Jason D. Williams — the rockabilly sensation who has been dazzling crowds live for three decades — is back with brand-new music. Williams returns with his latest disc, Hillbillies and Holy Rollers, which was recorded at the historic studio address of 706 Union Ave. in Memphis. What enters his mind when he walks into the hallowed airspace of Sun Studio?
“The first thing that pops into my mind is the rawness of those guys when they walked in there. You feel everything still. I feel a sense of respect. A lot of young cats might feel ‘Can I do this?’ And it can be a rather difficult task for some people. But I like it. I have a great feeling when I go in there. A lot of happy things take place in there.”
The performer has learned a lot from the masters who earned their musical stripes at Sun – including the artist he normally gets compared to, Jerry Lee Lewis. (In the 1989 film Great Balls of Fire, Williams’ hands appeared in the piano-playing scenes.) If you’ve ever seen Williams on stage, he has much the same intense performance style as Lewis and many other artists of the day, which is a contrast to his soft-spoken nature. “That’s a switch that a lot of entertainers have. They’re normal one minute, and then the next they are setting themselves on fire.”
He admitted to Billboard that his influences run far and wide. “A lot of the entertainment value comes from watching guys like Al Jolson to Sammy Davis Jr. and vaudeville. You had to be multi-talented. Sometimes, I will balance stuff on my head in the middle of the show as I play piano, or I will tap dance, or I’ll play the piano backwards. Back then, you had to do anything it took. People will sometimes compare me to Jerry Lee Lewis. OK, I have blonde hair, and I put my foot on the piano, but the point is I’m more like Jerry Lewis than Jerry Lee Lewis, with the point being I got more from those type of entertainers — Leo Kottke, John Fahey — I’ve always said I was a cross between Jackson Pollock, Joe Namath and Vladimir Horowitz. I play the piano as good as anybody. The entertainment value came from vaudeville, where you had to do everything.”
Nowadays, things are a little different, says Williams, and he doesn’t know if that’s a good thing or not. “I don’t think kids give a flying flip about vaudeville or entertainment value anymore. They see things so quick and easy on their phones, where it’s so available. There’s nothing wrong with that, I guess, but there’s not much that’s real anymore.”
In his mind, that simply makes him want to impress the audience with his stage show even more. “They know the years it took to learn to play that. It’s like the difference between an artist and someone who just got out of art school. You can feel it when I’m on stage. There’s no place I would rather be.”
On a personal level, Williams is just as unique as his music. He admits to having more than 10 calendars up in his house — all from different years. “I like to know what happened in the past,” he admits. “It’s a running journal in my house that people can see. A lot of people keep journals by their bedside, lock and key. Mine are all out in the open.” And that one-of-a-kind talent and personality has won him fans across many different avenues, including former President Bill Clinton, whose mother, Virginia, was one of the first members of Williams’ fan club. “She was a sweet lady, and I got to know the Clintons through her and being from Arkansas,” he said.
The performer has a calendar full of dates this fall, including a stop at the Americana Music Festival this week, where he will share the stage with Todd Snider. He loves the road, although he admits it would be nice to have a central location sometimes. “We do a lot of shows around the country, so I miss honing my skills at one place. Jay Leno would still go down to Miami and do a stand-up show for a 200-seat place so he could try out new material and not get rusty. That was on his off night. I think my fan base would be greater if I did something like that, but we don’t play a lot of bars or honky-tonks, which I would love to do.”