on stage with them. It’s very surreal.

It takes a couple of times to do it until you feel comfortable, which definitely was for me. The first time I played with Bobby I think it was 2001 at Red Rocks and I was on a tour with him and Rusted – Root and… I don’t remember. I think I was on a different tour.

This was 2001. I don’t remember what tour this was, but we were going on different places, I had to pass them in the hallway and said, “Hey, I’d love to see you come sit in with me on my little solo set and we can do a duo thing.” And he said, “Let’s not do it this one or the next one. Let’s do it after the next one.” And I was like, “Okay, yeah.” And then that was Red Rocks. I was like, “Really?”

So, but the most surreal thing was… I mean being on stage with him was really cool. But being in like a production office backstage at Red Rocks with just me and him, no one else, two guitars and singing harmonies with him. That was truly unbelievable.

Sharing a bus with Bill and Mickey for two weeks was truly an experience for sure. I got to absorb so many stories that I definitely inquired about getting subtext of characters and their stories and stuff. I was definitely taking full advantage of my fandom and diving into their stories, what they can remember.

Fantastic. That’s great stuff. Yeah, I’m a big Dead Headd so I’m sitting here enjoying your recollections.

Thank you.

GRATEFUL MUSIC: Thank you for all the wonderful insight. There’s plenty of Phish people out there that are also Deadheads. I’m curious to see if you’ve had any interactions with Phish guys.?

Photograph © C. Taylor Crothers

KELLER WILLIAMS: Yeah, I’ve got to meet them all. I’ve played a couple times with Mike Gordon and once with Jon Fishman. I got to meet Trey after the 10,000 Lakes Festival in this tiny airport and we had a great conversation.

I think the first Phish show was probably the Picture of Nectar tour and it’s like maybe 1990-1991 and I saw them at this large bar. I remember they had like these big giant painted pieces of glass that were hanging up and it’s just unbelievable. Just the sheer energy and the jams and the comedy. It was a really a special thing. I continued to see them. Of course when Jerry died in ‘95, like many, I needed to fulfill a void. I definitely did a big stint of shows. I think it was from San Diego to Seattle in the summer of ‘96 and that was really fun and really needed. There was a lot of folks out there for the same reasons.

There’s tons and tons of folks that knew about the Dead but yet are oblivious to it and just on the Phish side. Then there was a lot of us that kind of like built in to it. I want to say it was like 92 or 93 after pushing my car into Grateful Dead lots in the summertime because it was overheating. When your car is overheating you got to turn on the heat to get the heat off the engine. So here I am in three [inaudible 00:19:57] or something pushing my car off the interstate into the parking lot. Then a couple nights later, I’ll go to a Phish show and I can just drive right in. It was all open and playing coliseums that were half-full and it was special. It was a good time.

I think what they’ve done to kind of preserve that feeling of celebration through music is amazing. Jerry was a big influence on Trey. Then Trey told me he was afraid that he was becoming too much of an influence on him. Then definitely tried not to sound like him. He was very [inaudible 00:20:50], he was very cognizant of that. I found that really interesting.

I can’t help but think that a lot of the Phish career they learned through the mistakes of the Grateful Dead of what to do, what not to do. I think that the Grateful Dead influenced so many people in so many ways. Not just music and lyrics, but and also business and production and things like that. They had really taken a long time to really dial it in -. A lot of people learned through the trial and error of the Grateful Dead how to put on an amazing stadium show to say the least.

GRATEFUL MUSIC: You are a very productive guy. This is a world filled with a million [inaudible 00:22:04] of all time. How are you able to focus on the music and be set free [inaudible 00:22:17] year in and year out?

KELLER WILLIAMS: Well, one way is that I don’t watch the news. I live in a little bubble of not… I don’t watch the news, but I know what’s going on because my wife is with the current events and everything. But I think that helps us not diving too deep into the world issues. I have my wife and she knows best with these things, but I am able to really focus on creating. Trying to create something to where people can block out the outside world for two and a half hours or however long they give me on the stage. All that stuff is going to be there before and after the show. But during that time that I have him, I kind of want him to forget about that and to go into a different area with me.

Now the question is how to be creative. I think it’s just mainly… I’m gone usually every week, Thursday morning to Sunday afternoon. Monday is very kind of a decompression and relaxing. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are usually where the creativity flows. Sometimes I’m looking at the weekend and what kind of projects I’m doing on the weekends, so other times it’s just mindlessly doodling and then all of a sudden something comes up. Some kind of riff or something comes up or there’s a piece of conversation or something I put together -with lyrics or with words that I can slop around and turn into a chorus. That usually happens on Tuesdays or Wednesdays and so I don’t really have an explanation of it. Other than that.

GRATEFUL MUSIC: Do you ever take lessons?

KELLER WILLIAMS: When I was a kid I took some lessons and it didn’t really pan out, the piano lessons and guitar lessons. But a friend of mine showed me chords when I was about 10 or 11 and I started putting the songs with the radio and it kind of led from there. For me, my first gig, I think I was 16 and I was playing, you know, covers. Well, let’s play in a coat and tie at some corner of a restaurant.

I look forward to seeing you again real soon.

Alight, well thank you so much. It was nice talking to you.

You too. Have a great rest of the day. Bye.

Bye now.

Photograph © C. Taylor Crothers

Pandemic Update

Boy, do I remember the start of the pandemic. Absolutely. I think it was—I want to say March the 12th, maybe. It was a Thursday. I was backstage in Memphis at this bar that I was playing. And I think the next day was Little Rock, Arkansas; and I think Saturday was Oklahoma City. I’m sitting there backstage Thursday night at Memphis and I’m the only one in my management company and my booking agency that is performing that night. Everyone else had cancelled. And I was all sound checked and ready. I was in Memphis, so that might tell you something, but the owner was like, hey, I’m totally good. Do it if you want. And I was like, I’m doing it. And so I did it and the next day I flew home. The other two shows had sold very well and the owners of those venues were game as well to do it, but I was very adamantly talked into coming home immediately, which I did; and that’s when I knew that something was terribly wrong. 

That show in Memphis was a solo one, but coming up, you know, was a whole year of solo and band practice and, you know, all kinds of three or four different projects and everything was kind of in place for the whole year, so that all went away. 

Being home for so long was very different. And I think immediately I started with a machete hacking down brush, making a pathway to the river that I’ve always wanted to do; and, also, to get out a lot of anger that I had for, you know, being taken away from these wellselling shows that I was excited to do; and so I got into fishing. Once I hacked down that path, I got into fishing and it was probably several months that I never used my bait, so it was several months that I never caught a single fish, but it was the philosophy that I was getting into about, well, I’m not really here to catch fish. I’m here to be by the river and outside; and if it gets bad enough, then I’ll start using live bait when I need to feed my family, but I’m just kind of warming up right now, and so I really got into that…in the first couple months, first couple weeks. And here on the East Coast we had a very great spring (2020). It was cool, in the sense of temperature for a long time, and a really beautiful time to be outside, and I was very grateful to have, you know, the land, the outside that we have during that time for sure. 

What I did the most of was sit on the back porch and press record and improvise. And I did that so much that I sent those voice memos to my friend Bobby West who goes by the name Erothyme, Erothyme. You think it’s going to be Erothyme like the spice or whatever, but it’s Erothyme, like Arrow-time. And he took those improvisations and together we kind of chopped them up and he laid out all kinds of really cool bass lines and all kinds of keyboard lines, and then I put in samples. I did all my guitars on the back porch, and you can hear the birds and the bugs. I did a couple tracks like by the ocean, and you can hear the waves. And the crickets. On the back porch the helicopter goes by and that track is called “Heli Porch.” And in the basement I also did a vibraphone and piano. And once that got rolling, I started using my phone to put in vocal parts. I would go into the closet with all the clothes and I recorded all my parts on my cell phone and sent those off and he would put all those together and we created a record called Cell, Cell, that came out in 2020. Its digital only and it’s on Spotify, Apple, Amazon, ITunes and wherever you stream your music. And I literally phoned that in. I’m extremely proud of it and I listen to it. I actually listen to it sometimes. It’s great in stereo. It’s super, super trippy. It’s acoustic dance music, acoustic psychedelic dance music with sort of, you know, an electronic twist. 

And during that time, Dennis, I was kind of like messing around with actual songs and finally got to record them. Grit was all recorded in studio except for a few except for a vibraphone section that I recorded in the basement off of my cell phone and then took that into the studio. And you can’t really tell, because it’s laid in with the base and the drums and the guitar. You can’t tell it’s recorded on a cell phone, but it is. And I’m happy to say Grit is my new record, coming out on February 4th of 2022. I think I might have leaked a few tracks online, but we got a couple singles coming out from that record; and that record actually drops on February 4th. So that was all kind of being formulated while I was doing these weird improvs during the pandemic. 

Editor’s Note: Here’s a link to “Warranty,” a single from Grit. Enjoy!

I think it was August when it started back up again, but under really strict circumstances, you know? I think we went up to what each state allowed as far as who’s allowed to gather, how many are allowed to gather at once, and everything was socially distanced and outside. We had the—I call it the space pod. It’s not a space pod you fly through space, but it’s a pod in which four people that you come with can sit together and spaced out several, several, you know, feet apart. That started up in August; and as awkward as that sounds, it was just exhilarating to play in front of humans. When I came back in August, it was just kind of piecing together places that were doing these Covid restrictions; which, over here on the East Coast were were many. It was fantastic. There were drivein movie theatres where people could, you know, be near their cars, but not go mingling into others. There were fantastic situations on farms where people would rope off little pod areas. Down in Florida there was a golf cart drivein at the Spirit of Suwanee Music Park, in Live Oak, Florida. Loved that place. So it was a lot of amazing folks that had the balls to really keep doing it, but under those restrictions, which was completely different, but glorious nonetheless. 

So with that in mind, you know, we definitely focused heavy on the outside places, the summer and the fall. And then we definitely had no choice but to go inside. We’ve done a lot of stuff inside, but my wife, being the awesome manager that she is, kind of planned on a lot of December, January, February off, instead of booking something and having the possibility of having to postpone it. We just made it off. In hopes that we can, you know, get through it. So we kind of had a little preplanning for the winter; but we’re definitely focusing on the outside to keep with the times as far as this pandemic goes. Skull & Roses is happening this year, Dennis. It’s happening. 

I feel like there is a group of people who share the unhealthy fascination with the Grateful Dead that I do. I think all of us coming together as one is nothing but positive. I personally have never been. I’ve heard all about it. I’ve heard about the boxes stacked, you know, stacked up like the wall of sound and Steve Parish is a very passionate dude. I hope I get to hang with him. And I just—I just love being around family, you know, and I feel like we are everywhere and it’s fun to be in one place at one time, at least at this particular juncture. Which is Skull & Roses. So I think I can go on forever about why I’m excited to be there.