Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.
Odds are, you’ve never heard of the Reverend KM Williams. He’s called KM because his first name is Kelvin – “and people always call me Calvin,” Williams says. “I’ve been called Marvin. I’ve been called Melvin. So I decided to shorten it to KM because everyone can remember KM.”
The irony is that North Texas has produced great blues guitarists from Blind Lemon Jefferson to T-Bone Walker and Stevie Ray Vaughan. But today, the blues is such a niche market in the US, it’s rarely heard by a wide public, certainly not in North Texas. Yet they know Williams in Europe. He’s toured there seven times. And Israel. He played one festival in Switzerland with a crowd so big he couldn’t see all of it.
At some point in most every show, the 60-year-old Williams will start playing this — hand-made oddity. If held up by the long, thin neck, it looks like a battered, very strange, squared-off, badminton racket. But it’s actually made from a broomstick with pipe clamps fixing it to an old, wooden cigar box. And out of this instrument, Williams produces some truly impressive slide-guitar rumble — with just two strings and an electric pickup.
In his home in Mesquite, Williams pulls the instrument out of a zippered bag and lays it out on his dining table. “This is basically a modern version of what we call a diddley bow. This one’s called a Lowebow because a guy named Johnny Lowe made it for me, using a cigar box. But I used to build diddley bows when I was a kid. I used a two-by-four and two nails and a couple of bottles or Coke cans. And I would just nail on one end, nail on one end, run me a guitar string across it and then take a bottle and then tighten it.”
The diddley bow was the original African-American guitar. Slaves used old broom handles or planks of wood, a gourd and a single string of baling wire. The gourd — just like Williams’ Coke bottle — would function as both the guitar bridge (to stretch the string and let the player’s fingers get under it to pluck it) and an amplifier, putting a little reverb in the sound.
But diddley bows didn’t disappear with slavery or with the rise of mass-manufactured, commercial guitars. Not if you were too poor to buy one of those.
“Muddy Waters used to play a diddley bow,” says Williams. “Elmore James used to play a diddley bow. John Lee Hooker used to play a diddley bow.”
When he was young, even Jimi Hendrix built a cigar-box diddley bow, much like Williams’. In the famous opening of the music documentary ‘It Might Get Loud’ — which features guitarists Jimmy Page, the Edge and Jack White — Jack White slaps together a diddley bow exactly as Williams describes: a board, nails, a single guitar string and a Coke bottle. Then he hammers a pickup on to the board, plugs in an amp and starts to squawl.
Since that film came out in 2008, diddley bows and cigar-box guitars have enjoyed a small renaissance as retro DIY musical instruments that almost anyone can make (check out the one that uses an old-fashioned, tin-toy police car).
Williams himself plays conventional guitars, acoustic, electric and twelve-string. But he’ll use his electric diddley bow when he wants to get that particular sound, the way he can make it wail or grunt.
“I have yet to get a more vocal sound out of a guitar,” he says “It’s more like a violin than a guitar because it doesn’t have any frets. People nowadays have all these [effects] pedals to make these sounds, but I don’t need them with this.”
Williams says he first heard the blues when he was seven or eight years old in Avery, the tiny town where he grew up in northeast Texas near the Red River border with Oklahoma and Arkansas. A famous Mississippi guitarist was playing at a house party — “a person they believe to be Elmore James,” Williams says. If it was James, the ‘King of the Slide Guitarists’ was in the last year or two of his life. He died of a heart attack in Chicago in 1963.
Whoever it was, Williams remembers him showing him how to hold and finger the guitar — “but I was just a little kid, I couldn’t play anything.” Mostly what he remembers, he says, is “watching him play, and his music and his guitar playing was just going straight through me like a lightning bolt. But the sound stayed in my head. It’s been there my whole life.”
Yet Williams did not turn to the blues. He was baptized and born again in the Baptist church and became a minister. After a stint in the Navy, he performed in church choirs until he was 40. He still fiddled around with the blues on the side but never in a public performance.
Then, in 1996 in Cleveland, Williams’ life slammed into a wall. He got laid off, broke up with his wife and was separated from his kids.
On a Sunday, at home after services, “I was sitting there, feeling sorry for myself, and a voice spoke to me. I believe it was the Holy Ghost. Said, ‘Git your guitar and go down to the bar.’ And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well, I guess I’m supposed to go down and evangelize these people.'”
But the bar held a Sunday night blues jam with musicians sitting in. And Williams was called up to play — he’d brought a guitar, after all, and he did know some blues licks.
Then they called him back.
“The next thing I know, within a month’s time, I had a band. And I was leading the band,” he says with a laugh.
A Baptist minister being more or less ‘converted’ to playing the blues in bars: As spiritual ‘conversions’ go, that story may seem the wrong-way-round. But Don Ottensman — better known as Don O, the longtime blues host for radio station KNON — Ottensman says the blues as ‘the devil’s music’ is just one tradition popularized by the likes of Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones. Another equally venerable tradition is ‘gospel blues,’ which mixes boogie music with preaching.
“I mean,” Ottensman says, “you can go all the way back to Blind Lemon Jefferson here in Dallas in the ‘20s. And he played blues during the week and on Sunday, he plays spirituals and gospels. Partying Saturday night and showing up in church Sunday morning — that’s still what a lot of blues musicians do. Black or white, many of them even close out their shows with a gospel number. But KM, being a preacher, that’s a little more in the forefront.”
When Williams came to Dallas in 2000, he contacted Ottensman to give him a demo and ask for advice about his music. The DJ told him original music is what sells; he needed his own songs, his own sound.
“We have a huge scene here,” says Ottensman, “maybe 120 or 130 active blues artists. But they all have day jobs, they do the blues part-time. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number who actually make a living at it. [Williams himself works as an AT&T technician.] So I tell him — I get on my little soapbox — anybody in the music business knows the real money is in songwriting and publishing. And within a month, KM had a new CD of all original stuff.”
Since then, Williams has released some two dozen CDs — as himself and as Trainreck, with fellow Texas bluesman Washboard Jackson (and sometimes as a sizable ensemble including his former harmonica player and WC Handy Blues Award-winner Jeff Stone).
“What I dig the most about KM,” says Ottensman, “is he knows what a groove is. And too many blues musicians today are wrapped up in playing as many notes as they can as fast as they can as loud as they can, and they don’t know how to lay down a groove. KM knows what a groove is and can really get into one. If you go to a KM show — whether he’s playing solo or whether he’s got his big band — you’re going to be tapping your feet and chances are, you’re gonna get up and shake your butt, too.”
Williams says what’s made a difference for his recordings was becoming an early adopter of CD Baby — first, to sell and distribute his recordings, then to stream them online. That’s why more Europeans have probably heard Williams’ music than people here in Dallas — even though Williams has a regular gig the second weekend of every month at Bucky Moonshine’s in Deep Ellum.
On a recent Saturday night, you could tell it was the right weekend from a block away. Williams and harmonica player Harry Hoggard and drummer Bubba Barnes were booming music out on the Cajun restaurant’s outdoor deck. That night, they played loud enough to set off a car alarm in the parking lot.
Ivan “Bucky” Pugh, the proprietor of Bucky’s, says Williams has been playing for him “since ten or eleven years ago, at my original location as the Alligator Cafe on Live Oak. Another blues musician told me about him, and since I was kinda new to the music-booking scene then, I said, ‘Send him in.’ And KM came in and did a solo act — he sounds so loud, so grungy, like something out of a 1920s juke joint. And I said ‘Get me a harmonica player and you have a gig.’ And he’s like part of the atmosphere here now. When KM has a nice little rhythm section behind him, he’s my favorite musician.”
In his live act — depending on the other musicians — and on many of his CDs, Williams does mix blues and spirituals. The albums are even titled things like “Sanctified Boogie,” “Here Comes the Preacher Man” and “The Reverend of Texas Country Blues.” To Williams, “it’s all blues because blues is a life music. It’s about life. Spirituals, they’re the holy blues.”
“When I was a preacher,” Williams continues, “I always tried to talk to people about life and how God relates to them – in truth. And so I’ve always told people I’ve never had a problem playing blues and playing gospel because they’re both talking about truth.”
Preaching or the blues — they’re both a calling.
Do you follow any routines or rituals before you create music or play a show?
No, no, because the blues itself is a life music. So whatever happens anywhere in particular, events or incidents or situations you’re livin’ in, the blues — that’s what writes the song. If you look back to the old sharecroppers, way back in Muddy Waters’ stuff, all what’s written is about their lives, good, bad, indifferent.
To create the blues, for me, you have to be able to take in the experiences and emotions of the time, internalize them and then externalize them through music. It’s using your life through music. And believe it or not, despite what people think about the blues being all sad, that’s psychologically very good for you.
And that’s why I love blues because blues talks about reality; it talks about what’s going on in your life, what you’ve experienced. Not what you think you’ve experienced, not what you hope to have experienced, but what you experienced. And that’s what the blues is.
When did you first consider yourself a blues musician? Not when did you start playing it but when did you think, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’
Well, I never did think that. It kinda just happened.
When I was born again, when I became a Christian, in my early twenties, I was given the gift to formulate music and create songs, praise songs, and put songs together. And I didn’t have any problems doin’ that, so I thought I was just supposed to be a gospel musician in the church. And I did that for fourteen or fifteen years; I didn’t do nothing but play for choirs.
It was from about when I was twenty-four to around forty years old. So what’s that? Sixteen years? But I played through my early twenties almost to the age of forty and it was just gospel music, but I was always playing blues along the way. I always knew about blues, but I never played it in public. I wrote songs and stuff, but I never played it for nobody.
You’ve never made your living just with the blues, right? You’ve always had a day job — like now, when you work as a technician for AT&T?
No. I don’t find that degrading because a lot of my heroes especially the early bluesmen, they weren’t rich people. They were drifters and they made money here and there and they just traveled a lot. And I think the most successful of the bluesmen is B.B. King, but B.B. King performed what? Two or three hundred gigs every year? For seventy years? That’s a lot of playing. That’s a lot.
I didn’t mean it as a slight. Most blues musicians don’t make a full-time living at it these days, especially in North Texas – sadly enough. It’s a niche market.
Well, I figured if I had to play 150 to 200 gigs per year for like fifty years, I should eventually make a profit at it. But that’s a lot of work. People don’t realize that. But I think a person like me, who’s mostly a solo musician, I think I’ve done pretty good so far, bein’ part time. I’ve done seven European tours, and I have over twenty CDs.
How did those tours come about?
Basically, by the internet. One of the best things that happened to me was a website called CD Baby. When I started putting my music out on CD about fifteen, sixteen years ago now, it had just launched. There were a lot of music sites starting out, CD Baby started out of Portland. And they would basically put your CDs out there on the internet, and they would take a percentage off any sale and pay you the rest. And they never deviated from that as they evolved, became digital. They were streaming music, selling digital copies. And they’d copyright your music, digitize your music, do all that for you.
Because CD Baby was worldwide, they could hear my music in Israel, they could hear my music in Italy, they could hear it in Japan. So that’s what happened. People heard it, they were looking for the next Robert Johnson or whatever, and contacted me. We’d arrange the dates, and they’d send me a plane ticket. I fly out of DFW straight to London or Italy.
How has living and working in North Texas affected you, affected your music?
I think if I had been in Mississippi or Alabama, I’d have been more like whoever was playing in that region. I would have been more like that particular region because they had a very heavy sound in those regions.
But being from Texas, I’m more mixed, mixing together different influences. We had blues in Texas, but it was very different — from T-Bone Walker to Freddy King and Lightnin’ Hopkins, all that type of stuff. But then, I’m also hearing Chicano music, Mexican, I’m hearing that. You hear that stuff because there’s a very heavy Spanish influence in Texas.
So I’m hearing all of this mixed with that Texas blues sound. Then of course I was also in Arkansas and Louisiana. You’re hearing all this heavy blues and this R&B stuff. So I think I’m more open to sounds than I would have been, had I been born in Mississippi.