Chasin’ The Feeling
By Larry Nager
It’s been more than five years, but people still ask Josh Williams about “The Bird.” In May 2011, the Josh Williams Band was playing Doyle Lawson’s festival in Denton, N.C., when a baby bird, just out of the nest, fluttered from the stage rafters to land on his Kendrick guitar. Williams stopped playing so as not to disturb it, but kept singing, the bird staring up at him for the rest of the song. The old saying came to life: “He could charm the birds out of the trees.” Video cameras rolled, and the YouTube clip went viral, more than 2.5 million views to date.
“I do think it was a blessing from God,” Williams says. “I don’t necessarily know yet what it meant, but I’ve seen too many things to believe in coincidences.” Most of us didn’t know at the time, but what gave it special meaning for him was that blessing came almost a year to the day after he completed rehab for the methamphetamine addiction that had wasted the robust 6’4” singer/guitarist down to a 140-pound skeleton.
“I was headed for death,” he says simply. He took a detour just in time, signing into a rehabilitation facility in Dickson, Tenn., near his home. “When I finally checked myself into treatment, I looked awful.” he says. He’s not lying. Look closely at Williams’ 2010 Rounder debut, Down Home, and you can see the sharp edges of his skull cutting into his skin. “And that was at least six to nine months before (rehab), six to nine months without really eating anything, just sucking on a (meth) pipe and drinking enough to keep myself from being dehydrated.”
Today, he’s remained clean and sober for six years and counting. Josh Williams’ story is not unique in bluegrass, of course. But what is unique is that, in a genre that remains in denial regarding drug and alcohol abuse, Williams has gone public. He tells his story with unflinching honesty on Modern Day Man, his new Rounder album. It’s the best, most mature and fully-realized music of his 25-year career.
“I’ve seen Hell in a few different forms,” he says. “I wanted this album to be a journey. Here’s where I was, and here’s where I am now.”
Williams mapped his journey in 12 songs from some of the finest writers in bluegrass and country, among them Tom T. Hall, Chris Stapleton, Harley Allen, Ronnie Bowman, and Jerry Douglas, played by an all-star cast including Sam Bush, Aubrey Haynie, Sierra Hull, Rob Ickes, Scott Vestal, Aaron McDaris, and pedal steel legend Doug Jernigan.
Album production began in November 2011, derailed several times, he says, when “life got in the way.” A painful divorce, a near-fatal blood infection suffered by his father, Tony, and other personal crises all slowed recording. It started as a Josh Williams Band project, but evolved into a solo album, arrangements of some songs expanding into a bluegrass/country hybrid in homage to one of his earliest idols, the late Keith Whitley, the bluegrass singer-turned-country star who, unlike Williams, was unable to conquer his demons, dying of alcohol poisoning in 1989. His other idol is another J.D. Crowe alumnus, bluegrass’ premier flatpicker Tony Rice, who has also dealt with substance abuse issues.
Crowe produced Modern Day Man and also produced Whitley’s early bluegrass/country efforts, including two songs Williams covers on the new album, “Girl From The Canyon” and “Another Town.” Crowe has high praise for Williams. “Josh is not only a bluegrass artist. He can sing what I call good country music,” Crowe said. “He’s very versatile. No matter what kind of music it is, get him the right material, and he can do any of it. And not just sing any song, but play any instrument and sing every part.”
The Kid From Benton
Williams is a rare talent, even in bluegrass, which has more than its share of superstar prodigies. He grew up in a musical family in Benton, Ky., near Paducah. His dad Tony played guitar, and his paternal grandmother, Mary Neale Williams, performed on guitar and mandolin as a young woman. When Williams knew her, she was just playing ukulele. “Granny taught me to play,” he says. “I can remember sitting at her house and her playing a baritone uke.” She lived next door, so one day, when Williams was about five, he cut across the yard with his parents’ little soprano uke. “And she said, ‘Well, are you gonna play with me?’ And I think I surprised her when I really wanted to learn.” He was soon playing with her. “To this day I can still sing one of the songs she would sing, ‘Go Along Mule.’”
After the uke, Williams learned guitar from his dad. Then he saw his future on the family’s TV. “I was seven or eight, and me and Dad were at the house by ourselves. I used to constantly watch reruns of Hee Haw! There was a skit on there where Roni Stoneman and Mike Snider were doing a banjo duet. I don’t remember what it was, but they were trading back and forth, and I hollered for Dad and he came running out and he found me in front of the TV, just mesmerized. And I said, ‘That’s what I want to play.’ And he kind of laughed and said, ‘Really?’ And I said, ‘That’s it!’”
His father arranged lessons with a neighbor, banjo player and teacher Scottie Henson, who loaned him a banjo. “The first lesson was just holding it,” he says. “But, by the time I left that lesson, I was already doing rolls.” By ten, he’d recorded his first album, the cassette-only Tall Pickin’, produced (and titled) by his dad. “If he thought I played good, he would say, ‘Son, that was some tall pickin’!”
By 12, he was playing locally with his own band, Josh Williams & High Gear. About that time, his dad took him to his first IBMA in Owensboro. He met all his banjo idols and, because Henson’s personal banjo was a Deering, Williams hung around the Deering booth, where he met John Hartford, who was impressed enough to approach Greg and Jan Deering about giving Williams a banjo.
In 1993, then IBMA president Peter Wernick organized the IBMA Bluegrass Youth All-Stars. Williams played banjo, along with Chris Thile on mandolin, Cody Kilby on guitar, Michael Cleveland on fiddle, and Brady Stogdill on bass. He already knew fellow Kentuckian Kilby. “Cody and I would compete with each other at contests,” Williams recalls. “Cody was playing guitar, banjo, mandolin.”
That was Williams’ apprenticeship, high school years spent learning all the bluegrass instruments, some borrowed from his dad’s instrument-collecting brother, Reggie, who lived in Memphis. “Every time he came to visit, he’d bring an instrument, anything I wanted—fiddle, guitar, mandolin, Dobro.” Williams wasn’t just passing time, he was planning his career. “I realized if I wanted to play music and do it full-time, the more instruments I knew how to play, the better chance I’d have of finding a job.”
Kilby, now famed for his long tenure in Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder, was both nemesis and inspiration. “I’d won state championships on all the instruments, and so did Cody. I won a couple and then a couple times, I’d lose it to Cody. That helped me be better. I would show up and I’d have my things learned a certain way and Cody would come out and just rip something that would knock your socks off. I’d say, ‘Ok, now I know where the bar is set at, and I’m not there yet.’ So I’d go back and rehearse.” He became almost obsessive. “I started at thirty minutes a day, but it wasn’t long that it changed from, ‘You need to go in and practice’ to ‘Take that thing in the other room. I’ve heard it enough.’”
Williams and Thile became close friends in the All-Stars, especially after the Thile family moved to Murray, Ky. Williams remembers one session that became too much even for his bluegrass-loving dad. The three were driving from Kentucky to Nashville in the Williams’ van, with Thile and Williams in the back with their instruments. “We were sitting in these captain’s chairs, facing each other, and we played ‘Bury Me Beneath The Willow’ in every key, up a half-step each time, all the way up the neck and back (without a capo). And then we did it in every minor key the same way. And we were trying to figure out some other way to do it, when my dad said, ‘If I hear that song one more time…’ To this day, he’s not a big fan of that song anymore.”
Williams occasionally played banjo with Thile’s band Nickel Creek, but he credits their friendship with helping him transition to guitar. He learned vocal harmony on Sundays, when his family attended the Church of Christ, which doesn’t allow instruments at services. “It was all a cappella,” he said. “I guess that helped me hear parts pretty easily.”
In high school, he got his first and just about only non-music job. “I went to work at a fast food place and hated it. But I stayed there a year and, like most musicians, I guess I got a little lure to play some music and not have to do that crap anymore.” He started playing weekends at the Kentucky Opry in Draffenville. “I didn’t make a lot of money, but I made just as much as I did at the fast food place.”
Senior year at Marshall High School, he joined his first national band, Chicago’s Special Consensus, playing mandolin and fiddle. “I met him, he must’ve been like nine or ten,” recalls Special C leader Greg Cahill. “His dad was such a great supporter, he’d take him to festivals and to shows and introduce him to other banjo players. I didn’t even know he was playing all these other instruments.” When the job came open, Andrea Roberts, Cahill’s bassist at the time, gave him a recording with Williams on mandolin. “She said, ‘You got to listen to this. He’s a great mandolin player.’ So we called him up and he and his dad came up to Chicago for the audition and we sat in the living room and played some songs and he was great.”
It was January and they arranged for Williams to play one weekend a month with Special C until graduation, then go full-time. During the audition, Roberts got a call from her mom, who was so ill that Roberts had to miss that night’s gig. Since Williams played everything else, Cahill popped the question. “You wouldn’t play bass, would you?” Of course he did, so Williams and his dad drove to Indiana for his first Special C gig. “He played impeccably,” recalls Cahill. “He knew all the Special C material and he was great. To me, that was remarkable. I knew him as the kid who played the banjo and I had just hired him to play mandolin in the band and then he played bass for the first gig. And it all happened in one day.”
Williams was still a kid, too young to legally drink a beer. He says Cahill took his bandleader responsibilities seriously. “I was on the road for three years with Greg Cahill before I was of legal drinking age and there was no drinking for me,” Williams says. “He said, ‘If I see you doing it, I will tell your parents.’”
Williams didn’t like the taste of alcohol, yet. Pot was a different story. He’d started in senior year. At 18, he began smoking cigarettes, which, in tobacco-producing Kentucky, is almost mandatory. “You turn 18, you buy a pack of cigarettes and a lottery ticket. The lottery ticket didn’t win nothing, but the cigarettes, I’m still struggling with that.”
Marijuana generally acts as a depressant, but playing bluegrass was so integral to Williams’ life. He says, “I was able to incorporate smoking pot with the music, and when you first kind of get that going, you think, ‘Holy crap! The creativity that I have is something completely different than what I’m used to.’ And you start exploring that. But in reality, who knows if that’s true or not?”
For Williams, “grass” and bluegrass was a potent combination. “I found that when I did do it, I could completely focus and completely lose myself in the instrument.” That’s an experience musicians of all genres talk about. Sober, high or drunk, they seek those rare moments of connecting to the music so completely, locking in so tightly with other musicians, that you lose all sense of self, as though you disappear into the music.
Pot was a shortcut, but it led to a dead end, he now realizes. Today, though sober, Williams still seeks those moments of being completely at one with the music. In that, music itself can be a drug, he says. “It’s not something you can try to do, it’s something that happens, and sometimes it happens, sometimes it don’t. Once I found that feelin’ of like ‘Aaahhhh,’ you start chasing that. It’s like any other addiction, you find that one feeling, and you spend the rest of your life chasin’ that.”
Taking The Lead
Williams was still functioning, showing up on time and performing at a very high level, no pun intended. He even took more musical responsibility, transitioning from harmony to lead singing. “I sang a little bit of lead, here and there, growing up. When I was in Special C, I was singing a couple songs. Tom Riggs from Pinecastle heard me sing and wanted to sign me as a solo artist. And he just asked Greg one time, ‘How come you don’t have this guy singing lead?’” When guitarist Chris Walz left, Williams took over lead vocals.
That’s the paradox of Josh Williams. Even as his personal life spun out of control, his bluegrass career soared. The resulting anxiety may have caused even more self-medication, according to Dr. John Hipple, a therapist and drug counselor who has spent many years working with musicians, helming wellness sessions at the IBMA World Of Bluegrass as well as the SXSW conference in Austin. Hipple is based at the University of North Texas, a college specializing in music. He’s been with UNT’s Counseling Center since 1977. He says musicians, especially young musicians, are particularly at risk.
“The music business is so weird and so unique and a lot of kids, especially, don’t have a sense of that,” Hipple says. “It takes them a while to find their own niche, so that gets them into ‘experiment, experiment, experiment.’ And that gets into substance abuse and addiction. There’s that creative mind, which is so unique, there’s the profession which is so unique, so not normal, not the typical 8-to-5 type person. You have to have a family that understands the weirdness of your profession. Then there’s the boredom and the need for the rush. Especially if you’re fronting the band, there’s all that rush performing. But then what do you do after the show? What do you do on the bus? It’s looking for excitement and a rush and a unique experience. Or you’re looking for something that will settle you down.”
That describes Williams pretty well. “If I was on the road and I didn’t have anything to numb whatever was going on, hell, I’d go find a girl or something. Whatever it was I could do to change what I was feeling at that moment is what I would do.” He thought he had it figured out, but now realizes the mess he was in. “It becomes a problem long before you think it’s a problem,” he says. “When you’re in the middle of that addiction, you’re the last person to find out that it’s a big thing. When I was playing with Greg, he was probably thinking, ‘What the hell’s going on?’”
That was just Williams’ drug-induced paranoia. “I was not nearly as aware of it as I probably should have been,” Cahill says. “I knew they might have drunk a beer. I like to have a beer myself. But I was pretty clueless about the extent of that stuff.” After Williams’ addiction became known, his father confronted Cahill. “Tony came to me and said, ‘I trusted you!’ I felt like I let him down, but I really didn’t know.”
That was much later. Williams’ drug problems didn’t cause trouble in Special C, and didn’t prevent him being hired by one of the most successful bands in bluegrass, Rhonda Vincent & The Rage.
High and Lonesome
Vincent knew Williams from Special C as a fiddler and mandolinist. She’d even hired him to fill in on fiddle in the early Rage. “I didn’t know he even played guitar,” Vincent says. In 2003, when she was looking for a guitarist, someone suggested Williams. “So I called him and he came in and blew us all away—everybody, Kenny Ingram, Hunter Berry. Josh came in and it was, ‘Wow! He’s amazing.’”
The 23-year-old, who’d been living with his parents, moved to Middle Tennessee and suddenly had more freedom and money than he knew what to do with. He bought a new diesel pickup, got himself a bachelor pad duplex in Pegram, outside Nashville, and could afford any toy, pharmaceutical or otherwise, that he wanted.
In the funhouse mirror from which he viewed his life, Williams convinced himself drugs were a necessary tool, expanding creativity.
“I think when somebody is gifted musically, they make it in their mind where they will explore any avenue of making their music a journey. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I do know for me, music was like my only way of being really, truly myself and not worrying about what somebody else thought. And when I didn’t have that, I was uncomfortable. So if the guys that I was hanging out with wanted to do this or wanted to do that, I would lean to, ‘Well, whatever.’”
To keep his job with Vincent, who had zero tolerance for drugs in the band or on the Martha White Bus, he lived a double life. “When I started working with Rhonda, I couldn’t travel with (drugs) because of her sponsorships. If I was out three or four days, I might just load up to the point where I had to be careful to not overdose. Then I’d go get on the bus and by day two, I’m just a complete jerk, because I’m coming off of that.”
By 2007, it had become an impossible situation. In the fall, a week before IBMA’s World of Bluegrass, Vincent let Williams go.
“He had nine lives,” she says. “It had been over and over and over. It just escalated. Every day was another issue and another issue, to where it was just, ‘We can’t do this anymore.’ Whether it’s being late or whatever, it was just violations. One person that has a problem like that, it affects the entire band. It’s like a poison and it was just infiltrating into everything. We loved him and we loved his talent, but he made it where it wasn’t a difficult decision.”
Looking back, Williams realizes she treated him very well. “The people that I saw let go while I was working for her, I definitely got the best treatment. I think it was because she believed in me, but she just couldn’t stand it anymore, she couldn’t sit there and watch me kill myself.”
He hadn’t hit bottom, so Williams, despite losing the best job he ever had, wasn’t ready to face facts. “She let me go at the beginning of IBMA week so, for me, my IBMA was just an absolute party. I’m sure I probably badmouthed her openly to whoever was listening. At that point, I was basically loaded up on drinking, cocaine, pot, whatever pills I could get my hands on, and a lot of arrogance.”
Awards and Addiction
Once the haze of IBMA 2007 cleared, he began making plans. He formed the Josh Williams Band and started booking shows. At 27, he tried to change his rough and rowdy ways, quitting drugs and cutting back on his drinking and marrying his girlfriend, Jenny Harper.
Things were looking up. The Josh Williams Band was getting gigs and, in the spring of 2008, Tony Rice called him to play mandolin in the Tony Rice Unit. That earned him new respect from fellow musicians, he says. That fall, he won his first of three consecutive IBMA Guitar Player Of The Year honors. He’s again nominated in that category for the 2016 IBMA awards.
Looking back, Williams says the contrast in his appearances at the 2008 and 2009 IBMA awards was frightening. “IBMA 2008 was about a month before I started (using meth). I wore a tuxedo, I was married, my hair was fixed nice. And then the next year, I had glasses that were super-tinted, I wore jeans and a shirt that wasn’t even tucked and some kind of jacket. I was a lot thinner. That was the year that it all got really, really bad. I was just barely alive.”
He began using meth almost by accident, he says. “I was just jamming with these guys and they’d mentioned something about liking to party a little bit, and it had been a long time since I’d done it, so why not? I thought we were gonna do a few lines of cocaine, but they were smoking it, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ve done that before. No big deal.’ So I never asked, and when it came my turn, I grabbed it and as soon as I hit it, it was just, ‘What is this?’ It tasted different than anything I ever had. And the guy just nonchalantly said, ‘It’s just a little crystal methamphetamine.’ And I said, ‘O.K.’ And in my mind I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god! What have I done?’”
Longer-lasting than coke, and without the accompanying anxiety, meth quickly became a habit, as Williams juggled the roles of husband, bandleader, star musician, and drug addict. Nonetheless, he won 2009’s IBMA guitar award, just before the death spiral that shrunk him to 140 pounds.
Onstage, singing and playing, he was still a master. When Pinecastle Records folded before releasing his third solo project, Down Home was picked up by Rounder Records. Ken Irwin at Rounder had been aware of Williams’ talents since his IBMA Youth All-Star days, following him through Special C and his years with Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, a Rounder act at the time.
“He has all the attributes that you really look for,” Irwin says. “He’s a wonderful singer, has a good sense of taste in songs, striking appearance, commanding stage presence, great musician on various instruments, good visibility between his playing with Rhonda and Tony Rice. It seemed like all of the pieces were in place for success.”
He was thrilled to be on the same label as idols Rice, Crowe, Whitley, and Alison Krauss. But as Rounder was releasing Down Home, Williams was checking into rehab. He struggled through his month-long stay, knowing the alternative was death, finding solace in the guitar he had brought, performing for other patients. A favorite there was “Let It Go,” by Jerry Douglas and Ronnie Bowman, about freeing yourself from the poisons in your life. “I remember looking around and everybody was just bawling. And I had like two or three different guys come up to me at the end of their stay and say, ‘If you hadn’t of done that song, there was no way I would have stayed here.’” (The song is on Modern Day Man.)
His time in rehab showed him addiction knows no social boundaries. “I remember four guys there. One was an optometrist; the guy right beside him was facing kingpin charges for manufacturing and distributing methamphetamine; the other guy was a deputy sheriff; and the guy next to him was a lawyer. And the four of them were sitting at the same table, being friendly. They shared that journey together.”
Halfway through his thirty-day rehab, he received another important reason to live. His wife Jenny told him she was pregnant with their first child, Weldon (now 5). Out of treatment, Williams began rebuilding his life, even volunteering at the center to work with addicts. In 2013, the couple had a daughter, Whitley Neale, named for Keith Whitley and Williams’ uke-playing grandma. While his marriage survived addiction, the damage was done, and they separated soon after.
Today, a single dad, he struggles to balance life on the road with family responsibilities he takes very seriously. “My kids have never seen me drinking, and they will never see me on any kind of drugs,” he says. As he worked on his solo career, leading the Josh Williams Band (and winning the 2010 IBMA Emerging Artist Award, along with his third guitar honor), he realized he wasn’t cut out for the unique demands that bluegrass places on bandleaders. Other genres provide an infrastructure of managers, road managers, guitar techs, soundmen, accountants; in bluegrass, those roles default to the bandleader.
Irwin remembers discussing that in one of Hipple’s IBMA workshops. “At one of the wellness sessions, this guy said something that had never occurred to me. At age 17, 18, 19, 20, if you could play guitar and sing, you became a bandleader. And the counselor asked me to talk a little bit about Rounder. We have accounts payable and we have accounts receivable and PR people and an HR person. And (Hipple) said, ‘You know, when that 18 or 19-year-old kid starts a band, he has the skills that he can sing and play, but he also has to take care of lodging, has to take care of booking. He has to do all the things you just mentioned: accounts receivable, accounts payable, he has to do all the hiring and firing. That’s an amazing amount of pressure, and not to have the requisite skills and experience to deal with all those jobs and the resultant pressure and all the competition, it’s a wonder that they’re all not substance abusers. And that probably fits Josh very well.”
Those IBMA wellness sessions were short-lived. The bluegrass community largely refuses to face its substance abuse issues. “Nobody’s going to own up to that, because that’s admitting you have a problem,” says Vincent. But denial is no solution, she knows from experience. “Everything is in bluegrass. It (addiction) is part of life, and to say it’s not in bluegrass, that’s hilarious.”
Some of our greatest artists, Carter Stanley, Red Allen, Scotty Stoneman, Jimmy Arnold, Keith Whitley, Harley Allen, and most recently, James King, to name a handful, all had substance abuse problems that shortened their lives, even as it brought that lonesome sound into the music. Moonshine and old-time music are inseparable, and much of the first generation of bluegrass was able to drive all night to the next show thanks to those “little white pills” Dave Dudley sang about. “Just because you’re a bluegrass musician doesn’t make you immune to all these other things,” says Hipple. “But how do we help people believe that it’s O.K. to ask for help?”
Home in the Rage
Pre-rehab, Williams dealt with those pressures by escaping with drugs. The older, wiser Williams realized he needed to get rid of the pressure. He’d stayed friends with Vincent’s daughters, Sally and Tensel, throughout his recovery. “My girls knew that I was looking for a guitar player. And they said, ‘You should call Josh.’ And I said, ‘I can’t even imagine that.’ And they said, ‘He’s completely changed. He’s a different person. Mom, you really need to talk to him. Just call him.’”
Vincent did and arranged a meeting. “He knew this is a one-time offer. If he gets fired this time, it’s the last time.” She’s confident Williams knows what’s at stake. “He basically lost everything. And that is something that keeps you in check. ‘I like my life now and I don’t want to go back to that.’”
For Williams, returning to Vincent’s band in 2013 was a homecoming and a healing. “You go from traveling on a bus to not traveling at all, to traveling in a van or driving yourself, and to come back to that bus, boy, it’s good to be home. It takes all the worry off you. You can just be one of the other guys and not have to worry about having that stress—is the check going to come through? How am I going to pay these guys? I don’t have to worry about hotels, any of that.”
On her part, Vincent has been thrilled to have him back. But as Williams continues to grow and mature as an artist, as he shows so brilliantly on Modern Day Man, she has mixed feelings about his remaining in The Rage. “When Josh rejoined us—and I’ve never told him this—but we sat there in my studio and we were rehearsing, and I just started crying. This is a guy who should have his own band. He’s one of the most talented guys that I know, but yet, he’s not cut out for that. Bluegrass is in his DNA, but the other aspects of it are not. He said he was so grateful, that he was looking forward to not having that responsibility. But I started crying because I’m thinking, ‘This guy should not be in my band, but I am so grateful that he is.’ He should be on the road on his own, but I don’t think he’s cut out for that.”
He’s still just 35, so that doesn’t mean he’ll never be ready to run his own band. For now, he’s happy riding The Rage bus, focusing on his growing family when he’s off the road (he and singer/songwriter Dani Flowers had a son in June), and concentrating on the world he understands best and where he’s most at ease—music. Clean and sober, he’s still chasing that feeling, but his exclusive drug of choice is bluegrass. “My recovery is my responsibility, and I learned when I went through it that anything that I put ahead of that, that’s what I will lose,” Williams says. “If I put a relationship, if I put my kids, if I put anybody or anything in front of that, that is what I will lose.”
Now, this is where the typical article closes with a happy ending, the wide-eyed newbie excitedly heading to a bright future of big festivals and CD sales; the veteran finally getting his or her due with a new album or career-capping honor. But this isn’t one of those stories. Josh Williams doesn’t have his happy ending yet. He’s still writing his story, one day at a time. And how it turns out is completely up to him. “It ain’t over,” Williams says. “And that’s the best part.”