When Jason D. Williams recorded Hillbillies and Holy Rollers as a nod to some of his musical heroes, he didn’t merely pay homage to their spirits — he communed directly with several, recording in the very same studio where hillbilly and holy-roller music first metamorphosed into devilish rock ’ n’ roll.
He couldn’t have picked a more cosmically suitable spot than Memphis’ iconic Sun Studio to create this album, to be released June 10, 2014, on Rockabilly Records via MRI/RED. Not only does he live just a stone’s throw or two away, both Williams and his mentor, rockabilly guitarist Sleepy LaBeef, were on the Sun Records label earlier in their careers. Of course, he also bears a strong musical kinship to the alchemists of that metamorphosis — guys like Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis — who made so much history in that space. One of the most famous images in rock, the press shot that immortalized those four as the Million Dollar Quartet, hung over Williams’ shoulder as he pounded the piano during his own album sessions.
Williams actually shares more than musical kinship with one member of that quartet — he also, apparently, shares DNA. He is likely the biological son of Jerry Lee Lewis, a fact Lewis has acknowledged publicly, though anyone who’s heard or witnessed Rockin’ Jason D. Williams kill a keyboard (figuratively, for the most part) never had a doubt. Even Todd Snider, who produced Williams’ last album, Killer Instincts, says people in Memphis never tolerated disbelievers.
Raised in Arkansas by his adoptive parents, a pair of Baptist missionaries (his dad, coincidentally, was named Hank), Williams first hit the piano keys when he was 3. It didn’t take him long to fall under the spell of rock ’n’ roll, or characters like the Killer. As Williams’ turned his talent into his career, he recognized that the resemblance — musically and physically — was likely more than coincidental, a fact Lewis eventually confirmed.
“We’re very comfortable with being around each other at this point. It’s a really great relationship,” Williams says. “It was actually Jerry who sought me out here in Memphis when I was about 14 years old.” Williams had done a few performances there while traveling with his parents. Not too many years later, he wound up getting hired by rockabilly ace Sleepy LaBeef, who was also impressed by the young player’s prowess. During an Atlanta show Williams played in his early 20s, Lewis showed up again, this time with his cousin Rusty Brown (brother of Lewis’ very young third wife, Myra Gayle).
“He hid in the back of the crowd and watched for some time,” Williams reports. “His comment to Rusty back then was that he had heard I was his natural son and he had no question after that.” In 1982, Williams was traveling through Memphis during a snowstorm and got stuck in front of the historic Peabody Hotel. He went inside, wound up entertaining the stranded guests, and landed a permanent gig. By then, he and Lewis had formed a bond that continues to this day. Williams even handled the keyboard work for Dennis Quaid in the 1989 Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire!
Though Williams attacks the 88s with a fervor every bit as strong as the Killer’s at his peak, he’s definitely his own wild man, as one can hear in the 11 tracks of Hillbillies and Holy Rollers. The album, produced by fellow rockabilly hell-raiser Dale Watson, shakes its way through honky-tonk, boogie-woogie, jazz, R&B and a whole lotta other styles. Along the way, songs like “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” are reinvented and reinvigorated. Williams turns the former into a stride piano tune and invokes both Jolson and Joplin in his ragtime/jazz-singer version of the latter, complete with scatting.
He squeezes a little yodeling into “Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor” and makes his boogie-woogie fingers fly on Joe Ely’s “Fingernails.” And in this Williams’ hands, the famous Hank Williams’ “You Win Again” becomes an ivory-tickling ballad with lush strings and wonderful vocals by duet partner Sarah Gayle Meech.
Our hillbilly/holy-rollin’ Williams repeatedly invokes those quartet members, name-checking Elvis and Cash in a jazzy “The House of Blue Lights” and the title track, a manifesto of sorts inspired by a drive through Arkansas with his wife and co-written with Watson. But Williams gets truly clever on “This Is Rock & Roll,” written with his bassist, Mike Harber. Musically referencing everyone from Jerry Lee and Fats Domino to Debussy, he sings “Well, I heard it on the radio when I was growin’ up/‘Whole Lotta Shakin’’ and ‘All Shook Up,’” and later throws in an “I like it, like it, like it” reference to the Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll.”
But of course, all that Saturday-night carrying on demands a little Sunday-morning reflection, and we get it in “Old Time Religion” and the tent-revival, “pew-jumper” gospel of the final cut, “I’ll Fly Away.”
It’s an inspired collection — enhanced, he says, by the energy still present within that legendary recording space, where Williams had worked on Watson’s album before his own. Hillbillies and Holy Rollers also is a rather rare collection; Williams spends so much time performing (averaging 160-200 shows a year; he’s also a dad, a runner and a dedicated bird-watcher), he’s recorded just a handful of albums during his career.
He’s hoping to do another soon, with Jerry Lee. He’d like to do some performing together as well. They’ve shared stages a few times in the past, but he’s ready for more. “I think it’d be really fun. The energy would be unbelievable,” Williams says. But he notes the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is still as unpredictable as ever: “He’s a nut, but he’s earned the right to be a nut.”
Maybe the Killer didn’t pass on all of his famous traits; Williams says his only reputation issues have to do with his alleged mistreatment of pianos. He does admit, however, that he thrives on spontaneity; he loves his music “raw and real.” “I don’t rehearse,” he allows. “Never have. I don’t use a set list. Never have. I feel the energy from the crowd and they from me. The more they give, the more I get. The more I give, the more they get. It’s a real relationship. Old-school.”
To anyone who’s ever loved the music of hillbillies and holy rollers, that’s gotta be worth a million dollars.