by A.J. Wachtel
Willie J. Laws is a Texas transplant to our area who plays a hardcore, authentic and soulful mixture of Southern Texas blues mixed with zydeco, R & B, funk, country and rock ’n’ roll. He calls himself “The Last Prophet of Funky Texas Blues”: and that’s both a truism and an understatement; he is a whole lot more. This cat can play!
Noise: You’ve spent the past 25 years performing your music all over the world. What are some of the changes you see in the blues world and the music industry in general?
Willie: In the past 25 years, the music industry has “ceased to exist.” I have a few theories and opinions, none of which I really have the time to expound on. We don’t have the space! I DO have an analogy though. The music industry at one time was like a fatted calf. The calf was let out to pasture and the vultures of greed, economics, horrible decision making processes, and a dysfunctional education system has killed the music industry; there is no more “Music Industry.”
Noise: You were raised on the Gulf Coast of Texas and one of your influences was the late Texas Bluesman Phillip Walker. In fact, sometimes your guitar playing invokes his unique style. Name some of the other artists you listened to growing up and how they’ve been important to you.
Willie: My guitar influences range from many to a whole bunch. To name a few, of course the four Kings: B.B., Albert, Freddie, and Earl. Also Lightning Hopkins, Jimi Hendrix, Lester Reese, John Lee Hooker, Mark Knopfler, K.K. Downing from Judas Priest, and my friend and band leader from The Los Texamaniacs; Max Baca. Each of these artists have had an influence on my approach and technique for both live performances and in the studio. Basically I try to take a little from them and mix it with 90 percent of me.
Noise: What brought you to live and perform in Boston?
Willie: I moved to New England to be closer to my youngest child who is now 10.
Noise: It’s been said that you developed your “funky blues” guitar and vocal sound by mixing Texas blues and R&B, Tex-Mex, tejano/conjunto, Louisiana zydeco, and country. I’m from the North: can you briefly explain the differences between these genres? Help the novice Northern listener discern between these Southern sounds.
Willie: It’s all from down south, in particular three areas: Texas, Louisiana, and Mexico. The music created by natives from these three areas of North America has had enormous impact on everything we listen to in American music today. Texas Blues is more swingin’ than Mississippi Delta or Piedmont and a bit more edgy and riskier than Chicago style. Conjunto (con-who-n-to) is a music that was created by Mexican farm workers in South Texas. The area where I grew up is known as the birthplace of Conjunto. It has heavy influences drawn from the music of the German, Polish and Bohemian settlers in that region. The main instruments of Conjunto are accordion, and a twelve-string guitar called a Bajo Sexto. Then there’s influence of the zydeco from nearby Louisiana, the combination of French/Creole and Native American elements but also blues, funk and R&B are mixed in too. The primary instrument is the accordion being played with a lot of pentatonic minors, but the time signatures are a bit tricky. Country is country; however that fact is up for a huge debate at this point.
Noise: You’ve performed in the house band for The House of Blues in Las Vegas and New Orleans. How did these gigs help your career and how are the scenes down South and out in the Southwest differ from your audiences in New England or are they pretty much the same wherever you play?
Willie: I have been and I’m still involved with the House of Blues (HOB) now and for sometime with their Blues Schoolhouse program. I started working with, and performing at HOB in New Orleans. While I was there the opportunities to perform more frequently came to me at breakneck speed. I started opening more shows for top tier performers and started traveling to Europe to play. Performing at the HOB in New Orleans really boosted my confidence because of the encouragement I got from guys like Eddie Bo, Snooks Eaglin, Herman Earnest, Earl King, Coco Robicheaux and so many others. I moved to Las Vegas in 1998 as part of the opening team of the HOB at Mandalay Bay. As the house band my career path pretty much took a turn. I didn’t have to go on the road in the U.S. because in Vegas the “road” came to me.
I had lived out West before working in Texas, Taos, and San Diego. I prefer the South and the East coast. I LOVE the South because that’s home, the deep funk and the 21st century field hollers. It’s bone deep. The East Coast is the edge, the beginning of the country. The sun rises here first, that’s one of the reasons I like it in New England. The friends and fans I have here have been incredibly kind and willing to take little musical journeys with me, and my guys. Malcolm Stuckey my bassist has been with me since I relocated here and is a phenomenal musician. My drummer Osi Brathwaite is also great. I think what is making our sound unique is the mixing of our musical cultures, with each of us bringing different ingredients to the stew. Malcolm is more of a funk and jazz player and Osi brings HUGE Caribbean grooves. Mix all these elements up with that Texas sound and feel; and viola! We are primarily a trio but occasionally I have the opportunity to bring in keys and horns. When that happens I like to have Bruce Mattson, Ron Levy, Bruce Bears, Anthony Geraci, or Travis Colby manning the boards. On horns, Doug Woolverton or John Moriconi on trumpet, Eric Bridson on trombone, Scott Shetler, Amadee Castanell, or Doug James on sax. These are my East Coast guys.
Noise: You use a Fender guitar. What type of equipment do you use and why?
Willie: In regards to equipment there is a saying in Spanish that is “No es la flecha, que es el Indio. Pero una buena flecha del Indio deberia tener.” It translates to “It’s not the arrow, it’s the Indian. But a good arrow the Indian should have.” It’s all about the feel and the tone for me. I have been using Strats for most of my career but now I play my Tele mostly. I think mainly ’cause as my sound matures, so does my tone and feel.
Noise: While living in Texas, Louisiana, Nevada, and California you’ve opened for B.B., Etta James, Buddy Guy, Willie Nelson, Hall & Oates, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Care to share a story about your adventures?
Willie: Honestly, I don’t feel as if I know more than anybody else. The most interesting and inspiring moments were their mechanization of putting together a show. How night after night, show after show, these ladies and gentlemen got up on stage in front of people they didn’t know: how they opened up and exposed the true meaning of their existence; it is very inspiring as an artist witnessing another artist. In the interesting story department: Etta James used to hold my baby daughter while I opened her shows at HOB in Vegas. One night I put Ray Charles on the phone with my mom. She was a huge fan and knew him back in the ’50s in Houston. I’m related to Hubert and Ronnie Laws and Billy Preston.
Noise: Your last two CDs Cornbread Man and Running Out of Lies are killer. Do you have any plans for another release in the near future and what can new listeners expect to hear on these? What are your favorite songs on each CD and why?
Willie: Thank you, glad you like them. Off the Cornbread Man CD I am partial to “The Smuggler” ’cause of the truth in the lyrics written by my friend Terry Canales from Premont, Texas. My favorite from Running Out Of Lies would have to be my cover of “Angie” by Jagger and Richards. We re-arranged the time signature and I wrote horn parts (on my guitar) and then Al Gomez from San Antonio’s West Side Horns charted them. It took a few tries to get the mood and feel to sound convincing to me.
Noise: You’ve been described as Robert Cray meets B.B. King with a bit of Jimi present also. Is this a fair description of your playing?
Willie: Oh we DO need our little boxes, don’t we? [laughs] I have borrowed heavily from them as well as many others to form my own sound. It is difficult for me to describe my sound. South Texas heat and Southern mellow with a Northeastern bite. It is a combination of where I’m from, where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going.
Noise: What’s in the future for The Willie J. Laws Band?
Willie: The future is not a predictable thing but I hope to be able to continue the journey as an artist and grow a legion of fans around the world. I recently performed with Malcolm and Osi in a fairly remote part of Russia (Volagda Oblast). The band received a certificate of appreciation for being ambassadors of the arts from the U.S. Consulate General in St. Petersburg. I felt like: “Here I am in Russia and I’m not famous and there are more well-known artists than me who don’t get an invitation like this.” I would definitely like to do more work like that. On November 8 my band is playing at Chan’s in Woonsocket, RI, featuring Charles Neville on sax. I am really, really looking forward to playing with one of the Neville Brothers again.