Webb Wilder is an artist who needs no introduction. His music has ranged from the rockabilly sounds of It Came from Nashville to the blues of Mississippi Moderne. By phone, he discussed his new album Night without Love, working with Dan Penn, and how he has adapted in the changing music business.
Americana Highways: How do you think the new album compares to previous albums?
Webb Wilder: I think it would be a mistake to say this one’s better or this one’s worse. They’re all different. Within the context of any one of my albums, many genres are represented. This one is not as rockabilly as It Came from Nashville. It’s not as hard rock as Hybrid Vigor. It’s not as bluesy as Mississippi Moderne. It’s not as about hot guitar playing as the others.
AH: How satisfied are you with it?
WW: I’m pretty satisfied with it. I had a good bit of control over it. I didn’t have as much control over the first many albums, although I was glad to be a part of them and quickly gave the thumbs-up to other people’s ideas. You always could do more with more money and more time. There’s always these Monday Morning Quarterback type things. I did what I set out to do, which was those songs. I had wonderful contributions from my co-producer George Bradfute, who, if you read the liner notes, which are a little erroneous. He’s a multi-instrumentalist and engineer. Some of the good ideas are his. Other stalwart fellers who have been with me all along are represented too. Rick Schell sang a lot of harmonies. He’s played with us as our singing drummer for quite a while. This is the first time we recorded with him. He did a lot of great stuff with drumming, percussion, and harmony vocals.
AH: You wrote one of the songs with Dan Penn. Had you worked with him before?
WW: On my previous album Mississippi Moderne, he and I wrote “Only a Fool” a long, long time ago, but finally got around to recording it. Dan liked what we did with it. I had called him for all the years in between trying to write with him again. For one reason or another, it didn’t happen. We wrote again. This is the second song I’ve written with him that we’ve recorded. We have another song in flux. I’m not sure if we ever finished it or not. The story behind this is pretty good. Dan is a character, and God bless him for being one. Obviously a legend and a great songwriter. It’s a great honor to work with him. I had been to two of his solo shows at The City Winery. A couple years ago we talked about writing. He told me to call him the first of the year. I called him the first of the year and he said, “Call me on Valentine’s Day.” I don’t know why he chose that. I said, “It’s a deal. It’s a sweetheart deal. In fact that’s the song we’ll write.” So we did.
AH: Did that all come together pretty easily once you got together with him?
WW: It did. He and I have pretty good chemistry. Depending on whom I’m writing with, if I know their background, I’m sort of on that track. If I was writing with Ronnie Wood – which I would never have the opportunity to do – it might go in a certain direction. Even he loves balladry and rockers. Dan being sort of a crooner and an R&B guy, he’s more laid back than he used to be. You get in a certain frame of mind to move to a certain place. “Dark End of the Street,” songs like that, you tend to think about a soulful, not an uptempo song.
AH: How has your creative process evolved with the music business?
WW: My methodologies in recording have evolved with my fortunes. The first album we had a backer. We did some studio recordings. Then we were very lucky that we had a state-of-the-art live recording that yielded marvelous results. We put out an archival thing in between Mississippi Moderne and this one with all this previously-unreleased stuff. A lot of that was from that night of live recording in ‘86 – the songs that didn’t make it onto It Came from Nashville. The next two albums were major deals with $100,000 budgets. The budgets started to dwindle with indie deals after that. Everything costs money. You have to pay the band. We did this a little bit different. We did some of the stuff live with the three-piece, which is me, Jimmy Lester, and Tom Comet. A lot of the other stuff, we started with just me. Then we would build around it and bring other musicians in as need be. It just happens that Rick Schell is particularly good at doing that as a drummer. Kevin McKendry calls that “under dubbing.”
AH: Some artists now prefer to release an EP periodically as opposed to a full album.
WW: That’s got some merit particularly for keeping yourself alive with whatever radio airplay. Perhaps between my label and me, we’re older folks who still think about physical product and the manufacturing of it. It costs about as much to make a 45 as it does for an album. I’m not averse to going down that road. I think we’re all aware of these things. Physical product is competed with by virtual product. This is the first time we’re doing vinyl since 1989. I’ve done 11 or 12 albums and the last one that was available on vinyl was Hybrid Vigor on Island Records in 89.
AH: Everything old is new again.
WW: I know. I did some songs I’ve written. I did some songs I’ve always loved. R.S. Field and I grew up together in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. We’ve collaborated over the years. I was in this band that he helped start called The Drapes. He had written that song “Night without Love” way back then. I’m a sucker for a good line. No one’s ever done the song before on a record. “I don’t see how she can stand standing there with a man with a face like an idol from the Yucatan.” He and Susie Elkins, who was in The Drapes with me, wrote a song years ago called “Buried Our Love.” “Tell Me What’s Wrong” was written by an obscure English band called The Inmates. We did that with The Beatnecks in the early 90s, and put it aside. There’s a story behind every song.
AH: What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
WW: I think about that sometimes. At the risk of being dramatic, I think I’d be dead. I think I would have just been unhappy. It’s a calling. Tom Petty said you play music if you can’t do anything else. Against all reason and logic, you bury yourself in this cauldron – not that you have any choice in the matter, I think. I wish I’d realized that earlier on. Guys like Marty Stuart – he was born to do what he’s doing, and he knew it. He never lost focus. I kept trying not to do it. I wasn’t a super picker like him. I think I would have been miserable and killed by my own alcoholism or obesity or something long ago. I do radio. I do a weekly radio show now. I was one of the first satellite DJs. I always thought that I could have been an actor if I’d been passionate about it, but I wasn’t. I’m passionate about music. What do you think of the new album?
AH: It’s well done. I doesn’t dwell in one area, it’s a nice blend.
WW: I tell people if you hear something you don’t like, just keep listening. The next song will be very different. Embracing that eclectic sound is not an easy task. I love The Beatles. I think they changed the world. It’s not a contest. You don’t have to be a Stones person or a Beatles person. If you don’t love both, something’s wrong with you. The Beatles are the gold standard. I don’t think you can laud enough praise on The Beatles. That put that indelible thing on me whereby you have the freedom to be eclectic. I guess the reason it worked so well for them is they always sounded English. They did a Broadway showtune, a Buck Owens tune. They did “Eleanor Rigby” and “Revolution,” and they would do these things on one album. They would jump from genre to genre on one album. That really got the message. To me that’s what made a good album, and I’m still thinking of the album as a whole. I’m not the only one that does, but that’s kind of an age-bracket thing. I can’t be any other way. People would say to me “It Came from Nashville was a rockabilly album.” Well, not really. It’s got a strong rockabilly thing. It’s really uptempo. But if you listen to the whole album, we weren’t too eclectic on that. That’s probably why it continues to be popular. The best stuff comes from mongrelizing what was done before. There’s nothing new under the sun – even The Beatles. That’s what they did. The loved American music and all these different genres. It came through their filter, and they’re great. The Beatles, The Beatles.
AH: It always comes back to that.
WW: For me it does. I grew up in the Afro-Celtic culture of the deep south, which just seems to have more soul. I was also fortunate that I liked music enough that I was open to other genres. As a kid I watched The Porter Waggoner Show, The Flatt and Scruggs Show, The Bill Anderson Show. All that stuff, and Shindig, and Hullabaloo too, American Bandstand. TV was as important as the radio. The golden age of AM radio beats the early days of FM rock when you had “Inna Gadda Davida” and 20-minute songs, and stoner rock. You’d get The Yardbirds, Wilson Pickett, Buck Owens, and Johnny Cash, and they were all in the Top 40. They were all on one station.
AH: How things have changed.
WW: I think we’re tribalized now. People you’ve never heard of are wildly successful because they have to get a hunk of the population, and they sell a million records. Because of that tribalization, if you can find your people, they will support you. I’m grateful for that too.
Night without Love will be available everywhere on April 10. https://www.webbwilder.com