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Panic attack gone, Brooks Williams makes "Nectar"

By Brian Steinberg, March 2003

How different an album is "Nectar" for Brooks Williams? Consider the fact that he had something akin to a panic attack during the recording process despite this being his 14th release.

"On all of my previous albums, I've kind of let my idea of myself lead the way. People think of me as a really good acoustic guitar player, and that's cool. I let that be the voice, even in places where it that wasn't really the right choice," he explains in a recent phone interview.

When it came time to make "Nectar," he says of his latest for Signature Sounds, "I said, 'All bets are off. Where do these songs want to go?'"

The answer, as it turns out, was into some pretty interesting places.

Williams says he knew he was ready to experiment in the weeks and months leading up to the "Nectar" recording sessions. On stage, he was playing tunes that came "from this rhythm and blues, rootsy American sounding stuff. It made me sit up and take notice. I wanted to do something different."

Williams is best known, perhaps, for the sounds he can goose out of your basic acoustic guitar. When he sets to, bass foundations, lead riffs and accompanying chords come out of one instrument being handled by one player - no small feat. While he is known mostly as a folk artist, many reviewers and listeners can often detect a strain of world music now and again, ranging from a little salsa to some Cuban son.

Of course, this time around, his influences sound a little closer to home. "Great Big Sea" mixes a Bo Diddley beat with melodic and subtle percussion. He covers Memphis Slim's "Mother Earth."

What brought him back to these shores, sonically speaking?

"For the past five or six years, I've been really interested in world music and have been an avid fan of world music, but I have also been teaching myself how to play it. In the process of doing that, I realized that this music whether it was Brazilian or African, it came from the soul of the people. As much as I can learn how to play African guitar, I said, it can never come from my soul, It can only come from my fingers."

As someone born into a middle-class family in Statesboro, Ga., he says he realized "there was nothing I can do about those roots. That's just who I am."

But he was inspired, he adds, to ask, "What are my roots? I began to go on a little soul-searching for my roots." He started to find them in "songs that kind of skated rhythm and blues and gospel, and skated a little Chet Atkins...This is the basis for songs I've listened to or certainly influenced songs by people I've listened to. They listen to Chet Atkins and Al Green and Hank Williams. It felt like playing these songs, writing these melodies, was just like breathing."

In the past, it took some work. Williams began his musical life at the tender age of four, when he began playing violin. He says he got into it "primarily because my mother wanted all of her kids to play classical music."

By the time he hit his teens, however, he started looking for something new.

"Nobody in my life knew of anybody like Stefan Grappelli or Papa John Creach," he explains of the fiddlers. "That would have helped me a lot, had I known there people out there playing the violin, playing cool music. I would have stuck with it."

Instead, while at music summer camp at the age of 10, he found out about guitar. "I was hanging out with the cooks in the kitchen. They were playing Hendrix and Beatles. I said, 'Who is that? Teach me.' These guys in the kitchen, they taught me guitar, and I was heading into that teen thing, and (violin) didn't interest me. The guitar interested me."

By the age of 15, he had been working on the instrument for 5 years.

Hints from family friends as well as intense practice helped him develop. By age 20, Williams was hanging around in Boston, playing chords for bands in coffeehouses and cafes. "People had these dance bands that played old time folk music. It was a no brainer. I could sit there and play chords all night," he recalls.

One night, while playing in a group, "they asked if anybody could sing some songs. I took the acoustic guitar and stepped forward to the mike, sang some songs. The person who hired the band said, 'We want to have you back.' It was kind of like this little start. I actually had to learn some new songs."

How does a man who displayed such confidence in his early years get nervous during a recording session? Well, Williams explains, the "Nectar" sessions were far from ordinary. Here he was, testing out a new sound and working with the producer - Phil Madeira - who had developed critically acclaimed records for both Buddy Miller and Greg Trooper.

In some instances, his quest for his musical roots may have seemed somewhat daunting.

"It was scary when I had to let go," he remembers. "There was one point where I really freaked out. I thought I made a huge mistake, and there was one night where I really didn't sleep at all. I went into the studio, bleary-eyed. Phil said, 'What's up with you? You look like death.'"

When Williams explained his trepidation, Madeira replied, "Well, let's just listen down to what we have so far."

That was all it took. Once he heard the tape and was satisfied with the direction the sessions were taking, Williams says, "I said, 'I'm going back to the hotel and go to bed.'"

By all accounts, the gambit seems to have worked. Feedback from peers has been overwhelmingly positive, Williams says. And his quest for musical roots continues unabated. The musician says he is working on "a couple more tunes that seem to be coming harmonically from that Everly Brothers/Bo Diddley era of tunes," and is trying out some songs by Chris Smither and Greg Trooper in live sessions. Until Brooks Williams' journey is complete, it's fair to say fans will be eager to follow him on his search.