PettyGrass: Keller Williams to Take Bluegrass Versions of Tom Petty Songs on the Road

Keller Williams
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Keller Williams performs at Shakas Live for the Va Beach Funk Out on May 21, 2016 in Virginia Beach, Va.

The late Tom Petty will be saluted this year by Keller Williams and the Hillbenders, who will take Keller Williams' PettyGrass on the road in 2018.

The group has so far secured performances at the FloydFest and Redwood Ramble festivals during July, and Williams tells Billboard he hopes to add more to the schedule moving forward. "I'm kinda going to be the singer and the Hillbenders, I think are going to take the project to the next level," says Williams, who arranged some Petty songs bluegrass-style for a 2015 Society For the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals benefit.

After Petty passed away in Oct. 2017, Williams also posted some of his voice memo demos for the songs on social media.  "It's going to be teamwork, me singing these songs and having (the Hillbenders) work the arrangements around it. So at the end of the day it's kicking with high-quality musicians playing these amazingly well-crafted yet simple songs in a celebratory bluegrass fashion.

"It's a bit of a novelty in a sense that it's a festival act and bluegrass versions, but at the end of a day it's a celebration of songs that are super fun to play and, from my experience, people in the audience know them and it turns into a sing-along. I like when everyone in the same room is singing the same songs. I think people are going to react positively."

The Petty songs are easy to adapt into bluegrass arrangements, according to Williams. "We'll do at least 15 songs, the ones everybody knows, and maybe dive into some other Petty stuff, too," he says. "Most are three minutes long or so. That's how simple they are. But we can really dig into these arrangements and kind of find little spaces to stretch out into more of an improv thing and then come back into arrangements. It should be really great."

Williams cites Petty as a longtime favorite and "a huge force in songwriting" who was an early musical inspiration. "I was always a kid of the radio in the '70s and '80s until I got my first skateboard and headed in more punk rock style," Williams notes. "Tom Petty's songs were on the radio so much. Without owning any of his records I could probably sing you 10 Tom Petty songs back to front, That's the impact he had on me growing up." Williams doesn't have any interest in recording the PettyGrass material, but he adds that "the Hillbenders, I think, want to take that step."

In addition to PettyGrass, Williams -- who released two albums, Sync and Raw, during 2017 -- is in the midst of recording an all-instrumental album he's hoping to release during the spring. "It's pretty much done on my part," he reports. "I did all the parts -- guitar, bass and a lot of the drum sampling. I'm definitely looking at an acoustic kind of walking the line of dance music. There's a lot of instrumental songs I've been playing for years that have never seen a bass line or drum part, so I'm digging into the technology with my engineer to make some interesting drum beats, both electronic and natural sounding. It's a whole different world as far as samples go, and we're taking a page out of the producer and DJ book, taking some really interesting sample programs and manipulating them but actually having acoustic instruments as well.

"I'm very self-indulgent in terms of entertaining myself first. I put a lot of emphasis on me having fun. I can't be expected to entertain an audience if I can't have fun myself, can I?"