Reverend K.M. Williams, who plays the Martin Luther King Jr. Day soul food cook-off at Under the Volcano Sunday, is an ordained minister. And a boogie man.
"People have been saying the blues is the devil's music so long, a lot of people believe it," he explains. "That's just something that built up over time, but that doesn't make it true."
Williams, who has released more than a dozen albums since starting to record himself in 2000, notes that "gospel music and blues music — and I do both — are virtually identical, apples from the same tree."
Martin Luther King Jr. Day Soul Food Cook-Off
The Martin Luther King Jr. Day Soul Food Cook-Off runs from 3 to 9 p.m. this Sunday, January 15, at Under the Volcano, 2349 Bissonnet, 713-526-5282. The Reverend K.M. Williams begins playing at 5 p.m.
The musician had a Christian moment some years back, during a period when he was working for the Navy on a nuclear submarine. "I was in the Navy six years, and I was truly a sailor, if you know what I mean," he chuckles. The experience changed his life but also ignited his fire to play, and play well. "I take my ministry and my testimony very seriously," he says. "But that doesn't mean that I can't sing and play the blues. I just never believed the two had to be separate, that they didn't mix."
"Blues is about feelings, but so is gospel when you get right down to it. We all listened to the blues growing up, and that doesn't make us bad people. Singing and playing the blues doesn't make you a bad person."
After leaving the Navy, Williams moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to take a job in a power plant and began to study for his ministry. During the 17 years he spent in Cleveland before relocating to the Dallas area, he eventually fell in with Robert Lockwood Jr. and began doing blues jams and playing small gigs — "wood-sheddin'," as he calls it.
"Robert took a liking to me and helped me immensely," Williams recalls. "People always say Robert Lockwood was a hard man, but I didn't really see that. People say Albert King was a hard man, but he was always nice to me. Those guys just didn't put up with any mess; they were serious when it came to playing and to doing the gigs, so they could be pretty stern if you weren't doing what you were supposed to do. That's a lesson any serious musician eventually has to learn, though."
Raised in Avery in Red River County, Williams was always into music, but not necessarily Texas blues.
"Where we were raised, we were 150 miles from Dallas, so we actually listened to radio out of north Louisiana, Arkansas and even Memphis," he recalls. "A lot of that radio and that sound had more in common with Mississippi and the Delta blues sound than with Texas, which developed something different. There's just something about those Mississippi men, the power of their voices, the way they play. It's like nothing else."
Williams calls his music country blues.
"I come out of that slide guitar and harmonica thing, not the big-city blues of people like T-Bone Walker or even Freddie King," says Williams. Williams has recorded two albums of the spirituals of Blind Willie Johnson, and refers to him as "my major influence."
"People always compare me to Lightnin' Hopkins, R.L. Burnside, John Lee Hooker, people like that, but if you listen to my gospel songs, that is mainly the sounds of Blind Willie Johnson and some Blind Lemon Jefferson. And my slide sound, that mostly comes from Elmore James. That man had something intangible in his fingers, in his tone. I've studied it for years, and I still study it."
Remarking that his hometown of Avery was very close to Lead Belly's home in DeKalb, Texas, Williams recalls his first guitar lesson.
"Lots of musicians seemed to always be passing through DeKalb. We had quite a few relatives over there and it was a bigger town, so we'd go there pretty often. I went to this house with my parents, and this guy was there playing his guitar, and I just stood right in front of him. Finally, he said, 'Boy, do you want to learn to play this thing?' I was eight years old, and I said, 'I sure do.' So he handed me his guitar and stood behind me and put my fingers where they go, and he'd say, 'Okay, do this.' I really couldn't do it, but he fooled with me 30 minutes and it stuck with me for life. I was just a kid, and I didn't understand what it meant when I found out that was Elmore James, because by that time he wasn't getting played on the radio anymore."
The almost comic-looking diddley bow is another instrument that figures in Williams's musical mix.
"I made my first one out of a length of two-by-four," he explains. "Then I put nails in both ends, crushed old tin Coke cans and put them under the string at each end. I'd lay it on my lap and play it like a country steel guitar.
"The one I use now is actually called a Lowe Bow because a guy in Memphis named Lowe makes them. They're just a cigar box nailed to a broomstick, but they have two strings, a built-in pickup and two tuners, one for each string.
"Bo Diddley played a diddley bow and took his stage name from it. That's why he had that square guitar, he had it made to resemble the diddley bow."
Williams's clinging to the spirit and the sound of old-school rural blues is part of what makes him such a fascinating and unique musician in the blues milieu. Not only does he incorporate that instrument, which is essentially a rural one little known outside farms and plantations for many years, he is one of the few remaining legitimate links between the north Mississippi blues tradition and the rural Texas style of masters like Lightnin' Hopkins, Lead Belly and Mance Lipscomb.
Williams, who plays the Chicago Blues Festival this year, began making essentially homemade recordings in 2000, but moved to Eddie Stout's Dialtone label for his most recent release, 2010's When I Rise. It is a funky mix of powerful gospels like "My Lord Knows Just What to Do" and nasty country blues stompers like "Free to Roam" and "I'm a Boogie Man."
"My record sales have never been huge, not enough to make a living just doing music," says Williams, who is also a technician at AT&T. "But a friend brought Eddie Stout to see me at a little place in Dallas one night, and he immediately came up and said he wanted to record me, do a professional job. And being on a real, bona fide label has boosted my profile a bit.
"I had never played Houston until I got on Dialtone and Eddie put together a package at the Continental with me and Little Joe Washington."
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Washington immediately impressed Williams.
"I'd heard about him, but seeing him do his thing was very special. He really is something completely unique. That little guy can play anything he wants to, any instrument, any style. That's something very rare."
Noting that Houston has always been a big blues town, Williams is grateful for the opportunity to play the Bayou City.
"There's so much history in Houston as far as this music goes," he says. "With my regular work and my church work, I don't have a lot of days I can travel very far to play, so to get this gig in Houston on Martin Luther King Day is a rare opportunity for me."