Most artists would bristle at the term self-indulgent, but Keller Williams often invokes it in describing his own approach to music. To Williams, being self-indulgent means creating music that satisfies him-if he likes what he's produced, he figures, then his audience is more likely to embrace it too. If he's not happy with it, why would they be?
And so, when Williams describes his first-ever all-covers collection, the amusingly titled Thief, as "self-indulgent, like all of my albums," that signifies not an inwardly pointed diss but a thumbs-up from one of the most tireless musical seekers around. Recorded with the Keels-husband and wife duo Larry and Jenny Keel-Thief is a sequel to the trio's 2006 collaboration Grass, and to those of us on the receiving end, there's nothing self-indulgent about it. If anything, it's about as accessible and welcoming a record as Keller's ever made.
Granted, Thief does require a certain amount of blind faith on the part of the listener: This is, after all, an album that includes songs originally written and recorded by as wildly diverse an assemblage as anyone's ever likely to dream up, from Amy Winehouse ("Rehab") to the Grateful Dead ("Mountains of the Moon"), the Butthole Surfers ("Pepper") to Kris Kristofferson ("Don't Cuss That Fiddle," which opens the album, and "The Year 2003 Minus 25," which closes it). The set is filled out with tunes by Ryan Adams, the Presidents of the United States of America, the Raconteurs, Patterson Hood, Danny Barnes, Cracker, the Yonder Mountain String Band and Marcy Playground. All over the place, yup, but that's the way Williams likes it. And in his hands it all makes sense-like everything he's ever touched, whether from his own pen or someone else's, it all becomes Keller Williams music.
"I'm a music lover first, a musician second and a songwriter third," Williams says, "so a covers record is a natural progression for me. I love writing songs and I love performing my songs-almost all of them. But I go out and do about 120 shows a year, and I just can't write enough to play new songs all the time. There are always different cover songs to learn though; just flipping around on the radio, next thing you know you've got a song stuck in your head. If you change it around and play it completely differently, it sounds like a whole new song."
Since he first appeared on the scene in the early '90s, Keller Williams has defined the independent artist. Most of his career has been spent performing as a one-man band-his stage shows are built around Keller singing his compositions and choice covers while accompanying himself with an acoustic guitar connected to a Gibson Echoplex delay system that allows him to simulate a full band. That approach, Williams explains, was derived from "hours of playing solo with just a guitar and a microphone, and then wanting to go down different avenues musically. I couldn't afford humans and didn't want to step into the cheesy world of automated sequencers where you hit a button and the whole band starts to play, then you've got to solo along or sing on top of it. I wanted something more organic yet with a dance groove that I could create myself."
Williams' solo live shows-and his ability to improvise to his determinedly quirky tunes despite the absence of an actual band-quickly became the stuff of legend, and his audience grew exponentially once word spread about this exciting, unpredictable performer. Keller's albums, meanwhile, beginning with 1994's Freek, were embraced by a wide community of music fans. Unlike his live gigs, Williams has nearly always invited fellow musicians to contribute to his albums, and an alliance with String Cheese Incident led not only to Williams signing with the band's label SCI Fidelity, but a collaborative effort on 1999's Breathe album.
Among his other albums-Thief is his 15th-Williams singles out 2003's Dance, consisting of remixes from the earlier Laugh record, as a personal favorite. He's also fond of his twelfth album, appropriately titled 12, the 2007 compilation for which he chose one track from each of his preceding 11 albums. "That's kind of interesting to hear my history one song at a time," Williams says.
That history begins in Virginia, where Keller was born 40 years ago, and where he lives today. Growing up just south of Washington, D.C., he remembers being exposed to a wide variety of music at an early age, starting with country and bluegrass and working his way up through hip-hop and go-go, a brand of funk particular to that part of the country. Once he began playing guitar, Williams' sphere expanded to what he calls "the post-pseudo-skateboarder punk-rock rebellious type of thing, Black Flag and Sex Pistols and Ramones, Dead Kennedys, things like that. That slid into the more melodic college rock, like the Cure and the Cult, the Smiths, R.E.M.'s first five or six records."
His introduction to the music of the Grateful Dead would become a game-changer for Keller. "I studied and learned their music and went to the shows," he says, adding that the impact of Jerry Garcia on his attitude toward music remains incalculable. Another major influence was Michael Hedges, the late virtuoso acoustic guitarist. "He was really excelling in a whole different world from what I knew," says Williams. "What an amazing force Michael Hedges was as a solo artist."
After moving to Colorado for a few years, further exposure to bluegrass music and progressive acoustic artists such as Béla Fleck and the Flecktones also had a major impression on Williams. As he began to develop his own distinctive compositional and performing style, Williams incorporated all of the lessons he'd learned from the long list of artists who'd found their way into his world, then filtered their music through his own experiences until something wholly unique emerged.
Today he is still exploring and expanding-although Thief (each of Williams' albums bears a single-word title) stays close to traditional bluegrass, eccentric song choices aside, Keller says that his most recent music incorporates elements drawn from electronica and DJ culture. Whatever direction he goes in musically, however, Williams is likely to continue to surprise lyrically. Known for writing about subject matter most simply described as unusual, Keller has no intention of going conventional any time soon. "In the history of music," he says, "there are trillions of love songs and there are so many political songs. I try to find subject matter that's not been written about or maybe hasn't been written about that much."
Keller's thirst for music of all kinds has also led him to the world of radio. For the past seven years he has hosted Keller's Cellar, a weekly syndicated program available on both terrestrial stations and online at www.kellerwilliams.net. Williams describes the show as "a self-indulgent (there's that word again), hour-long narrated mix tape of stuff I'm into. It's rule-less except for what the FCC says we can't do. I don't play contemporary country music. I don't play contemporary Christian music-however, there is possibly some old gospel. I don't play opera. Everything else is fair game. World music from all around-African music from all the countries, jazz, funk, reggae, techno, chill, lounge, lounge singers, rub-a-dub, dancehall. I pretty much stay away from smooth jazz. It's definitely a fun outlet for me."
And more recently, to satisfy his bottomless music jones, Williams has also launched "Once a Week Freek" (www.theonceaweekfreek.com), an online repository of unreleased studio and live tracks, nuggets from his archives, etc. "It's a series that's been going on almost a year. It's me releasing one song a week for download. I started it with the Oddrecord," he says, referring to his 2009 album release. "I'm trying to do something different."
And it's that last sentence that, in a sense, best sums up what Keller Williams has always been about-something different. Call him "self-indulgent," call him "odd" or even a "thief" if you like (those record titles don't come out of nowhere, you know). Just don't even think of calling him predictable. Wherever else Keller Williams may go from here, you can be sure that he will never title one of his albums Repeat or Bore or Snooze. Anything else, your guess is as good as his.