Interview

The Wilder Side of Nashville

Webb Wilder promo photo.

He landed in Nashville smack dab in the middle of the '80s with a crash -- a fireball of rock and roll. Webb Wilder, tongue in cheek, with an oddball sense of humor that rode on a rockabilly beat and paid tribute to Elvis and Ricky Nelson, poked fun at Music City’s sense of self-importance while at the same time respecting its roots. With his band the Beatnecks, Wilder was a Nashville local whose first love was rock, and for whom country music was, in the beginning, a guilty pleasure. As an artist he was the personification of the old line, "To Thine Own Self Be True."

Joe McSpadden: When did music first resound with you to the point that you said, “I’ve got to do this?”

Webb Wilder: My aunt told me that I sang before I talked. I was always captivated by music and television and show business, and being a dreamer. … I was in the fourth grade when the Beatles took America by storm. And I was the only kid in the class who already had records. I was a music snob and a fan in the making at that point.

When I was about 12, I started trying to play guitar. Of course I think if I started to play guitar that early, I should be Segovia by now. I’m not. I was in and out of trying to do something else for years. I just had this pedestrian notion that being a full-time showbiz person was an impossible goal to reach. And life has proven me almost right, you know. [laughs]

You had records in the fourth grade. There must have been music around the house when you were growing up.

My parents were not musical people, but I was an only child, and a spoiled child, and pretty much did what I wanted to do. I had unrestricted TV watching. There was a local country music variety program that I used to watch. There were the syndicated shows … fantastic shows like Porter Wagoner and the Wilburn Brothers, shows with Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton on Saturdays. There were shows like American Bandstand, and Shindig! and Ed Sullivan. All those variety shows and the radio, and records available at the local dime stores.

There was a lot of music, but it was mostly brought into the house by me, I guess. My mom and dad sort of liked music but neither of them could have carried a tune in a bucket. ... They were wonderful people, but not musical.

I didn’t really start to hear music until the sixth grade, and that was Creedence, “Bad Moon Rising.”

That was about the tenth grade for me, I think. But I didn’t start trying to play music until the sixth grade and I didn’t start trying to play in a band until the eighth grade. At that point, like Tom Petty in the South, I was playing bass. I think I showed up to the first rehearsal with the least chops and the crappiest guitar, so I was made the bass player. Trouble was, I didn’t have a bass.

Luckily, God placed some Fender basses at a local salvage store. I went through a lot of coercing and got my parents to buy me a Fender bass. But they wouldn’t buy the case even though it was half price. Finally they did. I got a bass amp at my aunt’s pawn shop. I have too much of an excitable boy personality to be an all-night bass player. Bass players are born, not made.

So, you are listening to music early on, the Beatles from fourth grade…

I was already listening to other things. … I had an Elvis Presley album and a Rick Nelson album that I had ordered from the Sears Roebuck catalog.  I had “Hello, Mary Lou,” and all that stuff. I had some Beatles singles, and the Byrds cover of “Mr Tambourine Man,” which I thought was really great. A recent issue of Goldmine had a thing on me -- [one of] ten records that changed my life. 

Back when Tower Records was still around, I used to think -- if I had a thousand dollars to blow, I would still walk out of here wanting something.

Yeah. There is still great stuff from the past that I guarantee you and I haven’t discovered yet.  So when people ask, “What new music are you listening to,” it’s usually hard to say. Because even though there is some good new music, it seems like we are clobbered over the head by the worst of it. You go looking in the past because, you know, there’s nothing new, so you’re closer to the source looking backwards.

You brought up the Byrds. You liked country music, and you obviously liked rock and roll...

Country felt more like a guilty pleasure at the time because I was more interested in pop and rock and roll and stuff. But none the less I got exposed to it and I’m glad. It’s like getting exposed to the blues, you need that foundation.

I liked all that, I thought it was great. I thought Poco was sort of the flagship of…in terms of just performing, singing and playing and I thought they were just a compelling country rock band… I loved the Clarence White and Gram permutations of the Byrds…I loved that Gene Clark original… where you have that jangly McGuinn factor and you have that moody stuff from Gene Clark. 

Clark had his country rock thing. I got to participate in a Gene Clark tribute several years ago and did one of the songs he recorded with the Gosdin Brothers singing back up and Clarence White playing B-bender guitar. And the guy who did the B bender guitar thing just passed away…Boomer Castleman. He’s the guy who invented the palm pedal, which is a different device that does a similar thing. He was in a band with Mike Nesmith and Nesmith quit to join the Monkees, how about that?

And then Mike Nesmith turns around and produces one of the first real music videos of the modern era.

I haven’t seen it yet, it’s called “Elephant Parts.”

I saw the tail end of it and don’t remember much of it today but memory tells me it was sort of artsy from what little I can recall of it.

It was kind of stupid that I never saw it, it created a lot of buzz.

It is kind of funny, to me, that in the midst of this silly tv show, The Monkees, there is this guy doing this visionary thing.

Well, his country rock thing was cool,The First National Band. I’m not sure who it was that first recorded this song, the First National Band or the Monkees or the Dirt Band but Boomer Castleman wrote the song called “What Am I Doing Hanging ‘Round.” It’s a classic that comes from that whole era. “Joanne” and “Listen to the Band” by Nesmith -- great stuff.

And he wrote “Some of Shelley’s Blues [by] The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. That was a fabulous cover. You mentioned that you liked the older music and I am finding that I am listening to older artists who are doing new stuff.

Well, that’s good … I mean I’m proud of what we’re doing now and God knows we’re not young. If you had asked me when I was young I would have said that it would be unlikely that at this age I would be pleasing myself, much less anyone else.

Who do you respect on the scene today? Who do you think is doing something vital that invigorates you?

Of the songwriters I have heard I think Hayes Carll and Paul Thorn are really good. I just heard a song that is haunting, that has a bit of mystery … I can't remember the name of the group. I don’t quite know what they’re about but they’ve got enough something to draw you in … it was on a Rounder sampler. Is there a band called honeyhoney? At the moment I can’t think of the name of the song. But it is always kind of embarrassing when people ask you about new music because my head is usually in the past. I heard Keith Richards single from his new album and I like it. Hold on, I found the record -- honeyhoney has a song called “Big Man.” That one kind of stuck with me.

Billy Gibbons is doing a sort of Afro-Cuban cover of “Treat Her Right” by Roy Head. It’s cleverly done and has a video to go with it. People my age know that song, but Billy has a different take on it. When I was kid in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and I was listening to an AM station…back when I was more interested in pop and rock stuff…WXXX. They had a DJ called Jimmy Rabbit, the Happy Hare. Back then DJs had some say in what they played.

Bands could get regional airplay. There was this band that I heard, I never saw them live, never saw their records anywhere. They were called the One Way Street. Apparently they were from Biloxi, and I have recorded two of their songs. I’m probably the only guy in the world who has covered two of their songs, much less one. The song of theirs I wanted to do the most was “Yard Dog.”

​Your first record came out in 1987. What is the road like for you now?

It makes you tired, but it’s pretty good. We don’t go out for as long now.  We used to go out for six weeks, but now we find there’s nothing to do out there on a Tuesday night. I’m doing band shows, three-piece, four-piece, and solo shows. It is fun and you get a little inspiration from all of those things that you can bring back to the other.

The music business has changed so much in the last thirty years. What is it like, getting the music out there and trying to make a living as a musician? The industry support for an artist’s development doesn’t seem to be there.

Just about the whole burden of promotion is on the artist. I am really lucky in that my new record is on a label, somebody else’s label. And yet I have to work social media and email lists, send out posters to the clubs. I remember when WXXX had advertisements for gigs. (Slips into radio announcer’s voice) “Tonight at the National Guard Armory Little Dave and the Giants singing their smash hit Super Love…” That’s gone, man. Nobody does that.

I don’t think the venues really do much promoting. The good ones put you on their website. Some of them just have a Facebook page. You have to be mindful of the early gigs for the older fans, all the time wanting to reach younger fans. All you can do is not enough so you have to do all you can do.

​As the monetization of music has diminished so has the print media that surrounds it. I think this is a problem. Any time we get in the physical newspaper, it helps us. People say nobody reads them anymore, but somebody does. The trouble is there are fewer and fewer of them. There is less money being spent employing qualified music writers, and fewer music magazines.

On the brighter side, you do have social media. And there seems to be more opportunities for solo gigs for people like me. And there is this whole house concert scene.

Have you done some house concerts?

Yeah. And I try to do the good ones, because some are better than others. House concert people are the most wonderful people in the world. They are these altruistic fans of music. They aren’t making money, they give the money to the artist. It’s a lot of trouble for them to go to.

Tell me about Mississippi Moderne.

It is a distillation of a number of components that magically came together. I don’t know how we could ever do another album like this. I tend to be slow making records. My friend Joe said, “You ought to make a garage rock album.” And then his studio burned. Which is a drag. He has since rebuilt it.

But then Bob Williams who has played guitar with me quite a bit was an employee of Studio Nineteen.  It has some history. It used to be Music City Recorders when it was owned by Scotty Moore. It was where Ringo recorded, with Pete Drake producing, on the Beaucoup of Blues album.

​We would go in and work at odd times. And as we progressed it took on this sort of R&B-ish feel. We threw in stuff from our live shows that we had never recorded -- the Kinks “I Gotta Move,” and “It Takes Time” by Otis Rush.

Somewhere along that journey I began writing with John Hadley. I have known him for years. That provided “Too Much Sugar for a Nickel,” “If It Ain’t Broke Don’t Fix It,” and “Rough and Tumble Guy.” I remembered this old Bobby Fields song “I’m Not Just Anybody’s Fool.” To me that was a country soul song that George Jones or Ray Charles might have done. So we added that.

I had written this song with the great and legendary songwriter Dan Penn eighteen years ago. I had thought about it for an earlier album but just wasn’t sure what to do with it. But fortunately for me, Tom Comet, who was such an asset to this project, had a lot of arranging ideas on it. I was really happy when Dan called me to tell me how much he liked it.

I read somewhere that the expression “Too Much Sugar for a Nickel” was something your mother used to say.

My mother came from a motherless depression-era rural Mississippi childhood. So she had all these country colloquialisms that she would use. And if something seemed to be too good to be true she would say, “That’s too much sugar for a nickel.” And I never heard anyone else say that.

One of the great things about Southern storytellers goes beyond the story. The story might be funny, but it’s the way they tell it that makes it truly memorable.

Well, it’s an Afro-Celtic culture and the Irish thing and the black culture have this oral tradition. And I feel so fortunate to have come from there. I think it’s really weird that so many creative people come from the south and yet they don’t always cast southerners as southerners in movies. I was honored to be put in the Mississippi Hall of Fame a few years ago, to join the roster of innumerable talents.

You’ve been in Nashville for a long time now.

I came here in 1982.

All the rock and roll people come to Nashville now. Dylan came here back in the sixties and made it somewhat popular.

Rock and roll folks used to have a prejudice against this town. Nashville used to have this hillbilly stigma. I kind of wish it was back because people are moving here in droves and the traffic is terrible. The hillbilly stigma kept them away. If you want to be in a rock band then don’t tell them you’re from Nashville. That’s why we named the first album “It Came from Nashville.” The Black Keys and the White Stripes both moved here, and I think they’re great. But they moved here after they got famous. People are finally realizing what a lot of us already new, that Nashville really is Music City.

How do you find inspiration for song writing? Do you start with lyrics or a melody, guitar or piano?

All of the above. There is no assembly line for me. I try to play the guitar every day. Sometimes that will lead me somewhere. Or a certain phrase. Sometimes you get nothing, sometimes ideas just hover around for years. Sometimes you will get in a room with someone and something will be born that didn’t exist before the two of you got together, but that is not common. First rule is that there are no rules.

Tremendous interview...I've seen Webb live a couple of times, band shows...excellent...great job Joe!

Thanks, Jim. Webb is a really great guy and very conversational so you makes it easy to interview him.... Jmcspadden3

I was struck by how similar his upbringing was to mine...only children had it made when it came to parents indulging our musical whims...my dad was very invested in music though, he had lived in NYC for several years before I was born and was out in the jazz clubs every weekend...he knew a lot of great jazz players back in the day, Joe Venuti, Paul Whiteman, Pete Fountain, and he'd follow them to jams after their regular gig was over...so that's different, but the records, begging a guitar out of your parents when the Beatles hit, television shows Webb was into, time frame...all pretty much the same, I remember all that stuff, I was probably more spoiled than he was with all that, and I'm gratful for it...I was in 4th grade when the Beatles hit. 

He seems like a guy that would be easy to interview...very approachable, hilarious banter live...and his band was great as well...they rocked it for sure.  Thanks for another fine piece!

Enjoyed reading this.  Somehow a station in Philly circa '91-'92 was playing his song Tough It Out at the exact moment my alarm went off, the small part of me that was awake half listening.  Fortunately the DJ named him as the song ended, hadn't heard of Webb before. The song played in my head later in the day and I bought the CD at 3rd Street Jazz and Rock that afternoon. Been a fan ever since.  His live shows are always good fun, no one sounds like him, and his band is always right on the money.  Mississippi Moderne is a terrific record start to finish. 

Great interview, it's nice to know this guy is still being discussed in your excellent magazine.  I've always thought "Town and Country" was one of  THE great Country/Rock records. Just listen again to the version of "Streets Of Laredo", fantastic stuff. Incidentally, in the UK, new copies of the original Watermelon CD are now quite hard to come by, and are going for quite a price.