Webb Wilder is a middle-aged guy in what is increasingly a young 'uns game. At age 46, born in 1954, he is just about as old as rock 'n' roll, depending on how you vinyl -- not carbon -- date the music's birth. For a good quarter-century he's been playing music as a pro, releasing records since 1986. And at this point, he explains, "I'm still in the van after all these years. We still do gigs. And we really need to seed the clouds of success with another record."
Wilder's last album hit the streets in 1996, and he is currently without a label. The new century finds him at a place that's become rather common with the graying of the old-school rock 'n' rollers: the mid-career doldrums. After all, Webb Wilder is no longer the musical upstart who emerged from Nashville playing roots-rock noir in the mid-'80s. The dawn of the next decade found him getting the proverbial major-label shot through the BMG system. It afforded Wilder the chance to cut his best album, Doo Dad, as well as the funding to make a short film, Horror Hayride, starring Webb Wilder, Private Eye, with Austin-based filmmaker and educator Stephen Mims. A stint recording for the now-defunct Austin indie label Watermelon followed.
It's a testament to Wilder's potential for longevity that he still makes a good part of his living on the road. The fact that he has always fronted crackerjack combos certainly helps account for that fact. But from his first recorded emergence on It Came from Nashville, there's been something more to Webb Wilder that made him not just another rocker.
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One early set of lessons that informed the creation of Webb Wilder came from a seemingly unlikely source: his aunt, Lillian McMurray. A minor if also esteemed record industry legend, she cut seminal recordings by the likes of Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson and other Southern music greats on her Trumpet Records label. McMurray, who died a year and a half ago, recently was inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame, and was honored this year by the National Endowment for the Arts at the Kennedy Center.
That difference is the Webb Wilder persona, an extension perhaps of the man's own qualities, nurtured in his native Mississippi. This persona also has been rather skillfully crafted by Wilder and his longtime pal, producer and collaborator R.S. Field. In a nutshell, Webb is the coolest geek you know, a Southern gent in a fedora, not unlike To Kill a Mockingbird's Atticus Finch, but cast as the leader of a band. There's a Webb Wilder Credo: Work Hard. Rock Hard. Eat Hard. Sleep Hard. Grow Big. Wear Glasses If You Need 'Em. And it fits the Webb Wilder sound: big-rig rock, Southern-style, with a pop accent à la the 1960s British Invasion. And in the show-business tradition of, as the term clearly indicates, putting on a show, the man is also something of a rocking raconteur on stage.
"She was out of the record business by the time I was out of diapers," explains Wilder. "Her husband was in the furniture business. He wasn't really musical. They lived in Jackson. We lived in Hattiesburg. That's about all I knew."
After the rock bug later bit Wilder, however, his aunt's musical past emerged to help redirect his passions to the music's true origins. "I was going out the door when I was in my teens with a copy of Tommy by the Who, and she said, "I thought the rock opera was an abortion.' I thought, What does she know? Then I realized they did her song wrong on the album. They did "Eyesight to the Blind,' which she had cut the original version of. They did it in a minor key, and did all these things that are cool, but they weren't right. That really blew my mind and was one of many things that made me realize that I was turning my attention to the UK, and finding out that the source was my own backyard."
Wilder's aunt later mentored him when he made his first forays into a musical career. "Her husband, Willard, said" -- Wilder lapses into a hoary Deep South accent -- " "Now, Webb, don't get into the record business. We lost $50,000.' "
"On the short end, they lost money," Wilder surmises. "But I think they recouped at least some or a lot of it, if not made money over the years, through the residual nature of things." As Wilder's current residual situation has its share of problems -- most of his albums are hard to find if not out of print -- one imagines his aunt's eventual redemption gives him heart.
Another benchmark in Wilder's musical development came on meeting Mississippi blues legend Big Joe Williams, whom Lillian McMurray also had recorded. "She would send him back to Jackson after the sessions on the bus with a shoebox full of fried chicken," Wilder says. He crossed paths with Williams when the singer and guitarist dropped by an abortive recording session by Wilder's band the Drapes. Wilder recounts the meeting in his version of Williams's "Baby Please Don't Go" on Doo Dad. "It was just like I say in my rap in the song: Plymouth Fury. He drives up in it. He's got a coffee can on the dash that he spit tobacco juice in, which he missed a lot. He never got out of the car. And he told me all this stuff. And it was amazing." Wilder lapses into black bluesman dialect: " "Yo' first take is yo' best take.' Various things like that. And he was pretty cool."
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There's an old-school Southern ethic that pervades Wilder's musical endeavors, a proverbial kudzu that grows amid everything to mark its sense of place. "There's really something to be said about the Deep South," Wilder observes. "There's something about the afternoon light through the pines that really does it to me. I get a sort of bittersweet melancholia, kind of warm/cold; I feel every emotion at once."
Even with his recording career at a standstill, Wilder enjoys some of the other accrued benefits from the exposure it gave him, and not just in road work. After starring in two short indie films made by Mims, Wilder was cast as an innkeeper in Peter Bogdanovich's The Thing Called Love. Although the movie was something of a mess, Wilder looked good in context, as did fellow musician K.T. Oslin, who played the matron of Nashville's Bluebird Cafe. Compared to the fumbling professional actors, the singers came off well.
"I want to do some more acting," Wilder says. "I haven't really ever gone after that with dogged determination. And the older and grizzlier I get, I think I oughta be more castable in some sort of character-actor role." His corny yet cool personality lately has landed Wilder voice-over work in commercials, narrating a Nashville Public Television documentary and a cartoon pilot, and announcing on CMT. He even did a three-month stint as a replacement country DJ on a Nashville radio station in the summer of 1999.
But then there's the overgrown kid who can't put his guitar down. For that part of Webb Wilder, the road isn't just financial security. It's also sustenance for his soul. "I love to play rock 'n' roll," he asserts. "It's a wonderful thing to do, and I can't quit. I've got like over 330,000 miles on my van. There. I've said it: the V-word. R.S. always says, "Don't talk about the van.' But I cannot not talk about the van."