The In-Demand One-Man Band

Looping wizard prefers to team up with his talented friends 

Keller Williams’ biggest influence may surprise you.
Photo by Taylor Crothers

Keller Williams can do it all, and he’s astoundingly productive. The Virginia-based multi-genre guitarist has long been a fixture on the Western North Carolina music circuit; fans love the jazz-bluegrass-funk hybrid on his more than dozen albums. Using looping technology, he can record alone if he chooses, and he often does; this has earned him the nickname “the one-man jam band.” But nearly as frequently, he teams up with well-known friends and associates like Larry and Jenny Keel, Jeff Austin, the String Cheese Incident, the Travelin’ McCourys, and others. He’s currently readying two more albums for release, and has scheduled live dates with longtime collaborators Jeff Sipe and Gibb Droll.

For you, what are the primary benefits of playing live with a group?

It’s creating something bigger than you can do by yourself. Musicians have their own minds. Playing with other musicians was the goal from the beginning for me: to collaborate, share this camaraderie onstage, communicate without language. There’s just way more benefit to playing with other people than playing alone. 

You’re primarily known as a guitarist. But you’re not playing guitar on this date with Jeff and Gibb, are you?  

Right. It’s going to be the three of us, and I’m going to be playing bass. We have a lot of material that we’ve played together over the years, including a double live record. We’re really going to be having a good time and act up. There’s going to be a lot of improvisation as well, I’m feeling.

You’ve said that you’re “a music lover first and a songwriter second.” From your perspective, what makes a song worthy of covering?

If it’s something that entertains me. If it’s not going anywhere in my mind unless I put my own spin on it. Staying true to the song is very important, but putting my own spin on it is a way to keep me entertained. David Lindley says that if you get a song stuck in your head, all you’ve got to do is play it backwards in your head and it should cancel it out. Yeah, that doesn’t work at all for me. I have to actually grab a hold of it, learn it, put my spin on it, and play it several times in public before it gets out of my head. 

Outside of music, what influences you as an artist?

Some comedians. Word structure, build ups, and punchlines and things like that; it all kind of wraps into one. You call them jokes, but really, comedians are just telling these elaborate stories with funny anecdotes, and the stories come back around full circle, One of my most recent influences, I think, is SiriusXM and its several comedy channels. I spend a lot of time in vehicles, and on late-night drives, it’s fun to get away from loud, pumping driving music and listening to some funny stories.

You’ve got a whole bunch of solo albums. When you look back at songs that you wrote 25 years or more ago, do you recognize the person that wrote them?

I definitely have forgotten many songs that I’ve written 25 years ago, but once I can hear it once, I can easily grab onto it and kind of bring it right back. They’re not completely gone out of my memory. I just need some little things to trigger it. But I still remember a lot of the contents. The  love songs I wrote were strictly for one person, and she’s still in my life. 

Do you “road test” songs before committing them to a recording?

Speaking of my wife, she complains about this a lot: As soon as I have something remotely [finished], I’m playing it onstage, whether it’s ready or not. A lot of times, these songs will get played for a year onstage before they make it to a record. As soon as I have something new, I’m so excited to play it onstage immediately. 

Keller Williams appears with Jeff Sipe and Gibb Droll at 185 King St. (185 King St., Brevard) on Thursday, Dec. 5. 9pm. $30/$35. www.185kingst.com. For more information about the artist, see kellerwilliams.net

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