News Column

A blues man comes home to Ashland

December 1, 2013

YellowBrix

Dec. 01--ASHLAND -- Bert Wills considers himself to be just another guitar player knocking around Ashland looking for a band.

Wills, who was born in Ashland and moved to Texas with his family in 1957 at age 5, recently returned to the Tri-State to help care for his parents. Well-known in many parts of Texas for his soulful voice and slide playing, technical picking skills and a wailing harmonica style, Wills is now building a whole new audience after returning to his hometown.

"I would really like to be somebody's guitar player rather than sing and do my own stuff. I'm not a singer," he said after a recent show at a cafe in downtown Ashland featuring only Wills' guitar, harmonica and vocals. "I think my best work was always supporting somebody. I'm not a front man. I probably shouldn't have a mic."

Wills downplays his personal history of recording and performing with some of the biggest names in the music business, including Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Chuck Berry, Albert King and Johnny Winter.

"It wasn't like I was hanging out with them on the plane. Keith Richards never came to the house. Johnny Winter never came to the house. I wasn't sitting out in the pickup with George Jones cracking a bottle. With session guys like me, it's really easy for people to misunderstand that," he said with a chuckle. "Billy Gibbons (of ZZ Top) used to come to the house. We didn't play or anything like that. He'd come to the house and we'd drink beer."

Looking back on his time recording tracks at the Gold Star studio (where artists from the Rolling Stones to Rod Stewart recorded music) which served the Duke-Peacock Records empire, Wills said the job required versatility. "It was basically the same few guys doing the work. I got exposed to everything at that point," he said, adding "almost all of the psychedelic music down south" was also recorded at Gold Star, which operated under the illusion of creating "black records" and "white records" for many years. Wills said the work was good, although his association "with Texas gangsters" in the music industry actually worked against him in other areas.

Years later, when he landed in Nashville, Wills said people in the music industry there seemed to be doing the same things he'd experienced in Texas.

"Nashville was really just the same thing, only with hillbilly gangsters," he said with a laugh.

Early days

After developing his chops on a Silvertone archtop acoustic guitar "ordered from the catalog," Wills became a working musician around Houston and Galveston, where he was part of a scene that included his buddy Billy Gibbons in the days before ZZ Top, as well as Johnny Winter, B.J. Thomas, Delbert McClinton, Jimmy Vaughan and the legendary Lightnin' Hopkins, who enjoyed company and was easy to find.

"Lightnin' lived there in Houston, and you could sit on his porch with him if you could afford a bottle. Or, it was even better if you had cab money. He loved to ride in a cab," Wills said.

Influences

The guitarist said he grew up during a time when "there was country and there was blues," and bands that played in clubs often reworked songs by artists such as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.

"It was blues songs rehashed," Wills said with a chuckle. "When I was young, you went with what you got paid for. The idea, when you are young and playing guitar, is to prove to the old man that you have a job."

His own musical style is a reflection of his experiences, starting as a young man listening to combinations of gospel and blues and developing as he made sure he could play anything that might put money in his pocket. His thumb-heavy fingerpicking, for example, resulted from the popularity of folk music.

"It was about 1967. My band broke up and I quit school and went to New York City to be a folk singer ... to be Bob Dylan," he said, explaining he had never studied the work of fingerpicking masters such as Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. During his live sets, Wills now includes an original song titled "Chester's Rag," which he wrote upon the passing of Chet Atkins.

As a musician with a signature sound on slide guitar, Wills cites the genius of Elmore James and Duane Allman. He initially used a standard-tuned guitar for his slide work, Wills said, until one day when he met John Lee Hooker and asked him about the subject.

"He said he used 'the regular tuning,' and I asked him what that was and he just said 'The regular A tuning.' I didn't push him on that, but I went home and tuned the guitar to an open A chord and there all those licks were," he said.

As a harmonica player, Wills sings the praises of players including Jimmy Reed and Little Walter, and while he admired the work of Sonny Boy Williamson, he said his licks were "too hard to decipher."

Unusual guitar

When he performs by himself, Wills tends to rely upon a pair of guitars including an unusual fiberglass-body six-string resonator he's been working with for years. "It was made by Val-Pro for National or Supro of Kay of Harmony. Mine has a National tag on it but National did not build it. It was made for one year in '54 or '64 -- I forget which. I've never seen another one," he said, later adding the guitar is referred to as a res-o-glass instrument because of the fiberglass body. Wills said he bought the guitar from a friend for $125.

Upcoming performances

With "probably 12" recordings with his own name on the cover, Wills now carries only copies of his independent album "Old School" to sell after his shows. Most of his shows these days are in other cities and scheduled by a manager, although he confesses his enthusiasm for the talents of local musicians and hopes to find a good band to join up with for shows in this area. Wills is scheduled to perform as part of a "Songwriters Show" concert along with Rick Ferrell of Nashville and local writers Tracy Ann Stanley and Barry Frazee, Saturday at Callihan's American Pub & Grill. Tickets are $7. For more information, call (606) 586-0586.

TIM PRESTON can be reached at tpreston@dailyindependent.com.

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(c)2013 The Daily Independent (Ashland, Ky.)

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