Jerry Williams’ (a.k.a. Swamp Dogg) first love was country music, which he heard as a Navy family kid growing up in Portsmouth, Virginia. “My granddaddy, he just bought country records out the asshole,” Swamp remembers. “Every Friday when he came home from the Navy yard he’d stop off and get his records like ‘Mule Train’ by Frankie Laine, or ‘Riders in the Sky’ by Vaughn Monroe.” His first time performing on stage, in fact, was when at the age of six he sang a country song at a talent show: “I did Red Foley’s version of ‘Peace in the Valley.’”
While the 77-year-old Williams’ most enduring persona is the psychedelic soul superhero Swamp Dogg — a musical vigilante upholding truths both personal and political since 1970’s immortal album Total Destruction to Your Mind — he will tell you that he’s considered himself country this entire time. “If you notice I use a lot of horns,” Swamp says. “But actually, if you listen to my records before I start stacking shit on it, I’m country. I sound country.”
His latest release, Sorry You Couldn’t Make It, turned out to be Swamp Dogg’s most critically acclaimed effort to date. NPR Music noted that the album finds Swamp “still in great, soulful voice.” American Songwriter said, “Swamp Dogg and Jerry Williams live inside the same brain, sometimes getting along and sometimes fighting. Out of their unusual relationship have come some of the strangest, most compelling records of the past half century.” Pitchfork observed, “Williams has long been celebrated as a cult figure, sharing his generous appetite for experimentation only among those curious enough to tune in for themselves. Half a century later, he remains a broad-minded explorer whose genre-free approach to his craft reveals fresh curiosities.”
Vice summed it up: “Sorry You Couldn’t Make It is a return to his roots. The production is simple and unvarnished; his voice, croaky and textured with old age, is laid bare; his songwriting is endearingly uncomplicated. Sorry You Couldn’t Make It is the sound of an old master letting go of the idea of making music that might chart, and instead making what comes to him naturally.”
“The album has received more press than any album I ever had,” Swamp says. “The one before it wasn’t far behind, but it wasn’t crazy like this!”
Swamp began his professional singing career as Little Jerry Williams back in the ’50s before working as an A&R man for Atlantic Records in the late ’60s. His biggest hit is actually a country song: 1970’s “Don’t Take Her (She’s All I Got).” Written with his best friend Gary U.S. Bonds, the track is country in that woeful, underdog-baring-their-soul sort of way that for some reason only country songs really ever allow themselves to be. Freddie North covered it first and made it a Top 40 pop song, but Johnny Paycheck took it all the way to #2 on the country charts in 1971.
Following 2018’s critically acclaimed, Ryan Olson-produced Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune — his first LP to debut on 11 Billboard charts (including at #7 on Heatseekers) and his first chart ink since his 1970 song “Mama’s Baby – Daddy’s Maybe” — Sorry You Couldn’t Make It, released on March 6, allows Swamp to finally dive into the sound he grew up playing. With the support of Pioneer Works Press, the album was recorded at Nashville’s Sound Emporium with Olson as producer once again, with backing by a crack studio band led by Derick Lee, a keyboard virtuoso who worked as the musical director of BET’s Bobby Jones Gospel Show for nearly four decades. Nashville guitar firebrand Jim Oblon combusts his way through lead duties, while frequent collaborator Moogstar and special guests Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), John Prine, Jenny Lewis, Channy Leaneagh and Chris Beirden of Poliça, and Sam Amidon join the action throughout.
A band of 14 players, including Vernon, Lee, Beirden, and Moogstar, among others, provides the background for Swamp’s devastating new take on “Don’t Take Her (She’s All I Got).” Lead single “Sleeping Without You Is a Dragg” is one of Swamp’s most heartfelt songs to date and features Vernon on piano as well as backing vocals by Lewis and Leaneagh.
He duets with the late country-folk legend Prine on two songs: the indelible, psychedelic ballad “Memories” and the reflective “Please Let Me Go Round Again.” The latter, originally written and demoed when Swamp was in his 40s, is a plea for one more chance at life, sung with acute emotional connection.
“I always thought of John as a great person … low-key, which is the way that I am except for the sh-t I say in my music,” says Swamp, speaking after Prine’s April 2020 passing.
“John and I were supposed to go to his house in Ireland and write more songs, and I was set to tour England around that time,” he says, lamenting the thwarted touring plans of all musicians due to the coronavirus crisis that took his friend’s life. “I miss the hell out of him and will always put at least one of his songs on every album I record from now on. After all, when people used to ask me if I’d written ‘Sam Stone’ (the Prine composition he’d famously covered), I always told them no. If they asked me who wrote it I always said John Prine.”
The new album is full of narratives about love, of missing the one you love, of compassion, family and friends, and even the kind of love that transcends death. “I was looking for a new way for Swamp Dogg to go,” he explains. “Apart from me singing and writing most of the songs, I didn’t participate — in other words, I told ’em, ‘Don’t ask me, I wanna see what happens without my influence.’ It was hard for me to do, ego-wise.”
Sorry You Couldn’t Make It sees Swamp come full circle, and closes what has felt to him like unfinished business. “They didn’t have any blacks in country until Charley Pride came along,” he says. “But in time, all things change and that’s what has happened to country music.”