Hear Me Out: Davey Williams

Whether you were left scratching your head in confusion or had your brain completely rearranged about the intersection and nature of art and music, it was impossible to walk away from a Davey Williams gig without having your perspective on creativity permanently challenged or changed, and hopefully for the better.

A world-renowned experimental guitar player and lifelong Surrealist, whose deep roots in the Southern blues tradition through his apprenticeship with the late Delta and Chicago blues master Johnny Shines (himself a peer and traveling partner of Robert Johnson) made him one of the most singular and influential figures in the worlds of both Alabama and avant-garde music, Williams cut a distinct path in his quest to redefine the possibilities of his chosen instrument that have reverberated well into the 21st century. Revered by everyone from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore to Wilco’s Nels Cline, his irreverent approach to music-making as a six string gunslinger and pioneer of “extended techniques” for guitar— all imbued with a unique sense of whimsy and humor—made him an underground hero for generations of musicians looking to stretch sonic boundaries to their breaking point and beyond. Having recently succumbed to a yearlong battle with spinal cancer at the age of 66, he left behind a towering legacy of music, writing, and visual art that is unparalleled in both Birmingham and the state at large for its remarkable breadth and highly idiosyncratic point of view.

Born in the small town of York, AL in 1952, Williams first took up the guitar at the age of 12 and would soon find himself in the company of a career-spanning partner-in-crime in the form of high school friend Tim Reed whom he would play with in the band Wally du Goombah prior to joining and touring with Johnny Shines’ group, The Stars of Alabama, in 1971. The foundation of a lifelong musical partnership, the two would soon find themselves at the center of a highly progressive arts and music scene in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama through a group of like-minded mutual friends in the Raudelunas: a Dada-inspired art collective that would birth Reed’s alter-ego—satirical “stripmine crooner” Rev. Fred Lane, whom Williams would record three riotously funny albums with—as well as the humble beginnings of the American free improv movement. It was also during this time, and through the collective, that he would meet his greatest creative partner through his introduction to violinist and multi-instrumentalist LaDonna Smith, whom he would record and tour the world with as part of Transcendprovisation (later Trans Duo), which would ultimately lead to the founding of the revolutionary Trans Museq record label and The Improvisor music journal, both of which would find a home base in Birmingham after the couple moved here in 1978. Considered among the world’s leading practitioners of “spontaneous composition”—musical explorations created live-and-in-the-moment, completely unmoored from traditional structural components beyond the musicians’ own instantaneous creative impulses and well-attuned ears— together Williams and Smith would help shine both a national and international spotlight on our hometown in ways few musicians have either before or since. 

Having also left his mark on the “Downtown music” scene of New York’s Lower East Side through his work with the band Curlew, whom he would tour and record with from 1986 to 2002, he would also collaborate with some of the most respected improvising musicians from around the globe, including everyone from John Zorn and Eugene Chadbourne, to Derek Bailey and Günter Christmann—as well as fellow “outsider” Southern artists like Col. Bruce Hampton and the Shaking Ray Levis—relentlessly pursuing a life of experimentation whose only Alabama antecedent would be the great Sun Ra. A major presence on the local music scene as well over the years through his work with Improvisor festivals and bands like Trains In Trouble, Fuzzy Suns, and Bojang Whyhigh— among countless others—Davey would take his place as one of the most enduring and inspirational figures to ever come from the Magic City. And with him gone, there’ll be just a little less magic for us to pass around. Having recorded one last album with Rev. Fred Lane due out later this year on Feeding Tube Records, luckily for Birmingham, we’ll all have one last chance to catch it again and let Davey have the last laugh. And that’s just the way he’d want it.

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