There are certain musicians whose style is so unique that any snippet of their music is immediately identifiable. Multi-instrumentalist Keller Williams is one of those artists. A staple on the jam scene and the festival circuit for nearly 25 years, Williams has created a singular sound, which he dubs “acoustic dance music.”
Although he wields an acoustic guitar, Williams packs a punch, laying down a beat and building layer after layer with a looping pedal, vocals and a setup that’s included everything from a bass guitar on a stand to a drum machine. His DIY ethic is bound together by one guiding principle: have fun.
“I take having fun very seriously and if I can’t enjoy myself, I can’t really expect myself to entertain anybody, so I think it starts with me having fun,” says Williams.
Lighthearted and playful, he’s music’s Peter Pan, accenting his songs with whistling in the same way that Pan wields the flute. But amidst all the whimsy, Williams’ backbone is his masterful playing. He’s taken part in countless collaborations with the likes of Larry and Jenny Keel, The Travelin’ McCourys, The String Cheese Incident and a co-headlining tour with fingerpicking master Leo Kottke.
Williams described his first show with Kottke as a test run, which took place at the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville in 2016. From there, they embarked on a 25-date run. “The first couple of weekends, he had his own car and we had our own car, but then the last several weekends we were actually in the van together,” says Williams. “Just being around him is surreal in the sense that he’s one of my idols.”
Around that time, Williams began to resuscitate an old project that he had started in 2011 but never finished—an album without looping.
“Out of all the records I have, there’s nothing that’s just one guitar, one microphone. …I wanted to have something that was representative of what I was doing on that Leo Kottke tour,” says Williams.
The album—titled RAW—came out in January 2017 and includes a track titled “Thanks, Leo,” dedicated to Kottke. But Williams didn’t stop there. He released an additional album with a full band on the same day. Titled SYNC, it’s another offering with his KWahtro lineup.
“I would record my guitar and vocal track to a clip track…and then I would send that to Rodney Holmes, the drummer,” explains Williams. “And then he would send it off to Danton [Boller] the bass player…and Danton would lay his duty upon it and we’d figure out a time for Gibb Droll [guitar] to come to the studio with us to put on his part.” Although the group recorded piecemeal, the result “kind of sounded like four guys playing in the same room at the same time and it sounded like it was in sync, so hence the name,” says Williams.
When Williams brings his solo act to the Jefferson Theater on Friday, he says the audience can expect a mixture of RAW material and looping. Looking ahead, he’ll return this summer to play FloydFest with a new Hillbenders project: PettyGrass—a bluegrass tribute to Tom Petty whose songs Williams calls “powerful, yet so simple and so easy to connect with and sing along to.”
But Williams is not done yet. He promises another milestone is on the horizon: his first instrumental record.
And he won’t take all the credit for his abundant output. It’s the fans, he says, that keep this machine turning.
“I have the projects because I’m allowed to have them,” Williams says. “It’s because people are coming to see them and ask for them back that they remain. And if they didn’t, those projects wouldn’t be around.”