US guitarist Davey Williams died from spinal cancer on 6 April at the age of 66. Writer and friend Lee Shook recalls how their friendship expanded his musical universe
“Things very often are not what they appear to be. Guitar playing is only the outer layer of guitar music. Sound images and experiences are best absorbed obliquely in these times. However, it is possible that there is nothing more here than convulsive blues, amplified to rattle a small planet's fabric” – Davey Williams, sleevenotes from Criminal Pursuits, 1985.
Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, Davey Williams was something of an enigma. For many in town and around the state he was seen as a befuddling member of the local avant garde, while a smaller coterie knew him as the towering hero of experimental guitar and surrealist-inspired free improvisation that had gained him international notoriety through his work with LaDonna Smith and Trans Museq. It was an interesting if frustrating dichotomy that persisted throughout his career, and even until his death in April 2019.
I first met Williams in 1998 after a concert where he was opening for Jothan Callins from The Arkestra as part of a Sun Ra tribute. It was a raucous affair that would end with local performers and audience members, including myself, playing drums and chairs in a freeform communal jam. Inspired by what I had seen and heard, I would soon find myself on a full-blown quest to investigate every aspect of his wide-ranging cosmos, picking up every recording and publication with his name in it, rummaging through stacks of old LPs for copies of albums like Direct Waves and White Earth Streak, or used publication bins looking for back issues of The Improvisor and Glass Veal. It was also through Williams and his collaborations that I discovered the worlds of Reverend Fred Lane, Derek Bailey, Andrea Centazzo, Shaking Ray Levis, David Greenberger, and Williams's band Curlew, among countless others. It was a process that would open my mind to a universe of audiovisual research that I’m still traversing and trying to make sense of to this day, as both a writer and documentarian.
We developed an intense personal and professional relationship in the mid-2000s after I returned home from college, and in 2010 I would co-produce the Improvisor Festival to mark the 30th anniversary of The Improvisor music journal that was co-founded by Williams in 1980. In 2013 we shared a stage at an exhibition for Tuscaloosa artists collective Raudelunas, where the ’Pataphysical Redux concert had him perform alongside Fred Lane for the first time since 1976. More recently, we worked together on a documentary about Lane and Raudelunas called Icepick To The Moon.
My work with Williams provided once in a lifetime opportunities to learn alongside one of the great sonic philosophers and cosmic pranksters of the 20th and 21st centuries. It also gave me insight into his unique perspective on both life and art, connecting everything from extended guitar techniques and the Southern blues tradition to his wildly funny and insightful writings on spontaneous composition and the influence of surrealism, and the secret life of fried eggs vis-a-vis his cartoon drawings, among so much more. Infused with a wry humour that gave even his most serious musical pursuits a nod to the absurd, his work was approachable and relatable in an artistic world too often devoid of either point of entry. Williams inspired me to look further and think harder about the intersectionality of art and sound.
Once described as one of the “three founding fathers of American free improvisational guitar” alongside Henry Kaiser and Eugene Chadbourne, whom he would perform and record with from the late-1970s onwards, Williams’s career was given an auspicious beginning through his apprenticeship with Delta and Chicago blues master Johnny Shines, while attending the University of Alabama in 1971. Shines had a a direct connection to the history and root of modern Americana through his travels with Robert Johnson in the 1930s and his later collaborations with Willie Dixon and Koko Taylor in the 60s. Williams, having approached Shines about taking lessons after seeing him perform in a local coffee shop, soon joined his band The Stars Of Alabama, playing old juke joints and dives around the southeastern US throughout 1972. This profoundly important relationship would continue until Shines’s death in 1992, where Williams would serve as a pallbearer at his funeral alongside lauded music historian Peter Guralnick. Williams would take blues guitar ‘out’ in ways few could have ever imagined, infiltrating everything from mid-80s avant blues band Trains In Trouble to his work with OK, Nurse in the early 90s, and his last solo album Antenna Road in 2009.
Williams was also a lifelong friend and co-conspirator of fellow deep fried Southern iconoclast Colonel Bruce Hampton. He first came into contact with him in Tuscaloosa in 1970, when he went to see The Hampton Grease Band opening for Three Dog Night. That night saw the band booed and pelted with food and cups of ice as they played to a hostile crowd who didn’t know what to do with either the band’s intricate and extended compositions or Hampton’s unique vocal delivery. That illuminating experience helped shape the way Williams thought about both performance and music, as well as managing public expectations. He and Hampton started a working relationship in the 80s in bands Late Bronze Age and Aquarium Rescue Unit, influencing the musical thinking of Widespread Panic bass player Dave Schools and Oteil Burbridge of The Allman Brothers and Dead & Company.
As Hampton once told me in one of his patented comedic turns, “I like anybody that was outside the box and non-linear in their thinking. And we [Hampton and Williams] had certain people we both liked a lot, and I guess the connection is Johnny Shines. I mean, this guy rode the train with Robert Johnson, that’s the Shroud of Turin to me, that’s my religion right there. And, you know, I saw this guy playing with him, and I went, ‘God, who is that?’. I mean, Johnny Shines is nothing, but a guy playing with Johnny Shines has gotta be somebody. I had no idea he was from outer space. I had no idea he was an electrician from outer space. He does surgery. He doesn’t play music, it’s surgery… it’s outer space surgery.”
I spoke to Williams by phone in the hospital the day that he died, and his spirit and mind remained both sharp and undaunted, facing his last surrealist act with the same courage and fearlessness with which he faced audiences around the globe. We told each other how much we loved each other, leaving me in tears and with one final word as he prepared to cross over. “Yee-haw!,” he said, in trademark Davey Williams style. And with that I knew he was ready to leave this earthly plane, and that space was the place he was always meant to be.