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Webb Wilder 1987
WEBB WILDER & The Beatnecks

December 1987 issue of Guitar Player

"Who is Webb Wilder?" asks the young man in old man's clothing. since the questioner himself is the only person who knows the real answer, he proceeds in a deep monotone:  "Webb Wilder is s the last of the full-grown men, the last of the boarding-house people, a four-eyed guy who who doesn't smile a whole lot but don't frown much either, a man who will never quite be bald but never quite wall-to-wall, a man who was never a child and will never have children.  Webb Wilder is an outsider who feels as though he's on the wrong side of the tracks no matter where he's at, a guy who knows every thrift shop and plate-lunch joint in town.  "Webb Wilder", he concludes with a dramatic pause, "is an electrifying artist."

That's one side of the scenario.  Another is that Webb Wilder is the leader of the Beatnecks, who brought roots rock and roll to the Nashville of the '80s much like the Red Cross bringing canned goods to flood victims- and a bit like the Japanese bringing their air show to Pearl Harbor.  If Webb Wilder the electrifying artist seemed to come out of  nowhere, it's because he did, in a way.  As John McMurry, the singer/guitarist played in a succession of regional bands in Austin, Texas, and his native Hattiesburg, Mississippi, before stepping into character and into the spotlight.  But it's been years since the 33-year-old needed the gray fedora and wire rims to become Webb Wilder.

How and when did the transformation take place?  I"I think it began when I was thrown off the school bus.  They threw my clarinet off, and then they threw me off.  Then it continued when I played bass and sang through the same amp at the teen center in Hattiesburg.  Then when I found myself as a young man playing with old men in an American Legion Hall band called the Southern Playboys.  I was the secret weapon.  'Sing a fast one, stud.'  And I'd do a Carl Perkins song or a Chuck Berry song.  Had a '69 Strat and a blonde Bassman.  You finally realize, like Dave Davies said, 'I'm not like everybody else.'  My mother always said 'You're gonna have to beat the girls off with a stick.'  Well, the stick was never drawn from its scabbard.  I Feel like a membrane thorough which all knowledge and suffering must pass.  I was playing a gig once in Brownwood, Texas, and some guy came up and said, 'I play guitar...and I'm not even as good as you."

McMurry is acutely aware of how disconcerting it is to see this Joe Friday figure suddenly tear off a Chuck Berry lead or, usually at the end of the night, lay his guitar down and launch into a tribal dance that's a cross between John Travolta and Jerry Lewis. "I like that paradox," he muses.  "Webb Wilder is a guy who would be seen sleeping under a newspaper on a park bench one second and then rockin' like a hurricane the next.  I mean, I'm an unlikely choice for the idol of tomorrow's 'today's youth.'"

Maybe, but with only one album on an independent label (It Came From Nashville, Landslide (450 14th St. NW, Suite 201, Atlanta, GA 30318), LD-1013) and limited touring (they have yet to play the West Coast).  Webb Wilder and the Beatnecks command a fanatic cult following at home and in towns like Austin and Chicago, where fans sing along with "Poolside" and recite the Webb Wilder credo in unison: "Work hard, rock hard, eat hard, sleep hard, grow big, wear glasses if you need 'em."" The black-and-white short Webb Wilder-Private Eye, which was actually filmed before the band was formed, is still shown regularly on the USA network's Night Flight.

The current personnel of the Beatnecks- Webb on vocals and guitar, Donny "The Twangler" Roberts on lead, Denny "Cletus" Wollensak on bass, and Jimmy Lester on drums- coalesced two years ago.  Webb and Twangler got together with producer, songwriter, and "official unofficial fifth member" Bobby Field on drums (and no bass player three-and-a-half years ago.  "I moved to Nashville in '82, the same time Webb did, " relates Roberts.  "I didn't know anybody; I just went to Nashville and slept on the floor about six months, and played Motown country pop.  I was expecting to play stuff like Merle Haggard, but I played this Motown type stuff.  It was weird."

Nashville guitar builder J.W. "Jerry" Jones put Donny in touch with Webb. "We kept trying out bass players," Roberts continues, "but nobody was into it because we were so raw, compared to Nashville standards.  We just wanted to get out there and trash it out.  We finally got a bass player for about six months, but he was more into the studio thing, so then Rick Rawls turned us on to Cletus."

The LeRoi Brothers' Rick "Caspar" Rawls had previously played with Webb in a band called the Drapes, which commuted between Hattiesburg and Austin.  "Rick and I also had played together when I was about 17, in McAllen, Texas--with Norman Swanson & the Shortline Gang," Cletus explains.  "Through Rick, I had met Bobby and Webb and Omar (Dykes) about 10 years ago.  I eventually moved to San Antonio, and Rick and I put together a rhythm and blues band.  He gave me my first Freddie King tape, and it changed my life.  Then Webb was looking for a bass player, and the LeRoi Brothers were looking for a guitar player--it worked out for both of us."

The difference between Wilder's and Robert's' guitar styles is probably demonstrated most vividly on their version of Sam Phillips' "Move On Down The Line" from It Came From Nashville.  After Webb's meaty Chuck Berry chorus, the Twangler responds with some rapid-fire Albert Lee licks and steel-like bends.  The impossible-to-categorize LP's shotgun repertoire--encompassing Hank Williams, Steve Earle, and Ventures-tinged instrumentals--is totally in line with the varied (and Numerous) influences the band members list.

"I went through various periods of really studying, like, Chuck Berry, Eddie Chochran, Dave Edumunds, Al Anderson, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, Scotty Moore, and all those people, " says Webb.  "Then there are the guitar players who are so there you don't don't even know you're influenced by them, but you are--like James Burton, Jimmy Nolen with James Brown, Luther Perkins with Johnny Cash, or Steve Cropper.  I got my Steve Cropper influence kind of from Ron Wood in the Faces.

"My type of Chuck Berry thing," he continues, "is really Dave Edmunds- and Keith Richards-oriented.  But I did listen to a lot of real Chuck Berry. You'd be surprised how few people can even play a Chuck Berry rhythm.  It's such a simple thing that most people would never dream of studying it.  So they play it sloppy.  I always thank Edmunds for really kind of goosing the Chuck Berry thing. when you hear the old Chuck Berry records, you had kind of a blues band that Chuck was pushing the envelope with.  It was a blueprint for what the Stones later did; the bass and drums almost drag, and the guitars push it.  So Dave Edmunds just got everybody in sync and pushed it.

"I think Edmunds is a master, and Mickey Gee is probably the most underrated guitar player in the world.  And the second Albert Lee solo album (Albert Lee, Polydor, PD-1-6358) is fantastic.  Al Anderson of NRBQ is one of those guys whose solos just leave you going, 'Good grief!' he accompanies himself great, too--what he plays while he's singing.  And you can't talk about Al Anderson and not mention Steve Ferguson, the original NRBQ guitarist."

"Steve is a real virtuoso, " adds Roberts.  "He's definitely the person who's taken the Chuck Berry thing into a different direction.  His technique is all backwards; he pulls when he bends."

"A lot of people are sort of too cool to say that B.B. King was an influence, " Webb feels, "but he was so great.  In the ninth grade we listened to Johnny Winter and B.B. King and Mike Bloomfield--along with Beggar's Banquet by the Stones."

"I, on the other hand, came form the Beatles and Buffalo Springfield and that whole Crosby, Stills, & Nash thing, " explains Twangler.  The 35-year-old has been playing professionally for 20 years.  "I've always had that country thing.  I liked Ricky Nelson and the Everly Brothers, and then the Beatles came out. And when they went into the country thing, like Rubber Soul, (Capitol, ST-2442), I really liked them.  Then I heard Buffalo Springfield and saw them live, and I went, 'I've got to play guitar.' I mean, I saw Hendrix two months before I saw Buffalo Springfield, and he didn't impress me as much.  It didn't hit my monkey nerve.  But Stephen Stills was it.  I also liked Moby Grape a lot, especially that first album (Moby Grape, Columbia CS9498).  See, I hated the white blues stuff, which was really big in Phoenix."

"I sort of came by the blues influence naturally," Webb interjects," and I hate to say it, but I think it was probably being from Mississippi.  I found out after I was grown that my aunt, Lillian McMurry, produce, recorded, engineered, and published 'Dust My Broom' and 'Eyesight To The Blind.'  She started Trumpet Records (the label for which Elmore James recorded the former and and Sonny Boy Williamson recorded the latter)."

Roberts continues: James Burton is a huge influence, and then George Harrison. Not until I got older did I find out that Burton had played on all these Merle Haggard records--besides Roy Nichols.  Also, Albert Lee is definitely an influence. I don't think I even knew who he was until he was almost out of Emmylou's band, but I went back and listened to all of his stuff.  I've worn out my Albert Lee albums; they aren't playable anymore.  Slowed them suckers down to 16.  I've got a terrible ear, so when I was younger I'd play chords and sing the melody.  When I was trying to do that, I was learning Ritchie Blackmore stuff, mainly off the first two Deep Purple albums.  I thought he was excellent--real melodic.

"The reason I got the Tele, back in '71 was because it was the cheapest guitar I could find at the time.  I was playing a lot of Grateful Dead, and they were into that country thing.  Then I got into, like, merle Haggard--real straight country.  I knew I had to have a Telecaster when I heard James Burton's break on 'Las Vegas' on Gram Parson's Grievous Angel album (Reprise, MS2171), it made my hair stand up.  I started playing with a steel player.  Besides listening to everything Doug Jernigan was on, Jay DesManess was an influence--real sweet-sounding steel things."

As for bass influences, Cletus confesses"I don't know any of their names; I just listened to them as a kid.  I was actually a rhythm player.  I never took any lessons, but somehow I had an affinity for making it work.  The bass was just the major pump of the music to me.  I always liked the way the bass would make the music move; it seemed to be the driving force."

After joining the Beatnecks, Cletus was in Webb's words, "forced-fed large quantities of Joey Stampinato of NRBQ."" "He's got Danelectro longhorn two-pickup, and he'll just squeeze notes, " exclaims Wollensak, 35.  "He plays with his thumb, as well as all three or four fingers.  He'll just push sound out of that bass.  I was really inspired by Asleep At The Wheel's old upright player (Tom Guarnier).  We did a show with them when I was about 17.  All these people would come throughout the Rio Grande Valley, so I was real fortunate to be there, working with the cream of the crop--real country."

"I bought a'61 blonde Precision," he recalls, "and a Showman amp, which I still have, from this old guy from Ohio.  Before that I was playing bass on a 6-string guitar tuned down.  I didn't even know standard tuning.  We had no idea.  Before this band, I'd never played bass with a pick, but now I always play with a pick."

Wilder, who trades off on bass and guitar with ex-Commando Gerry Felon in the Austin group Everready, says, "I think because I played bass, that's what really taught me about grooves and playing a supportive role in a band.  In this band or any band I'm in, hell, I'm not gonna change the face of guitar--I'm not a great guitar player--but I am a good rhythm player.  I'm a time-keeper, I know what a groove is.  And when I solo, I like to think I do it rhythmically, too.  I think my timing is my virtue."

Just as important as the licks picked up off records, Webb feels, were the locals and unknowns he came in contact with.  "People always talk about their influences, and they should.  Everyone has their heroes on records, but everybody who's ever played guitar has influences from people they knew and heard in their local town. Only occasionally do people mention that.  Tim Krekel was one of those guys; I used to hear him in Hattiesburg.  My favorite Austin guitar players were Johnny Richardson with Mother of Pearl, and Jimmie Vaughn.  Also Danny Dosier and Omar in the original Howlers."

Despite their varied influences and eclectic material, it's been difficult for for the Beatnecks to shed the country label, simply because of the city they're based in. "I grew up in Nashville," offers drummer Jimmy Lester, "an there were a lot of good bands that nobody ever knew about--great bands that played everything. But you say you're a rock and roll band and you're from Nashville, and your record winds up in country bin.  It sucks."

"I've lived in Austin and in Nashville," say Wilder, "and even though we don't exactly plug into the Nashville country industry, it is nice to know that there's a music business there.  And things are changing and I'd like to think that this band is part of of the reason why.  When I moved to Nashville in '82 the only thing happening in the clubs was Tim Krekal--and the Scorcher were just getting started. Now there's all kinds of stuff happening there.  We were one of the first local bands that really started loosening up, and one reason was that we weren't from there."

As for steering clear of arbitrary categories, Roberts admits, "There's a lot of stuff that I can play but purposely don't.  If  I play some of the stuff that I can play, people will immediately think we're absolutely country.  I mean, I can do steel guitar riffs on the guitar.  In fact, some of my biggest influences are steel guitar players, but I couldn't afford a steel."

So how would you label the Beatnecks' sound?  Not surprisingly, Webb details, "We call our music a lot of things--modabilly, swampedelic, uneasy listening, hillbilly gothic, Mississippi moderne, service station attendant music--in an effort to maybe pull people in more.  Because people ask me, 'what do you play? 'Rock and roll'--and that true.  But  that means a thousand different things to a thousand different people.  I've always kind of wanted to do everything.  I envied the Beatles and Rolling Stones for being able to do anything without getting labeled.  I mean, the Stones could do "Dead Flowers, ' and it was country, but nobody automatically threw them in a bag with Webb Pierce.  I love country music, R&B, blues, rockabilly, rock and roll--and I I can't play jazz.  We try to get all those things in there.  You know, I think we're into crunch, too.  I love Pete Townshend.  We want to take all the influences and put them all to work--which is what Elvis and the Beatles did."

"Country was rock and roll, "Denny stresses.  "Hank Williams, Sr. was rock and roll for the country of that time."" Webb concurs: "Hank Williams was pushing it for his day.  See, we never wanted to do strictly blues or strictly country.  I want to dabble in all of it.  To a certain extent that's been our enemy, but I don't' ever want to just go, 'Okay, here's our rut--let's jump in it.'"

As responsible for the music's makeup as the Beatnecks themselves is another Mississippi, R.S. "Bobby" Field, who produced their album, wrote or co-wrote eight of its 12 songs, plays some drums and guitar on the record, and even sings lead on "Is This All There Is?"--although he's not a member of the group.  (He also co-wrote several tunes form Omar & The Howlers' Hard Times In The Land Of Plenty [Columbia, 40815].)  "I've known Bobby since I was about 14." says Webb, "when he was a drummer and I was a bass player, and we were both frustrated guitar players.  I think what we always tried to put in our music was that marriage of a good paradox, where you put some blues licks in a pop kind of song, a little bit of rockabilly."

Field also wrote the two Venturesish instrumentals on the album, "Horror Hayride" and "Ruff Rider."" "He writes these instrumentals that--I don't know--sound like eastern European national anthems," shrugs Wilder.

Along with listening to and wanting to play everything, the band is constantly searching for different sounds.  "We're all slaves for tones," exclaims Webb.  "Maybe if you turn the amp upside-down..."" anticipating the inevitable question regarding equipment, Webb volunteers, "I know it's not as interesting as some of the stories you've heard, but I've never played through a family appliance.  I never could convert a record player or refrigerator into an amplifier, and when I began my career on electric guitar, it was through a guitar amplifier. And I never made my own guitar strings; I wish I could've pulled dthe things out of a screen door and strung it up, but I couldn't."

"I did take a steak knife to my Tele," says Roberts, dead seriously, "to rout it out for that humbucker (in the neck position).  Then I got a guy to clean it out with a chisel."

"Then it got stolen, and I found it," adds Cletus.  "We were at Gruhn Guitars, and this pawnbroker walked in with Donny's guitar.  I said, 'Man, I know that guitar, and I can tell ya, that front pickup is carved out with a steak knife."

In addition to his "modified" 56 Telecaster, the Twangler's equipment includes a Mesa/Boogie mark II, a pre-CBS Super Reverb--with mismatched speaker, I have no idea"-- and an Ibanez UE-405 multi-effects rack.  "The only things I use on that, " he points out, "are the analog delay, parametric equalizer, and stereo chorus."" He also employs a J.W. Jones Tele permutation and a Squier Strat that he uses for open E tuning.

Webb's onstage setup is as follows: "Right now I've got a 50-watt HI-Watt and an old pre-1968-type Bassman cabinet with two 12s.  The 12s in it are two 25-watt Celestions out of a 4 x 12 Marshall cabinet.  I just got a Fender tube Reverb unit, which sounds great.  I use a Fat Cat guitar most of the time, made by Jerry Jones (see the July '86 Guitar Player).  I've got an Ibanez Analog Delay and an Ibanez Equalizer on the floor, and Jerry Jones made me a preamp.  Jerry is an integral part of keeping our thing afloat; he make little boxes for us and builds our guitars, set them up.  My backup guitar is a Warmoth-parts/Seymour Duncan-pickups/J.W. Jones-assembled-bound-setup Telecaster.  It was my main guitar before I got the Fat Cat."

Cletus' bass rig consists of "an SWR 400-watt amp that I've been using for about a year. The EQ is great; I like it a lot.  My main bass is an early-60s solidbody Silvertone made by Danelectro, and I have a matching guitar.  My backup basses are a very fine J.W. Jones neck-through-body handbuilt, a '69 Precision, and an early-70's original Music Man Sting Ray.  I use a small EQ preamp to give a little more power. My new current speaker cabinet is a Dietz with tow Electro-Voice15s.  It pumps, man.  I had been using an SVT for about a year-and-a-half."

"The studio is a whole different world from our live shows, " Webb point out. "On the album you'll hear things like tweed Deluxes, a Rivera-modified Vibrolux, two '50s Gibson acoustics, my '66 Precision-which I got when I was 14--and Joe Glaser's Danelectro 6-string bass.  Bobby swears by my Guild Starfire V, which is a lot like an Epiphone Sheraton, and it's all over our album."

The climax of any Beatnecks show usually comes at the end of Webb's dance, and the final chord is sustaining, when the Twangler grabs all six strings of his Tele at once and and yanks them out of their through-body housings.  So what brand and gauge of strings does Donny mutilate each night?  "I use (GHS) TNT's--.010 through .052," he smiles.  Casper Rawls turned  me on to them.  You can't get that low twang with light strings."

Webb also uses a heavy bottom/light top set, but with some alterations.  "I use an .018(G), because I can't keep a .017 in tune," he details.  "And my A String is a .042, instead of a .044  This store in Nashville has my own strings made up."" What dare we ask, are they called?  Webb shifts back into his deep monotone: "Wilder Wires."

by Dan Forte