Webb Wilder’s new album More Like Me is his fourth since 1995. One song on the musically diverse record is a reinterpretation of Roky Erickson’s “Don’t Slander Me.” (David McClister/Blind Pig Records)
by Rush Evans
Webb Wilder is a man on a rock-and-roll mission, and he’s making up for lost time at Beatneck speed.
Between 1986 and 1996, Wilder released five records’ worth of tight and muscular rock and roll, supporting them on the road with the band he fittingly dubbed The Beatnecks, a unit he described as “a rockin’, sockin’, twangin’ band comprised of two guitars, bass and drums, as it was in Liverpool and ever shall be.”
The frontman was a bespectacled country music-loving rock and roller, a Hank Williams-inspired Beatlemaniac, a zealot for the ragged and righteous beat that had mostly originated in his own Southern U.S.A., a sound that had only first gone global around the time of his birth in the early 1950s.
After ’96, Wilder was still making music with electrifying performances in clubs and bars just as he’d always done, but there were no new recordings after he moved to the country, got some horses and had, as he puts it, “a different slant on things. That was something I really had to get out of my system, because I was a Roy Rogers fan before I was a Beatles fan.”
Roy Rogers and The Beatles had both inspired the charismatic performer behind the deep voice and the wryly witty songs, a character he has cultivated for a quarter century. But he had to embrace his inner Roy and Trigger before reigniting the Webb Wilder experience in the studio.
“It’s all gone; it’s out of my system,” he laughs. “And divorce took care of my horses and my house and everything else. And there’s an upside to that, because it just threw me back into the heart of Nashville and hanging out with my musician buddies, and I know what it is I wanna do. This is what I wanna do.”
So after a nine-year recording hiatus, Webb Wilder got busy again, and 2009’s More Like Me is his fourth release since 2005. The name fits, as this time around he turns in his most personal record to date.
“I’ve never done an album where I wrote five songs by myself and put them on the record,” Wilder says. “Boom, did it. That felt good, and the people that have heard it really have dug it, it seems to be resonating with them. It kind of felt like a first solo album, but it kind of felt like a band thing, too, because they’re all on it.”
Among the originals are “Too Cool for Love” and “She’s Not Romantic,” both filled with the same spirit, irony and humor as many songs from earlier works written by creative partner, R.S. Fields, who is still a compadre but also is now a producer for every other kind of artist as well, such as country vocalist Allison Moorer and folk rocker Steve Forbert. Both songs are of a slower tempo than most from the Wilder canon, but never fear. Positioned between them is an inspired take on psychedelic rocker Roky Erickson’s fiery “Don’t Slander Me.”
“I dig his thing and dig the freedom of it,” says Wilder of Erickson. “I heard the 45 vinyl record of ‘Don’t Slander Me’ years ago and loved it.”
Roky’s high-pitched screaming vocal style might have rendered the song unfit for a deep baritone, but Webb let himself off the hook by not trying to sound anything like Roky, and his own take is just as bone-chilling as the original. After getting a copy of More Like Me (sporting a cross-eyed skull on the cover) to the horror-obsessed Erickson, Wilder was anxious to hear what the song’s composer thought of this new interpretation. After asking Roky’s manager what Roky had to say about the track, Webb was told, “I don’t know, but he sure has looked at the cover a lot.”
Such musical diversity is really the point of this particular Wilder release, his most eclectic song set to date, dabbling in rockabilly, country, blues, jangly rock, pop balladry and the aforementioned psychedelic groove. And that’s what makes it all rock and roll.
“By the time I started trying to ply my trade in music, people expected you to have a thing that they could market, and I’ve never wanted to sign that contract,” says Wilder. “I reserve the right do this, to do whatever I wanna do, put a blues song on a non-blues record or do ballads or do rock and roll. To me, rock and roll is all that, too.”
Taking the songs to the people keeps Wilder and his Beatnecks busy still, with frequent performances in Wilder’s own home of Nashville, his native Mississippi, and the rest of the South, groovin’ up and down the road where the songs come alive — as it was and ever shall be. “We can be pretty dynamic in our set now; we can grab you by the throat or we can stroke your hair,” adds Wilder.
“I want to be more like me,” is how the funky title track starts out, and Wilder sounds more like himself than he ever has, proving once and for all that the duded-up musical enigma with the fun and funny songs never was a novelty act. He is as serious and introspective as anybody emulating early freewheelin’ Dylan and as interested in rocking as Bob was when he pulled out an electric at Royal Albert Hall.
And such introspection leads to philosophical observations about what it means to be an artist — one that rocks.
“Someone said an artist should never arrive, that they should always be ‘going to,’ and that’s why you have to change along the way at these stops. I wanna be going to somewhere, you know?” says Wilder. “I feel real good about having done what we did on this record. And I won’t stop ’til world domination is complete.”