Oh Brother, Here Art Thou – The Williamson Brothers

Brothers and Blake Williamson have been playing music together since they were kids.  Together they make up the rhythm section of Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires and before that played in Vesper and Black Willis, bands in their hometown of Birmingham.  When the pandemic struck the brothers took advantage of the time off and recorded an album with help of their friend Mike Patton (Drive-By Truckers and The Dexateens).  The self-titled album is a raw rock and roll celebrations that will remind old school rock fans of early Cheap Trick and The Replacements with a modern twist.  We got to chat with Blake as they prepare to take to the road in support of the new material.

I really enjoyed the new album.  It’s very accessible and welcoming to all looking for good original music.

Well, thank you.  It’s kind of a celebratory type of record, opening life back up.

Oh yeah, it’s been quite the year and a half or so.  (both laugh)

It’s been awful, it really has.

One of the terms I’ve heard your projects described as – from this album to your work with Lee Bains III and others is the term “southern rock”.  Do you feel the term southern rock has the same meaning it used to have?

Well, you know, it’s always been sort of a weird term because people immediately think Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Usually that term doesn’t include R.E.M. or B-52’s.  That’s southern rock, too.  I guess in a way – not so much in my lifetime, I guess there’s some sort of this southern rock dog and pony show you see people through all these songs about drinking whiskey and you know… fighting and fucking and all that kind of stuff.  That’s not what southern rock really is.  We’ll leave that to new country. (both laugh)

How do you feel that southern rock has either evolved or devolved over the years?

No, I think has always… I don’t think it’s such a bad term so much as… I try to embrace it.  We’re from the south and you kind of have to take back those phrases to make them mean what they should.  I think southern rock should include more than your bar rock bands and stuff.  It’s evolving in that way I think.  I think there’s a lot more stuff now we can classify southern rock from even 10 or 15 years ago.

Southern rock seems to be a term that’s dated because I can understand 50 years ago when the Allman Brothers and were Lynyrd Skynyd were on the scene, but the south has become more of a melting pot of people.  I’m from up north originally and lived down here most of my life now.  Music is not as regional as it used to be.

Certainly not.  The world seems smaller than it used to be.  There’s still original stuff though, it’s just different.  You get these bands – a lot of bands won’t use the term southern rock band.  This is Americana music where it’s a cross between indie rock, pop music, country music and all of that kind of together.  I grew up on rock and roll.  I was a big AC/DC guy as a kid. Aerosmith was mine and Adam’s favorite band.  I was okay with southern rock.  We’re from the south and we like rock.  I was okay with it.  There’s just not a vocabulary for it all is maybe what the problem is.

I think rock and roll is a good term for it – just good old fashioned rock and roll.

Yeah!  When someone asks me what kind of music you play I just give them we’re a rock and roll band response.  Just because we’re from Alabama doesn’t mean we wear cowboy hats and boots.  We’re from Birmingham, which is very urban – much like Chattanooga.

How did the material for the album come about?

Over the last three or four years I’ve been sitting around making demos on songs.  Adam and I, who have played in a band for about 24 years straight in some form or fashion.  We’ve both been in Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires for I think Adam’s going on for eight years and I’m going on 11.  We used to have a band called Black Willis and we wrote all these songs and it was more of a bar rock kind of thing.  I had this fun batch of tunes I’ve been working on my own.  Adam kind of fell right in line and said let’s go record a record.  We weren’t really planning on putting out a record.  Matt Patton offered to do the recording and we agreed to do it.  He said, “Yeah, I’m going to put your record out guys.”  We’re like, you don’t have to do all that.  He said, “Yeah, we’re doing it.” (laughs) The material was born out of the necessity.  I just had this urge to write some tunes that I couldn’t shake it for a while.  I actually feel better now that I’ve gotten it out.  So, just sitting around playing guitar, having all this time this past year.  No one went out of the road.  Gloryfires were cancelled 30-40 shows.  We were booking more but couldn’t get any of them.  We were grounded so we sat at home and made some music of our own. We’ve been making a record with Lee Bains also.  We were kind of inspired by that, too. It was fortuitous for us.  It really worked out.

When you went into the studio did you guys use any of your old songs from Black Willis or other you worked on before joining Lee Bains?

Yeah, actually we did because Black Willis was where Lee Bains got us.  He kind of cherry-picked us out of that. (both laugh) We had been fans of each other for so long.  I loved the bands that he was in.  I remember when Lee had these punk bands.  We’d see each other all the time.  We became friends.  Black Willis was originally me, my brother and Matt Patton, who was in The Dexateens and Drive-by Truckers.  It was just the three of us for a couple of years.  Two of the really old songs that we had from back then that never were recorded are on the record.  We were really happy to put them on there because even Lee Bains was like, “Man, I wish I had recorded those two.” (laughs) We finally did.

In your opinion what makes a good song?

Oh man… first thing I guess it has to have good lyrics.  It has to be catchy – something that makes you think; something that gets you dancing and moving – feet stomping and high-fiving.  That’s how you know it’s good.  It’s not like there’s a set criteria.  It’s more of a feeling.  Music has such an emotional kind of value to it.  You feel when it’s good.  It just feels good to you.  And I like the ones that have good lyrics about real personal things not just made up stuff.

I may be wrong. But the songs don’t seem as politically charged as the ones you do with Lee Bains.

I wouldn’t say they can possibly be. (laughs) Lee’s so good with lyrics and he’s good at pulling the emotions out.  There are things you’ve been trying to say and don’t now how to say it.  He’s really good at doing that.  I don’t try to do it that way even though there are some moments in this album that have – like with the political climate it’s inevitable for your lyrics not to go there a little bit.  He’s a hard one to match.  I couldn’t top him on being radically political or even expressive as he is.  He has this – it’s hard to put into words: he’s such a very compassionate and thoughtful person.  He just thinks about a lot of things more deeply than I do.  It’s great to have people like that in your life like that because I learn so much by them.  I just don’t operate that same way.  Some of this is intentional.  Sometimes playing with Lee Bains is real serious all the time.  It’s hard to sometimes just break through and play some rock and roll for the sake of rock and roll and fun for the sake of fun.  It’s more of an attempt to do that.  That doesn’t mean – I definitely have another one coming down the pipe that’s a lot more politically charged, too.  I guess we’re all kind of moving that way.  If the world keeps the way that it is music is going to keep getting more and more politically charged – and it should.  It’s tough for me to sit and listen on some songs that are about getting chicks and driving fast these days.  There’s important shit to talk about – especially when it’s rock and roll or punk rock music.  Sometimes it needs to have a little bit of a message.  My songs kind of have this weird – I’m trying to have it flow and be light-hearted and still be cynical at the same time – because that’s kind of my personality. (laughs)

That’s the best way because you get your point across without polarizing anyone.

Yeah, that’s true.  These days maybe being polarizing isn’t that bad. (laughs) I guess I want people to pick a side sometimes

You and Adam make up the rhythm section playing bass and drums.  I was wondering what kind of perspective do you bring to your songwriting compared to a singer of guitarist might?

I’m a drummer.  That’s my main gig.  I play guitar as well.  It’s tough to write songs from a rhythmic perspective.  When you have it intuitively have it in your head when you’re writing songs I think it’s an advantage.  When the drums parts and the bass part become an afterthought you can kind of focus on your changes and how the parts fit and all these sort of things, which you don’t really think about as much when when you’re just playing bass or drums on a record.  Me and Adam are both good guitar players.  It’s been a different thing.  It’s nice to look at music from a different place or different perspective.  But playing guitar has been this fun catharsis for both of us – getting good at it; getting our hands back into it.

It breaks the monotony from playing bass and drums a majority of the time.

Well, yeah.  It offers an excitement to us and it’s been nice to do it.  If it had not been to this pandemic I’m not sure this would have happened.  I’m not sure I would have ever had enough time to do it and sit down and get my hands in shape to play guitar again.  That way, I’m kind of grateful.  I know it’s the most awful thing to say.  I’m just thankful for the opportunity.

What’s it like being in a band with your brother?  Does a natural sibling rivalry work to your advantage?

Yeah, I think so.  Adam and I have been playing in a band for 24 years of some sort.  We’re really comfortable with the way each other plays.  There’s never been a, “you write the songs and I do this”.  We both write songs and bring them to each other to help finish and all that stuff.  He’s a real easy person for me to take tunes to that I’m working on.  “Look, I’ve got this tune.”  “That’s great, let’s start working it out and really get it better”.  He’s someone I’ve always leaned on to help me finalize my tunes and I think vice versa kind of the same way.  When we had Black Willis that’s kind of how all the songs came.  One of us will have some lyrics for a tune and the other will do the finishing work.  That’s how I’ve always done it.

When you guys decided to do this project was it easy to assemble the band?

We got lucky, man.  Initially when we wanted to record I was going to play everything.   And I decided I was going to bring Adam with me to play some guitar and that’s when he decided, “Let’s do some of these songs I have, too”.  We’re here.  Let’s do them.  Matt Patton insisted he was going to play bass on some of it.  And once we decided we were going to bring it out for some live shows our buddy Mike Gault, who played in Matt Patton’s band Model Citizen here in Birmingham; which is Birmingham’s best punk band ever – really.  They were my favorite, anyway.  He offered to do it.  I’ve been really close friends with Mike for a long time.  He’s a drummer and I’m a drummer so we never wound up in a band together, so we finally got him in a band.  It was actually a piece of cake.  He’s so good.  After one practice he was better than the rest of us.  I hate to say it was a walk in the park, but it actually fell in our lap.  They were in the same situation too, so let’s so something.  I’m really glad to have them.

You guys are finally getting to play out. What is your reaction to being on stage again after all this time?

It makes you grateful.  It had become pretty easy to take for granted that you’re going to do some shows and you’re going to have some people there and see people all over the place.  But once that kind of wasn’t a thing – I remember being terrified to play shows again.  This was literally going to be one of the last things that starts happening again.  How long ‘til?  I’m just trying not to really take it for granted any more.  I’m super grateful and I just want to let everybody know that, too.  That’s kind of been the thing.  It’s been this kind of this emotion where we had done these shows.  It’s been kind of emotional.  I was really worried we weren’t going to do this again.  Now that it’s happening it feels so good and I really don’t want to take it together.

What’s your favorite part of being on the road?

Oh man, food! Well, friends first of all.  We have friends basically all over the U.S. now and people I only see when I’m on the road.  I would say seeing those folks, eating local cuisine – regional stuff – you know getting stuff you don’t get around here.  That’s kind of the things I miss.  The riding in a stinky van, bickering about when to leave and all that stuff – I don’t miss all that.  Seeing people enjoy the music you do, too.  That’s a big one.  It’s a lot of stuff.  You have to kind of love it because there’s a lot to get downtrodden about.

Speaking of food, when you guys are on the road is there a certain restaurant that you look forward to when you go to a certain city?

Man, when we got to Chicago we go after those Italian beef sandwiches.  You can’t get them anywhere else.  Going to New Orleans is a big one.  We used to go to this place in Chattanooga I thought was really great.  Is it called Lamar’s?


You get fried chicken in this hotel lobby.  That place was fantastic.  Matt Bohannon had us go there one day.  That was one of my favorite places ever.  And I like that Pickle Barrel, too.  It’s no slouch

The worst part about being on the road?

Keeping your home life together is probably the hardest part.  We’re all married.  We don’t have kids yet.  That’s always tough staying around in places and the wife worried about you and you’re worried about them at home.  I think that’s probably the big thing.  I’ve got a dog that’s 16 years old and every time I leave the house I’m like, “Please don’t die while I’m gone”.  (both laugh) There’s that kind of stuff.  Sleeping in your bed – that sort of stuff.  We love being on the road.  We’ve kind of grown accustomed to it.  It’s what we do.

What did you guys learn most about yourselves during the pandemic?

You know, someone else asked me a similar question.  I’ve always considered myself one of these easygoing, kind of go with the flow – not necessarily an extrovert.  I think my friends might tell you differently.  I’ve missed this community of people I have in my life.  When that’s not around I felt like I wasn’t myself.  I wasn’t in my right place and filed away properly, you know what I mean?  I guess I lean on people.  I need them more than I thought.  Just like we were talking about the band and stuff.  I realized I needed that.  It’s like a therapeutic thing to make keep going.  And without it, it’s tough.  It’s the whole package – being around other people and meeting new folks and all that stuff.  That’s become important to me – more important than I would have ever thought.  And that’s really the big one.

 – Dave Weinthal

The Williamson Brothers perform Friday night, July 9 along with Matt Bohannon at Cherry Street Tavern.