An Interview with Josh Williams


It was Thursday, July 15th 2010 at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Oak Hill, N.Y. when, during their set, the sound system died on the Josh Williams Band. Not feedback: not volume issues: it just quit. Silence.

What happened next says a great deal about both bluegrass music and the professionalism of this band. They approached the audience – who gathered around in anticipation – and kept right on playing.Needless to say, the crowd loved it and, after sound was restored, the band returned to the stage to complete a great set.

It should come as no surprise then, that this self-confidence and talent has led to steadily increasing recognition for the JWB. Following on from a long list of individual awards for Josh over the last decade and a 2009 nomination (as a band) for the coveted ‘Emerging Artist’ award from the IBMA, they won the title in 2010.

With the year’s festival season officially over, bluegrass fans – at least here in the Northeast – face a few cold months without as much good, live bluegrass music to sustain them. It’s with great pleasure and gratitude then, that the Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association will welcome Josh and the boys to Poughkeepsie on November 20th.

Josh was kind enough to take time out ahead of his visit to answer a few questions on his life in music: past, present and future. Here’s what he had to say:

I: Tell us about your beginnings in bluegrass. Is it true your first instrument was the ukulele?
J: Yes, it is true. I was about 5 years old and my dad’s mom, who I called Granny, was a ukulele player and when I was young I remember her playing and writing little songs and playing in the local area. She used to sing these songs to me and I asked her if she could show me some chords. I think that’s ultimately what got my interest sparked. I showed it to my dad and he loved it. He asked me if I wanted to learn piano and got me a keyboard for Christmas. I learned a little bit on it, but it didn’t do much for me. Then he showed me some chords on the guitar which I played until I was about 8 years old, when I saw a banjo being played on TV and just fell in love. That’s where it all started, right there.

I: Some of us who know you as a guitar player may not be aware that you’re pretty handy with a few other instruments. How often do you get to indulge your mandolin/banjo/fiddle playing sides?
J: Not near often enough, it seems. I still get the opportunity to play mandolin quite a bit. I’ve been playing mandolin for 3, going on 4 years now with the Tony Rice Unit. I don’t get nearly as many opportunities as I would like to have. The fiddle is something you’ve got to stay up on all the time or else it just sounds awful. I was able to play a little on my most recent album. I played some mandolin, banjo, guitar and some fiddle on a couple of tunes.

I: Does playing with someone you’ve looked up to for a long time make you self-conscious?
J: You know, I don’t really think about that. The first few times I thought, ‘man I need to practice’, but I was able to sit down quite a bit and work with some stuff before I got there; though I had no way of knowing what we were going to play. Tony said: “Oh, it ain’t nothing you don’t know how to play.” I don’t get self-conscious but I do catch myself, standing beside him, more or less in awe. It’s been 4 years since I joined the Unit and it never gets old. I’m too much in awe to think about ‘what if I mess up?’

I: Aside from Tony, who are your other influences?
J: First and foremost would have to be J.D. Crowe and the New South. The first time I saw J.D. Crowe I was about 9 or 10 years old and I just fell in love with his music. Then I started buying all these records and I realized that the original New South was Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs. My dad was a big fan of Ricky’s country career and also Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe. The first bluegrass records I listened to were Flatt and Scruggs. I listened to them every night with my dad. Once I got old enough to want to listen to music all the time, J.D. Crowe became a huge influence. He had another influence of mine working for him later on: Keith Whitley. Those guys: as well as Doc Watson. One of the first bluegrass records I ever heard was ‘Strictly Instrumental’ by Flatt and Scruggs with Doc Watson.

I: People who’ve come to your music recently know you as a bluegrass band but I hear a lot of country in there. How would you describe your music?
J: I don’t always know how to answer that. Ultimately, what I end up telling people is: If you’re a country fan then it’s country with a bluegrass edge and if you’re a bluegrass fan then it’s bluegrass with a country edge. I do have a lot of country influence in my voice. I guess I’m comfortable doing what my voice is suited to and that tends to tip more on the country side of things.

I: Who are you listening to right now? What gets the most plays on your iPod?
J: I still go to stuff like the Bluegrass Album Band, which is Tony Rice, J.D Crowe, Bobby Hicks, Doyle Lawson and Todd Phillips, who came together in the ‘80’s and made these quintessential bluegrass albums. I go to Dan Tyminski, the Lonesome River Band, the Gibson Brothers. I give that stuff a lot of listening to.

I: A few years ago you were playing 300+ shows a year with The Rage. Did that kind of schedule affect the player you are today?
J: I think it had a huge role in it. When you work that often and play that many dates, it’s a lot more difficult to fall off your game. When you’re constantly playing and working at it; I think that’s truly the best thing for a musician. It can be a little harder on a singer because the voice isn’t as sturdy of an instrument. You can sing yourself out pretty easily. That’s one of the things I really look up to Rhonda (Vincent) for is that she’s able to go out and give all she’s got every single day. That’s tough. I look back on that time and think that I wouldn’t be where I am today had I not done that. It was the same with the Special Consensus: Greg Cahill led the band 250 or 300 dates a year when I was there. It definitely made me a better player. It also made me a little bit more savvy as far as the business goes.

I: You’ve won the SPBGMA’s Guitar Performer of the Year award for 7 consecutive years. Do you put pressure on yourself to keep getting better?
J:They never get old. I love every award I’ve ever won. I’m truly grateful for each one, too. With the IBMA awards, I never expected the 1st one but to have recently picked up my 3rd was just amazing.

I: The band recently won the IBMA’s Emerging Artist award for 2010. Now that you’ve ‘emerged’, do you have any tips for next year’s emerging artist?
J: I don’t know. I will say that it’s important for bands to remember that good singing and good musicianship are important but you also want to bring something to the table that’s different. I make sure that whether there are 2 people or 2000, I go out and give the best show I can give. Being able to play and sing is one thing, but shows can get boring. You have to make sure that your audience doesn’t get bored.

I: How did you choose the other musicians for the JWB? How did the band come together?
J: Jason McKendree and I are both from the same hometown. We started the band back in 2008 with a couple of other guys, and we wouldn’t have been able to get it off the ground without them; but, unfortunately, life happens. Fortunately, there was no bad blood and it happened at a time when Randy Barnes had just left Newfound Road and I needed a bass player. The gentlemen who was playing mandolin with us wasn’t able to make a gig and it just so happened that Nick Keene was able to fill in. He’s, by far, one of the best mandolin players that I’ve ever played with. He makes it look effortless; it’s not fair! I believe we’ve got the best configuration of guys that we could possibly have. I think that’s what made it possible for us to win the Emerging Artist award.

What’s in the future for you and for the JWB?
You never know! We’ll be going into the studio soon and cutting a record: so that’s coming up. And, of course, we’ll be coming up your way in just a few weeks so we’re looking forward to that too.

I: After the sound system failed at this year’s Grey Fox Bluegrass festival, you approached the audience and played some acoustically for them. They loved it! Northeast bluegrass fans are hoping you’ve forgiven the sound engineers enough to play next year’s Grey Fox. Have you?
J: We forgave ‘em before it happened!

I: If you could play with anyone in bluegrass, living or dead, who would you choose?
J: There are two singers that I’ve always wanted to sing with or just be around in any form or fashion and that’s Lester Flatt and Keith Whitley. I love their singing and they were the epitome of cool back in those days. I truly wish I’d had the opportunity to play with one or both of them.

Iain Birchwood

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