DAVEY WILLIAMS (1952-2019)
Photo by Janice Hathaway
Tribute by Wally Shoup
"I like to think about how my guitar strings were once liquid. Molten metals being extruded, rolled, combined, wrapped, pulled on, stretch. What a life! Starting out as a white hot metal soup. And, before that, my guitar strings were rocks!" - Williams' via his 2010 book Solo Gig.
This passage gives insight into Davey's brain and his sense of sound. Objects were never "mere" objects to Davey. They were containers of secret energies and tales. Thus, his sound was quite personal – an edgy, vibrating tone which sounded literally like a "live wire." Using a quivering whammy bar, hyper-fast fretwork and a number of slides, his sound was that of surreal blues.
As he once told me, the blues has the "sound of a cocked gun." And, though Davey was the least menacing person you could ever know, his blues had a hair-trigger, serpentine sound that said "listen up!" This was not a sugar-coated, safe as milk sound. It was alert sound burning its way into your head.
I first met Davey in the summer of 1978, when Transmuseq (one of his musical projects) played the Century City Playhouse in L.A. on their West coast tour.. Davey and I played literally hundreds of sessions with Birmingham musicians and dancers. We also had an ongoing performance quartet w/La Donna Smith and dancers, Mary Horn or Susan Hefner. We performed together in Atlanta and New York, giving me an unique perspective on his work.
Davey came from a small, somewhat backward Alabama town , Eutaw, in the segregated 1950's but was blessed with two loving, supportive, open-minded parents. He and his brother, Johnny, were encouraged to follow their interests and passions.
Davey's passion was, among other things, music. He took up guitar early and was, by age 19, touring with the Johnny Shines Revue in an all-black band at juke joints throughout the Deep South. Consequently, his straight-up blues playing was authentically grounded in Delta blues. The black players in York County always invited him on stage at the Eutaw Blues Festival. They knew Davey was "for real."
But despite its primal nature, the blues form stifled Davey's surreal sonic sense and bored him to a degree with its repetitive changes. Therefore, he was open to Derek Bailey's innovations once he heard them. They were liberating, and he let Derek know. During the mid-1970s. Derek responded by sending Davey three inch reel-to-reel tapes of Derek improvising. I had read about these tapes in magazines but had never seen them ‘til I met Davey. Point being, Davey's sense of the blues was not just "the sound of a cocked gun." but as a living, breathing conveyor of truth about this world and the one on the Other Side.
So, when you combine heavy Delta blues with Bailey's post-Webern abstractions, you have the Davey Williams' sound in a nutshell. It's the embodiment of "down home" and surreal at the same time. It moves in and out simultaneously, infused with Davey's sly sense of humor and quick, freely associative mind.
In my experience, he was the most amiable of collaborators because h listened intently and pounced like a hawk. You felt both supported and stimulated when you played with Davey. His technique was so dexterous and adaptable that no matter where you went, he was right there. At first, this was intimidating. Then you realized he was playing with and against you simultaneously, keeping the improvisation unpredictable, except in its momentum and headlong pursuit of ‘the Marvelous,' as he termed it.
"Beyond normal" was one of Davey's motto's in free improvisation – to play past anything you had thought capable of, spurred on by the speed and flow of the music. He, and La Donna Smith, his life-long collaborator, sought to access the inner Spontaneous Musician, to play "automatic music." much as the Surrealists did with "automatic writing"- music that sprang from the sub-conscious mind through wires, fingers, objects and amplifiers, by passing the inner critic, into full-blown sonic creations of multiple dimensions.
Once I heard Davey respond to someone who after a session said he didn't remember a thing he had played. Davey, in his re-assuring, totally un-pedantic, humorous way said, "Well, that's evidence right there that you were in the right frame of mind."
Davey could and did go to that frame of mind throughout his adult music life. The evidence we have are his wonderful LP's (many on his and La Donna's Transmueq label), CD's and cassette tapes. The proof is definitely in the pudding. Track down every album you can find. The sheer joy of that wiry, insinuating sound is infectious, uplifting and life-affirming.
Davey Williams and his guitar playing were/are/will be sui generis and unique forever. Davey was a blessing to mankind and his sound and sensibility are immortal.
As a friend and colleague, I feel blessed just to have known and worked with him. He will be sorely missed by those who knew him, but his spirit will always soar, tickle, delight and inspire listeners as long as music itself exists.
Wally Shoup's latest album is a record with Indianola trio, which you can find on Bandcamp
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