WHEN I FINALLY CATCH UP WITH GUITARIST AND SINGER Jason Williams —better known as “Lefty”— by telephone, he’s at a hotel in Destin, Fl., where he’s staying during a string of dates at a massive restaurant and club called the Hog’s Breath Saloon.
I’m calling to find out how things are going for this Georgia-based artist on the rise. When last he and I spoke, a few years back, Williams was just beginning to break into the Savannah market under his own name, as leader of his own band. Previously, this Honors Graduate of the Atlanta Institute of Music (and later, an instructor at the same school) had played here numerous times as a key members of two different jam-oriented Atlanta-based bands, The Wayside Riders and Nothing Simple.
By the time he returned, fronting his own group, he was just starting to turn heads and draw small crowds throughout the Southeast with his soulful amalgam of guitar-based blues, rock and funk tunes. However, in all fairness, one must mention that Williams has another calling card besides his impressive musicianship and laid-back demeanor: his hand.
Or rather his lack of one.
“Lefty” was born with only one hand (not surprisingly, his left!). His right arm ends just beneath the elbow in what Williams calls his “nubb”. And though some folks might surmise this disability would preclude him from excelling at the guitar —or any other traditionally two-handed instrument, for that matter— they would be sorely mistaken.
“I’ve never known any other way, so I can’t imagine things differently,” he told me at our first meeting. Growing up in that situation and fueled by a strong desire to play guitar, Williams developed a unique apparatus with which to hold his pick, and along the way, discovered that while there are some types of commonplace things he can’t do as easily as someone with two hands, his unusual approach to his chosen instrument brings with it an unexpected benefit.
“My limited range of motion creates perfect picking technique,” he explained. “Every instructor I’ve ever had has told me they were envious of my technique. On the flip side, it’s much harder for me to compensate for finger-picking. So anything that requires that —like slide or classical guitar— is much harder. I can still do it by using my left pinky, but it’s very hard.”
While his extraordinary situation might at first be seen by some as a novelty of sorts, within a few short moments it becomes obvious that as far as the guitar is concerned, Williams is far from disabled. In fact, he’s downright gifted.
Jude Gold of Guitar Player Magazine recently said of Williams: “He has built a bigger career with only one hand than most guitarists have with two.” And Relix Magazine’s Simeon Cohen recently opined, “(He) sounds like he could be the next link in the chain of legendary Georgia guitarists after Duane Allman and Robert Cray.”
Here's a live video clip of Lefty and his band live on Alabama television:
The fiery talent, tasteful chops and knack for classic tone that is winning Williams such accolades and hard-won comparisons can be found in spades on his brand-new album Snake Oil, which just hit stores a few weeks back. (This Saturday’s show will serve as his Savannah CD Release Party.)
Produced by the legendary Athens, Ga. studio whiz John Keane —who’s also been at the helm of records by R.E.M., Cowboy Junkies, Widespread Panic, Taj Mahal and Warren Zevon, among others— Snake Oil showcases a maturing artist whose continuing experience on the road as a career musician and frontman is paying off.
More graceful, sure-footed and —at times— restrained than his previous albums, it just may wind up being the disc that finally introduces Williams to a larger, international audience.
Lefty has been pleasantly surprised by the initial burst of interest in this new CD.
“It’s been amazing! The new record is selling like crazy,” he gushes. “I’m getting airplay around the world. I’m on the radio in Australia and Finland right now, plus, I found out that a few weeks ago my song “All Your Way” made it to #2 on the radio charts in Auburn. And I actually got mentioned in Guitar Player Magazine, which is a life long dream.”
According to him, there was no particular plan to make this album noticeably different from the ones he has cut in the past. However, people are definitely responding to this new release in a more favorable way than he has experienced before with his independent projects.
“To be honest, when I went into the studio for Snake Oil, I was really worried about the songs on this album not being as good as the last. I wrote many of them just before we hit the studio and they had not been ‘road tested’. So, I’d not gotten feedback from fans about the material.”
Williams gladly gives credit to John Keane’s “bedside manner” for helping immensely in creating the positive vibe which surrounds this new disc.
“As far as the production goes, well, John Keane is a Jedi! I really feel comfortable in the studio with him. So, I don’t know if the record would have come out the same with anyone else.”
“I think he and just knew each other a little better on this recording and it came across in the production. I have recorded three albums with John now, and I intend on going back to him for the next record.”
Another notable attribute of Snake Oil is the high profile guest appearance of a more famed Georgia blues guitarist: Tinsley Ellis.
Ellis, who’s currently signed to the prestigious Alligator Records label, is widely considered one of the finest blues-rock gunslingers on the contemporary blues scene, and he’s an avowed fan of Williams.
“I had known about Tinsley for years but we had never crossed paths,” says Lefty. “He approached me in a club and said he had been watching me on MySpace and really liked what I was doing musically. And well, coming from Tinsley Ellis? I was just floored. So when it was time to decide who I wanted to guest on the new record, I immediately thought of him. I’m looking forward to working more with Tinsley down the road.”
This anecdote begs the question: Just what is Lefty Williams doing musically? Is he most comfortable being thought of as a blues guitarist, a jam artist or a rock artist (as his albums and live shows certainly include generous doses of all three genres)?
“While I don’t like being pigeon-holed, I don’t really mind people calling me whatever fits for them,” he explains. “To be honest, if you come see me live, it will change your whole concept of what you might think of me. In concert, I play lots of different styles of music. And I really like to have fun on stage.”
Here's a live video clip of Lefty and his band playing at Smith's Olde Bar in Atlanta for their hometown CD release Party:
For now, he’s concentrating on getting his music and his name —via Snake Oil— out to as many people as he can, and says that one of the most promising opportunities he’s had to date is a competition of sorts that’s currently underway. It could very well lead to him receiving airplay on many of Clear Channel’s corporate-controlled radio stations — something rarely offered to indie artists.
“Clear Channel has a ‘New’ program where you can submit music for consideration,” says Williams. “Tammy Brackett at Moonstruck Promotions told me I should submit one of my songs. I did, and they chose it for the program. There’s a music player on their website where anyone can hear it. If enough people listen to it, goes up their charts, and if it gets high enough the program directors at Clear Channel stations see it. If they like it too, they might play it on their stations.”
“Right now I’m at just under 900 plays. I don’t know how many it will take to get on the air but there are a lot of people spreading the word about it right now so hopefully we’ll make it.”
(Readers can listen to the track and help boost Lefty’s ratings online here: wrfx.com/cc-common/artist_submission/player.html?art=180952.)
For now, however, Williams is concentrating on roadwork. His steady schedule of live dates keep both he and his band in front of both new and familiar faces throughout the Southeast. He says this weekend’s show will include “a heavy mix of both albums and some new songs that haven’t been recorded yet, as well as some covers.”
He’s also looking forward to playing a rarely-performed tune he composed specifically about our town.
“As touristy as it sounds, I really like River Street,” Williams admits with a smile. “I like just walking around and seeing the old buildings and the parks. I wrote a song years ago about a trip that I took with my wife —who was at that time my girlfriend— to Savannah. We’ll probably play it at Live Wire. It’s one that I’ve never put down on an album. It has more or a reggae-meets-Sting kind of vibe.”
Read the complete interview here.
The Jason “Lefty” Williams Band
Where: Live Wire Music Hall
When: 9 pm, Fri., August 22
Cost: $5 adv. / $7 at door