Interview: Watermelon Slim
Four weeks ago I had barely heard of him, three weeks ago I read about his album The Wheel Man in a newsletter I get delivered in my email inbox and was interested enough to request a copy from his label Northern Blues.
The CD came in my mail along with another on Thursday of last week. From the moment I put The Wheel Man in my player on Friday I haven't let a day go by without listening to it. On Sunday after I decided to contact his publicity people and see about an interview. They emailed me right back telling me to contact Watermelon Slim and the send him the questions I wanted to ask him.
After a quick flurry of emails between the two of us I sat down and wrote of the questions you're about to read and sent them off to him first thing Monday morning. By five thirty the answers you're about to read were waiting in my in box.
Talk about your whirlwind romances. It's not often a musician, will excite me that much as both a person and a musician that I will take those steps that quickly. The fact that Watermelon Slim responded so quickly says to me that my timing was right and this was meant to happen this way.
Slim says he doesn't believe in coincidence, neither do I which means everything you're about to read is just the way it should be, the questions and the answers. Two days from now I might have asked different questions, or he might not have been so available to answer so quickly. Who knows and who cares what happened today I what matters and what happened was that I was privileged to ask a person of integrity questions about himself and his art, and because of that we are all going to lucky enough to hopefully get to the man called Watermelon Slim a little better.
Sometimes the force of a person's character is so strong that you can hear his voice through the words on the page. Maybe it's because I've been listening to him sing these past three or four days on a regular basis but I swear each time I read these words you're about to it's like I'm talking to him in person his voice is so clear.
There are very few individuals left in this cookie cutter world that we live in as more and more it's becoming controlled by marketing executives and image consultants. Which make people like Watermelon Slim all the more damn precious.
The only editing done to Slim's answers was out of necessity for html mark up and to change the spelling of a few words so that Queen wouldn't be offended. Thank you Watermelon, and thank you Chris of Southern Artists management for setting this up so quickly.
1) Can you tell us a little about your early years; where you were born, family size etc.
I was born William P. Homans, like my father and grandfather before me-- an eldest son of an eldest son of an eldest son. My family line survives in a daughter, Jessie McCain Dandelion Homans, the reason for me to continue to achieve anything in this life. She is a sweetheart whose personal horizons are unlimited. She has inherited just enough of her mother's (the Blues woman Honour Havoc, from whom I have been long separated, but on legal advice, not divorced) more delicate European features (Scandinavian probably, maybe Jewish) to go with my old-line Anglo-Saxon cragginess with an admixture some generations back of Wampanoag (Massachusetts) Indian. Both dad and grandpa showed the Native American blood strongly. Family members would say that I favor my mother more than my brother does.
As I understand, I was almost dropped on a doorstep on Beacon Street, Boston, Massachusetts, but my mother held me in and we got to the hospital a couple of miles away in order to schloop me out in an organized fashion, so to speak. I have one full brother, Peter, who is a world-acclaimed classical composer, a half sister and brother from my mother's second marriage to Robert A.Totty, a successful small businessman from Petersburg, Virginia, and two half sisters from my father's second marriage,
to Libby Hayes, a socialite from Boston.
My father, to whom I dedicated my first major release, Big Shoes to Fill, was one of the most eminent attorneys in American jurisprudential history. He was a criminal defence lawyer, and his cases include the Boston Strangler, the Chicago Seven Conspiracy trial, the unbanning in America of English author Henry Miller's books (Sexus/Plexus/tropic of Cancer/etc.), the first test of Roe v. Wade, the Dr. Kenneth Edelin abortion trial, and the defence of Freedom Riders in the 1950-60s in Mississippi and Alabama. He was a colleague of William Kunstler and an instructor, at one point, of F. Lee Bailey. His manual on criminal jury selection remains the state of the craft ten years after his death in 1997.
He was also the only civilian attorney ever allowed to go to Viet Nam to defend in a capital case, which he did in 1971, the year after I returned. He fought in two navies for all 7 years of World War II, dropping out of law school at 17 1/2 in 1939 to join the Royal Navy against the Nazis, then in 1942, when the U.S. had declared war, returning from Europe and fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, eventually reaching the rank of lieutenant commander. His friend John F. Kennedy held me in his arms when I was an infant, in 1950. He was, besides, a workaholic who was also completely, paradoxically, incapable of handling finances.
Big Bill (he stood 6'4 1/2" at 17, when the English wouldn't let him fly Spitfires because of his gangly height, so he joined the Navy instead) was a man who cared deeply, almost, some would say, obsessively, about each individual who came to him for help. I shall never fill his giant shoes, not if I win 20 Handy Awards.
2) Were there any indications at that time that music would become such a big part of your life – were your family musical or were you exposed to a lot of music as a young person anyway?
All correct. We had no professional musicians, but my mother played some piano, and me and my brother were always strongly encouraged to sing in choirs and glee
clubs in church and school. My first starring gig was as a boy soprano soloist, singing the Bach-Gounod Variation of "Ave Maria", at age 9. I can sing you dozens of hymns from the Episcopal Hymnal of 1940, dozens more "Negro" spirituals, and various show tunes from musicals down through the years. My mother and Bob Totty, and the black woman who worked as our "maid", in those last years of Jim Crow segregation, Idell Gossett, and her grown children and their husbands, kept a wide variety of music in our various houses in Asheville, North Carolina-- we moved about a fair amount.
I first heard the blues, though I didn't know that's what the music was till nearly a decade later, in 1954, when Beulah Huggins, the first "maid" I remember, used to sing snatches of John Lee Hooker hits-- "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer", and "Boogie Chillen" are the two I remember-- as she did her work. It was the first live music I ever heard besides my mother singing me lullabies, and one trip I remember to Ringling Brothers
Barnum and Bailey, with 5 rings, which I can reliably date in 1952.
People sometimes remark that I sound "black". Well, if I do, I come by it naturally. Black women helped make me who I am today. And any "white" person who denies that
he or she has been profoundly influenced by "black" music and culture in the United States is in terminal denial. I suppose I have a bit more in me than most,
considering my father was a Freedom Rider. Indeed, growing up, I got called "n____r-lover" more than once, and once fought over it. Fine, bring 'em on. I heard myself say the word "gook" once too often in Viet Nam, and that was the beginning of my real getting hip to the universality of racism.
3) This is one of those questions you may choose to ignore and that's cool, but I'm curious as to what made you decide to leave school to volunteer in Viet Nam.
A combination of the extreme naiveté I have just alluded to, and a complete lack of motivation to do well in college. I somehow failed ever to have received any vocational/professional guidance throughout what was otherwise an outstanding education, so I had no real idea why I was in college, in 1968. I did poorly, dropped out, and since I had no real job skills (I'd never worked at anything but landscaping, greenhouse work, and janitoring, with a couple of stints as summer camp counsellor thrown in), and not even an outstanding athletic team in my strong sport to be a part of (I was a national-class epee fencer in high school, finished second in the Connecticut State Championships to a former Olympian and went to the Nationals in 1968. Give me a sword and I'll face a black belt...),
I did what any son of such a father would do, I joined the Army and volunteered for Nam duty. I wasn't a very good soldier; I was discharged with the rank of Private, E-2, one rank above Buck Private, or E-1. But I did my time and my discharge is honourable.
4) In your bio it says that you were laid up in hospital in Viet Nam when you made yourself your first guitar. Was there some specific incident that inspired that act, or what was it that made it so important for you to make music at the time?
I did not make my first guitar. I obtained a balsa-wood Vietnamese-made acoustic guitar for $5 from a local small concessionaire, and began playing it at the hospital in Cam Ranh Bay, where I was recovering from whatever unknown herpes-like disease I had caught in Long Binh. the guitar, an opportunity to sit with it for a few days and get started with it, and the other necessary tool-- a slide, which was my Zippo cigarette/doobie lighter-- and my growing knowledge of blues music all came together. Coincidence? I am a phenomenologist, and there ARE no coincidences.
5.) For a time after you returned from the war you worked as a musician. You had some success with people like Country Joe Macdonald recording some of your songs. What made you turn your back on music as a career at that time? Did you keep playing while you were working your other jobs, or did you stop completely?
When I came back I worked as a lot of things: grunt labourer, forklift operator, political investigator, musician, and small-time criminal among them. I was really learning my craft, and my gigging during the 1970s was sporadic, wherever I could catch on, and I probably played more solo than band gigs over those years. I was listening to all the live and recorded blues I could find, and did sit in with people like John Lee Hooker and Bonnie Raitt-- teaser gigs, in retrospect-- made my cult item, Merry Airbrakes, in
1973, and eventually produced another cult classic, Richard Phillips's folk record Endangered Species, in 1980.
In the 1980s, I gigged semi-regularly, especially in Oregon in 1984-87, with various groups and people, including the late Canned Heat guitarist, Henry (the Sunflower) Vestine. I tried to establish myself in Europe in 1987 but without any backing, flopped, and was literally smashed up in Amsterdam, both in a fight and a motorcycle-bicycle accident (I was on the bicycle), and returned to the US and started trucking, playing with my Boston/Cambridge group the Old Dogs, including Washtub Robbie, for several years, and sometimes working with my old friend and later producer of Big Shoes to Fill, Boston's top-gun guitarist and all-around bluesman, Chris Stovall Brown. Bruce Bears, "Sax Gordon" Beadle, and David Maxwell were three of the outstanding musicians I worked with in that period of the late 80s-early 90s.
I was mostly inactive from about 1993 to 1998, just woodshedding while trying to keep my little family together. But after quitting a scuffling trucking career for the first time in 1997 to go to graduate school in Oklahoma, I began making the long push towards getting truly on the musical radar screen. I'm a very late-blooming musician, and I'm a scads better guitarist, in particular, than when I was doing my first Fried Okra Jones gigs around Stillwater, Oklahoma, in 1998.
So I've never really given up the idea of making my living as a professional musician. Cursed myself for following a dream until I was battered and half-toothless, sometimes. But after three-plus decades I have achieved some degree of mastery over my own styles, and I think that and my age are why people are taking me seriously now. And, I've lived what I play and sing. Not everybody in the blues can really say that today.
6) While we're on the subject of music, you are credited with being involved with writing a majority of the songs and Michael Newbury with their arrangement. When you write a song for the group do you come up with the lyrics and then all of you contribute to the music in rehearsal, or do you and Michael hand out charts for each of the parts?
I do hand out some charts when we're first learning new songs, but we don't use 'em very long-- the guys are quick studies. Michael Newberry often determines the beats and tempos, and is usually the lead man on putting together beginnings and endings. He also plays guitar, so he can pass on helpful input to Cliff Belcher, the bass player, and Ronnie Mac McMullen, on guitar. But everyone contributes creative input, both in arranging and song writing. Michael so far has been my main song-writing partner, and Ronnie Mac has a couple of numbers that may appear on our next studio release.
7) Would you say that there has been any one musician who has had a significant influence on your music? What was it about him, her, or them that inspired you?
No. too many to pin it down to one, or ten. But John Lee Hooker, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Muddy, Howlin Wolf, Junior Wells, Charlie Musselwhite, James Cotton, Paul Butterfield, Chris Stovall Brown, my only real hero from my own generation (Musselwhite was born during WW II, not after), Ry Cooder, and my mentor, Earring George Mayweather-- only Brown, Cotton, Cooder, and Musselwhite survive-- hold some of the highest spots. I've gotten vocal influence from literally hundreds of people, including Oregon soul-singer/harp player Curtis Salgado. Some of these play guitar, some harp, but all have been an influence to me-- I've watched and played with Brown and Mayweather more than any of the others-- in overall showmanship. Robert Cray has been something of an influence in song writing; he's one of the best of the last 20 years. William Shakespeare might be my greatest overall influence as a poet.
8) Where does the music come from for you? Do you sit down with intent and write or do songs just come to you like bolts of lightning?
Remember, I'm a trained poet, journalist and all-around writer. I live, therefore I write. I am a trained observer and phenomenologist. My writing "axe" is well known to be much stronger than any instrument I play. I have no problem sitting down and writing songs, when the necessity hits me, in minutes. Sometimes, though, songs percolate within me for years, such as "Blue Freightliner", from my 2004 CD Up Close and Personal. I didn't record the song until 11 years after a couple of verses came out of me while I was driving a semi westbound through Memphis in 1993. Sometimes-- more often in the last 4-5 years-- the music, or just a riff, come to me first, but most of my songs were text before they became music.
9) In my review I compared you to Woody Guthrie because of your ability to sing about and depict the life of people who do the type of work you used to do; working in a sawmill, hauling industrial waste, etc. Is that something you've striven to do – giving voice to the lives of people who nobody ever really thinks about?
Yes, that's a valid way of looking at my musical development. I have a song called "Winners of Us All" that I will release on one CD or another soon that deals with exactly that issue. One verse reads:
"And I'm sitting in this dirty old dumpster rig
writing/Knowing the chance you'll ever hear me is
small,/But I'm doing it for everybody who don't draw
that bottom line/And I'm hoping one day to make winners
of us all."
I know the Guthries, by the way. I played for Arlo's sister Nora at my appearance, with Pete Seeger, Barbara Dane, and other peace-activist musicians, in the teeth of the Iraq invasion of 2003, at the Vietnam Songbook, in New York City's Joe's Pub, on March 1. I hung around Alice's Restaurant a few times as a schoolboy in 1968. And I have lectured on Woody Guthrie in an Oklahoma History class in which I was a teaching assistant in 1999. My best friend in high school, Josh Bauman, was a neighbours and best friend with the Guthries in Stockbridge.
Arlo and I are, indeed, two musicians who were making protest music during the Viet Nam War, and now speak truth to power during our even more disastrous misadventure in Iraq. If you run across him, give him "dap" and solidarity from me!
10) In your bio it says that it took a near fatal heart attack to get you to return to the music business. How did one lead to the other- most people have a heart attack and settle down to a more sedate life but you went the opposite route and chose to start working at one of the most demanding jobs, a touring musician. Doesn't that ever strike you as perhaps a little odd?
I had already released my 2001 self-release, ,Fried Okra Jones, and my first (2002) Southern Records release, Big Shoes to Fill, by the time I had my heart attack in November of 2002. I was a full-time trucker, and continued to do that into 2004, but I was already working on my current phase of career development. So I would say, rather than changing my path, it just made me focus. It's not a bit odd, for a person who, though well educated, has always used his extraordinary physical endurance as a main calling card.
We must all die, and I just finally got the idea that it might be any time now. My songs "Immortal", on Big Shoes to Fill, and "the Last Blues" and "Got My Will Made
Out", from Up Close And Personal, most directly reflect this development in my consciousness.
11) I actually asked this question to Arlo Guthrie, but both of you are in the unique position of having been singers during the Viet Nam war and now during the occupation of Iraq. What are the major differences that you see between the United States then and now? For example what have been reactions like to the line about spending a son on a war you don't see a reason for?
As I tell people, when I came back from Viet Nam, it became my hope that what I had done as a soldier, and afterwards as one of the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War (VVAW; I'm a proud Life Member, and Oklahoma VVAW contact person), would save some others from subsequent generations from fighting and dying in other useless and misdirected foreign wars.
It didn't work out that way. My generation-- some of us, anyway-- wanted to "..change the world, rearrange the world," as CSNY sang. But America mostly didn't listen.
We are making the same shortsighted, provincial, naive mistakes we made then. America cannot be the world's policeman, even if we are the only nation that can project overwhelming military force anywhere on the globe.
As the historian and social critic George Santayana said in 1919, those who refuse to learn from the mistakes of history are committed to relive them.
12) Oh yeah the obligatory stupid final question to ask a musician – what are your upcoming plans – swimming the English Channel or playing some Blues?
I am a strong swimmer, but I shall not be swimming anything like that anytime soon, he he. I have a friend, fellow VVAW Billy X. Curmano, who swam the entire Mississippi River, Minnesota to New Orleans!
We just made a live Workers DVD 4 nights ago in Clarksdale, with guest stars Big George Brock, Charlie Musselwhite, and Jimbo Mathus. Jimbo has become a semi-regular guest in Watermelon Slim and the Workers' gigs. I will be recording a country-blues CD with Mississippi Blues man Robert "Nighthawk", "the Gearshifter", Belfour this year. And the Workers will make another studio CD this year also, which may include
Ry Cooder or Willie Nelson. Add 135-150 gigs this year, and we are busy as hell!
I can't remember who it was, but there was some musician that used to call him self the hardest working musician in music. Well it's a damn good thing he never said anything like that around Slim and the Workers. They play a gig every third night, spend weeks in the studio, and do stuff like exchange emails with guys like me answering questions they must be getting sick of.
We left out some of the more oft repeated questions (so if you want to find out why Watermelon Slim go to his web site. But it you really want to get to know the man, buy his music. What you hear is truly what you get.