Momentous Music: Petty Grass
By Alesha Damerville
Images from Keller Williams
By Alesha Damerville
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – “I miss being a total and outright ski bum,” says Keller Williams when reminiscing on his life in Steamboat Springs from 1995 to 1997. Although the successful singer and songwriter’s stint in the Yampa Valley was short-lived, the impact on his life was large.
“Steamboat Springs isn’t really on the way to anywhere. It’s kind of this out-of-the-way, hidden community of beautiful people and scenery. Colorado ski towns, in general, are a magnetic pocket for young, cool, open-minded people. The shows turn into a well-attended energy vibe of goodness,” Williams says. “It’s a circular thing that’s going on; they give back what they receive.”
The creation of the solo acoustic music from Williams can be tracked around the country, but Steamboat Springs inspired four of his original songs: “Putting on the Freshies,” “221,” “Dear Emily” and “Landlord.”
During his solo acoustic gigs, Williams creates loops and samples on stage with nothing pre-recorded. He jumps around to different melodies and entertains himself on stage as much as the audience. “It’s a fun gig,” Williams says. “I feel like I’m doing something illegal. I can only do what I do only because people allow it.”
Williams attempts to engage people, help them forget about the outside world and possibly cause them to bob their heads, laugh and dance. Acoustic dance music is the goal. “If you look at the nature of dance music, it started with a dude on a stump playing the fiddle in a barn,” he says. “People showed up and started dancing. I am taking that element and moving into my world.”
“If you’re coming to this gig and this is your first time hearing me, you will hear bluegrass versions of Tom Petty,” Williams says. He joins The HillBenders in the creation of the music genre called “Petty Grass.” “They are not afraid of playing covers and want to continue the exploration into the music they love,” Williams says. “They pay attention to detail, and the Tom Petty stuff has a lot of detailed rock licks. When they show up on something like a dobro, it’s really cool.”
The collaboration between Keller Williams and the HillBenders first came to fruition in the form of a 13-hour studio session. “We became a band in 13 hours,” he says. “I had sent them solo acoustic versions of my arrangements, some of which were in different keys, and they practiced off of that. It was a fun bonding experience. We went through, hit all of the arrangements…and partied a bit.”
“It’s all about the trust you have with the folks that you’re playing with, that they’re going to bring their A-game and be rehearsed,” Williams says. “Sometimes they’re not. Sometimes that makes things more interesting, and the improvisations start to flow. The HillBenders have a kinship among them. I’m kind of leading the charge while stepping in on their vibe.”
“I’m a product of growing up listening to the radio,” Williams says. “These are happy songs that invoke memories. I think it’s a great way to connect with the audience with songs they already know. This project is definitely that, and it’s only going to get better.”
“Playing songs we love – and hopefully hearing 1,000 people singing at the same time – that’s the goal,” Williams says. “The connection with audience is my favorite thing about performing. When everyone is on the same page, I’m kind of like an audience member, who is on stage. Bringing an audience in on a joke without having to tell it, everyone just gets it. That’s the best.”
You can catch Keller Williams’ Petty Grass featuring the HillBenders at the Keepin’ It Free Concert Series at Howelsen Hill on Saturday, July 7. For more information, visit https://kellerwilliams.net/projects/pettygrass-ft-the-hillbenders/
Check out the article below for a video of Keller Williams singing on a gondola.