Like any American kid, singer-guitarist Keller Williams got a heavy dose of Tom Petty while growing up. But Williams, who brings his new Tom Petty-inspired project titled Keller Williams’ PettyGrass to the Kent Stage
at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 19, never actually owned a Petty album.
“I personally never had any Petty records,” says Williams via phone from his Fredericksburg, VA home where he was doing some manual labor on a mild January day. “I just learned them from the radio. When it came time to get serious about it, I would look up the lyrics and put it together. I guess it was the sing along element factor that is so high with all his songs. They’re simple but deep and always very relatable. Translating that into what we’re doing, there’s nothing like a whole room of people singing the same song at the same time. It’s really quite joyous.”
Williams' PettyGrass actually began in 2015 when he put together a set of Petty covers for his annual hometown Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals benefit. While rehearsing, he recorded the demos as voice memos on his phone, so he’d have something to reference later.
“I do a benefit the day after Christmas ever year in my hometown,” Keller explains. “I think I’ve done about 16 now. Before we were doing benefits for other people, the day after Christmas show was always benefiting my phone bill or my rent. But for about 17 years, we’ve been giving it to the SPCA. Each year, I try to bring something different.”
In 2015, he recruited a few of musical friends from Fredericksburg to play 15 Petty songs as bluegrass numbers.
“That originated from being in the studio with my engineer, Jeff Covert, and being on a piss break or a food break, and we’d just start singing these Petty songs,” says Keller. “[Covert] started harmonizing and picked up a guitar and would play it exactly like it was played on the original. That was just us messing around. It came time to do something to do for the benefit, and we put that together.”
After Petty died last year, Williams and Covert enhanced the recordings and posted them as a tribute to Petty. They received a positive response from musicians and fans alike.
“After [Petty] died, I was in the same studio with the same engineer, and I was working on my record that came out in October,” says Williams. “We couldn’t concentrate, so we took the old voice demos and ran them through the computer and mastered them and released them on Soundcloud.”
The Hillbenders, a bluegrass band out of Missouri that Williams knew from the festival circuit, heard the tracks and talked Williams into collaborating in a more formal manner.
“They’re very energetic and open-minded,” Williams says of the Hillbenders. “They don’t stand still when they play, and I like that. I like roamers. This is a string band that roams. We all have the same mentality, and we all like to have a good time.”
Last year, while rehearsing at an Air BNB outside of D.C., Williams and the Hillbenders worked out a bluegrass rendition of “Woman in Love” and then assembled a full set of about a dozen tunes.
Keller Williams’ PettyGrass played its first public show at the Candler Park Festival in Atlanta in June this past year.
“It was great,” says Williams when asked about the gig. “It was a very loose yet super fun gig. That was our first time playing together. We had a great time. It was a great beginning, and it could only get better at that point, which it really has. We’re at about 20 song now. If we have a whole night to play, we can do two sets. If it’s a festival set or a theater that just wants one set, we can pick our favorites and get it down to 75 or 90 minutes. We always feel like we’re leaving stuff out when we can only do one set.”
On its version of “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” a staple in the live set, the band adds some standup bass to the tune and turns up the twang.
“It’s written by Tom Petty and made famous by Stevie Nicks,” says Williams. “It’s one of those songs like so many of them that people just start stinging along without realizing that they know it. Every song ever written, believe it or not, can be a bluegrass song. Some absolutely should not, but they could. It just depends on how you put it together.”
While the band adds a vigorous jam to the end of “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” Williams says the group doesn’t always add a jam to the tunes.
“We play ‘Wildflowers’ pretty straight, and ‘You’re So Bad’ only has a couple of solos in it,” he says. “There’s a lot of songs that lend themselves to jams. Petty jammed them out in concert too. We take a few liberties. The only other liberties we take other than extending the songs is that we add harmonies. There’s not that many harmonies on the original songs, but we enhance them with vocal harmonies, and that makes me happy.”
Williams says he has a new album that’s in the can and essentially just needs to be mixed and edited. In 2017, he released two albums, SYNC
, and last year, he released SANS
, an album that features eight previously released acoustic tracks that have been enhanced with more acoustic bass and drum samples.
He admits that between his successful solo career and the PettyGrass project, things have been going well.
“I’m lucky to be allowed to do this,” he says. “I say this because without people buying tickets or promoters booking me, I wouldn’t be able to. I really feel like I’m getting away with something at every show.”
Keller Williams' PettyGrass Featuring the Hillbenders, 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19, the Kent Stage, 175 East Main St., Kent, 330-677-5005. Tickets: $30 ADV, $35 DOS, thekentstage.com