Keller Williams talks Skull and Roses Fest, Grateful Dead, Phish, and performing with his heroes.

Published on March 4, 2020

Grateful Music’s Ron Adelberg interview with the wonderful Keller Williams. Enjoy!

GRATEFUL MUSIC: Tell me how you got introduced to the Grateful Dead and just take you on that path that led you to forming Grateful Grass and this upcoming performance at Skull and Roses.

KELLER WILLIAMS: Sure. Well, I guess my relationship with the Grateful Dead started in probably 1986 when I started hearing the first music by them. I think it was the Reckoning record, which was the live acoustic record, that really hooked me with the “Deep Ellum” and the “Dire Wolf” and the “Bird Song” and “Cassidy.” That record has really opened up my eyes to acoustic music and how it could be taken into different places.

That led to my first show in 1987, the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. That led to more shows, obviously, and led to working hard and making as much money as I can and then going out and doing 10 shows and coming home broke and starting over.

Like a lot of us, Grateful Dead music became a soundtrack to our lives and after Jerry died, actually before Jerry died, I started really putting what I had learned on Grateful Dead tour into my own tour, traveling thrifty and things of that nature. Putting those skills that I learned traveling with the Dead into doing my own gigs. As I’m doing my own gigs, in my early to late teens and early twenties, it was easy to play Grateful Dead songs. The places where I was playing, which was mostly restaurants and bars, not necessarily music venues or places where people would come to hear music. You just go there and there happened to be a guy playing and I was that guy.

Then I would play Grateful Dead songs. Then you’d get like a little contingency of people that were interested and then that kind of led to a little more of a community outside the parking lot. Skip ahead to 2006 where I was playing at the Fillmore in Denver. It’s a huge place and we were trying to do something creative to hopefully increase ticket sales. At the time, Keith Moseley was living around Boulder. He’s a bass player for String Cheese Incident. Of course the late great Jeff Austin was also living around there. They both were off on the day that I was playing. I sent them recordings of my arrangements and we rehearsed in the afternoon and did the set. We recorded the set and gave that set to the Rex foundation. I think that Rex Foundation set from the Fillmore went on to create a nice little profit for the Rex Foundation, which I’m very proud of.

That’s just how it started. Then it would just go into different festivals where I would look at the lineups and see if anyone in those festivals would want to get together for a set of Grateful Dead music. Skip ahead a couple of years and there’s like 20 people throughout the country that know the same 20 Dead songs in my arrangement. Then I could just pick and fly in different people from different places. And a lot of times each time the Grateful Grass set would go on, It’d be a completely different band from the last one.

Photo by Jason Charme Photography

Recently there’s been a couple of bands that I’ve actually got to join up with, so it’s not necessarily five pieces that’s never met before, which has happened before. But it’s like full bands taking me in like The Infamous Stringdusters. I’ve done probably about 10 Grateful Grass shows with them. And a fantastic band out of Charlottesville, Virginia named Love Cannon. I’ve done a bunch of shows with them as well.

Coming to Skull and Roses are my good friends, The Hillbenders of Missouri, and we’ve done a couple of Grateful Grass shows together. We really enjoyed it. But we did a whole year’s worth of Petty Grass together. We got to know each other really well and got to understand each other’s playing styles. And at the same time all the guys knew all those Dead songs too.

After a bunch of Tom Petty shows that we were doing, we just started sound checking Dead songs because we all knew them anyway. And I’m really excited to bring them to Skull and Roses. It’s a really cool event that’s seems to be very coveted by the Grateful Dead family. And I think, I think folks are going to dig it.

GRATEFUL MUSIC: What a wonderful journey it’s been for you.

Do you listen to any of Dead’s long form electric stuff? Do you have a favorite “Dark Star?” Do you sit there for 40 minutes and listen to Jerry surfing through the cosmos?

KELLER WILLIAMS: I love “Dark Star.” The Live Dead version. That’s always been my go-to. That’s just that first one I really got into and then it’s got that epic “St. Stephen” and the “The Eleven.” I’ll tell you what did it for me, I mean I love all the old ’72 through ’80 explorations on everything. But what really fascinated me was the introduction of Jerry’s MIDI. I want to say it was at the Warlock Show at Hampton Coliseum in the fall of ’89. They had announced that show a week earlier and you could only get tickets at the Coliseum or at the two other ticket establishments in the area.

I was going to school, at Virginia Wesleyan College, which is on the border of Norfolk and Virginia Beach. So we were getting wire transfers from folks of all over the place because you couldn’t get tickets anywhere else. I think Hampton holds like 13,000 or something. We were getting all kinds of wire transfers from folks who wanted us to go get tickets. It was a real big deal.

I think it was like the first set, maybe “Bird Song” that Jerry kind of unleashed the MIDI. All of a sudden there was this perfect flute that just cut through. I’ve just been fascinated with that ever since. And then you look at the whole Without a Net, which is the live record. I think that came out in 1990 and was covering the time period of ’89 – ’90. “Feel Like a Stranger” was really hot on that one.

That’s the stuff I really get into is finding interesting MIDI stuff that Jerry got into. For example, there’s a Mickey Hart record out called RAMU, R-A-M-U (Random Access Musical Universe), and there is a song on there called “Jerry” with actual samples of Jerry playing MIDI sounds. You can totally hear Jerry’s signature playing through these MIDI configurations. And that’s the kind of stuff that really got me.

But driving around, listening to Channel 23, you never know. Sometimes we never really know what song it is. It’s just some incredible jam until you hear kind of like a hint of what it’s coming out…Oh yeah, this is “Uncle John’s Band,” and going into that crazy seven part. This is “Playing in the Band.” If you cut into it right in the middle, you never really know what it is. And I always find that fascinating and I always stay with it and crank it and just kind of try to guess what it is on the coming out side.

I’ve been there too on stage playing this stuff before and gotten so deep into the jam that a lot of us forget what song we started with until someone gives us a little hint. “Oh yeah, that’s right. That’s what we’re doing.” I doubt the Dead were ever that far off where they forgot where they were. But I certainly have.

GRATEFUL MUSIC: Have you ever played with members of the Grateful Dead?

KELLER WILLIAMS: Yes, I had. I’ve done three or four shows with Phil and Friends. I’ve sat in with Bob, I sang with RatDog a few times.

I’ve done a couple tours with Bob Weir and we’ve probably played maybe 20 times together and like a three tour thing over the past 10 years. I was in a few weeks of the Rhythm Devils with Bill and Mickey on the West Coast. It was a very surreal experience on all fronts. Being able to sit and just hang out and talk with your heroes, much less actually be on stage with them. It’s very surreal.

It takes a couple of times to do it until you feel comfortable. The first time I played with Bobby I think it was 2001 at Red Rocks and I was on a tour with him and Rusted-Root… I don’t remember.

This was 2001. I don’t remember what tour this was, but we were going on different places. I had to pass them in the hallway and said, “Hey, I’d love to see you come sit in with me on my little solo set and we can do a duo thing.” And Bobby said, “Let’s not do it this one or the next. Let’s do it after the next one.” And I was like, “Okay, yeah.” And then that was Red Rocks. I was like, “Really?”

So, but the most surreal thing was… I mean being on stage with Bobby was really cool. But being in a production office backstage at Red Rocks with just me and him, no one else, two guitars, and singing harmonies with him. That was truly unbelievable.

Sharing a bus with Bill and Mickey for two weeks was truly an experience for sure. I got to absorb so many stories that I definitely inquired about the subtext of characters in their stories. I definitely took full advantage of my fandom by diving into their stories hearing they can remember.

GRATEFUL MUSIC: Thank you for all the insights into what would be a dream come true for so many of us.

Our readership includes plenty of Phish people that are also Deadheads. I’m curious to see if you’ve had any interactions with those guys?

KELLER WILLIAMS: Yeah, I’ve got to meet them all. I’ve played a couple times with Mike Gordon and once with Jon Fishman. I got to meet Trey after the 10,000 Lakes Festival in this tiny airport and we had a great conversation.

There’s tons and tons of folks that knew about the Dead but yet are oblivious to it and just on the Phish side. Then there was a lot of us that kind of like grew into it. I want to say it was ’92 or ’93 after pushing my car into Grateful Dead lots in the summertime because it was overheating. When your car is overheating you got to turn on the heat to get the heat off the engine. So here I am in Three Rivers Stadium or something, pushing my car off the interstate into the parking lot. Then a couple nights later, I’ll go to a Phish show and I can just drive right in. It was all open, playing coliseums that were half-full. It was special. It was a good time.

I think what they’ve done to kind of preserve that feeling of celebration through music is amazing. Jerry was a big influence on Trey. Then Trey told me he was afraid that Jerry was becoming too much of an influence on him. Then definitely tried not to sound like him. Trey was very cognizant of that and I found that really interesting.

I think the first Phish show for me was probably during the Picture of Nectar tour and it’s like maybe 1990-1991. I saw them at this large bar. I remember they had like these giant painted pieces of glass that were hanging up and it was just unbelievable. Just the sheer energy and the jams and the comedy. It was a really a special thing. I continued to see them. Of course when Jerry died in ’95, like many, I needed to fulfill a void. I definitely did a big stint of Phish shows. I think it was from San Diego to Seattle in the summer of ’96 and that was really fun and really needed. There was a lot of folks out there for the same reasons.

I can’t help but think that a lot of the Phish career they learned through the successes and mistakes of the Grateful Dead. What to do, what not to do. I think that the Grateful Dead influenced so many people in so many ways. Not just music and lyrics, but also business and production and things like that. They had taken a long time to dial it in. A lot of people learned through the trial and errors of the Grateful Dead how to put on an amazing stadium show to say the least.

GRATEFUL MUSIC: You are a very productive guy. This is a world filled with a million distractions at all times. How are you able to focus on the music and be so productive and creative year in and year out?

KELLER WILLIAMS: Well, one way is that I don’t watch the news. I live in a little bubble. I don’t watch the news, but I know what’s going on because my wife is up on the current events and everything else. But I think that helps us not diving too deep into the world issues. I have my wife and she knows best with these things, but I am able to really focus on trying to create something to where people can block out the outside world for two and a half hours or however long they give me on the stage. All that stuff is going to be there before and after the show. But during that time that I have them, I kind of want him to forget about that and to go into a different area with me.

Now the question is how to be creative. I think it’s just mainly… I’m gone usually every week, Thursday morning to Sunday afternoon. Monday is very kind of a decompression and relaxing. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are usually where the creativity flows. Sometimes I’m looking at the weekend and what kind of projects I’m doing on the weekends, so other times it’s just mindlessly doodling and then all of a sudden something comes up. Some kind of riff or something comes up or there’s a piece of conversation or something I put together with lyrics or with words that I can slop around and turn into a chorus. That usually happens on Tuesdays or Wednesdays and so I don’t really have an explanation of it other than that.

GRATEFUL MUSIC: Alight, well thank you so much. It was real pleasure talking with you. Safe travels.

KELLAR WILLIAMS: You too. Have a great rest of the day. Bye now.

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