Free Willy Band, or how I went from railcars to bluegrass

Bill Jones doesn’t fit the profile of a bluegrass entertainer. The singer/songwriter living now in Crockett, TX works by day as a railcar repair facility plant manager, and he rediscovered the allure of the bluegrass way through the jamming scene at a local club.

Now he has released a debut album of his material with a group called The Free Willy Band, and is looking to use the business experience he’s developed over the years to start a second career in bluegrass. Jones has never really been far from the music, and his story should be a familiar one to a great many front porch songwriters and parking lot pickers.

Bill Jones performs at Camp Street Cafe

As a teen living in eastern Virginia, Bill found himself working alongside noted luthier Bill Colgan at Isle of Wight Music. There he watched one of the state’s premier guitar repairmen working of old Martins, and picked up an appreciation for quality workmanship. The shop was also a haven for bluegrass pickers, and a life long love for the music was born. Songs started to bubble up at that time as well, and he began to write them down and play them with friends.

He says that moving around the country for his work, it was tough to set down roots in any one place, but fate happened to place him in proximity with others who liked to pick.

“I played in a Christian rock band back in 1960s and ‘70s, performing in churches and coffeehouses. But when I got married and had a baby, I kind of put the music away for a while. When we moved to Floyd, VA I starting jamming with friends, and then when we moved to Georgia my pastor was a big bluegrass guy, who went to IBMA all the time. Once a month we would get together and convert a hymn into a bluegrass song. He and I would play whenever we could for the three years I was there.

When we were in Iowa, I also found a guy to jam with whenever we could. This is when I started writing songs again.”

Bill has been saving up songs for the past ten years or so, but he says the notion of recording them to present to the wider bluegrass market didn’t really hit him until recently.

“There’s a place near here called Camp Street Cafe, an old juke joint, that was a big blues venue back in the day. A guy from New York who is now a rancher inherited the building, and has kept it alive as a music venue.

I had been going to a lot of shows to support their efforts, and one day I went backstage and saw a roots, bluegrass jam going on. I figured that I wanted to see how my own songs could fit into that sound. I call it the Free Willy sound.

I was always interested in recording one day, but that one night at Camp Street was what made me realize that now was the time.”

A knack for manufacturing efficiency has made him an in-demand turnaround guy, being moved from place to place to assist low-performing operations raise their productivity. He says the concept is simple, and it works in music just as well.

“In business I learned the importance of delegating – finding good people and letting them do what they do. It’s the same thing in music; find good musicians and let them make me sound better.”

So he assembled a band, went into the studio, and the result is Remember The Alamo, a mix of bluegrass, traditional country, and Gospel music with Bill’s somewhat gritty and distinctive voice out front. It’s been a labor of love, but he says he’s getting results in spades.

“I probably give away more CDs than I sell, which is fine because I make music to bring joy to people. I spent a lot of money doing this, not to so much try to make money myself, but just to get it out there. I’m 55 now, and you can’t live forever, so I figured I had better get at it.

It was so much fun that I’m getting ready to start another. I’m an old man, but I’m an absolute rookie in the music business.”

Realistic expectations and a willingness to work hard have started to make his music dreams come true, and he encourages others to give it a shot if they feel called to do so.

“I figure I’ll work another 10 years, and then retire and go out on the road. I should have 10 albums by then!”

You can hear samples from Remember The Alamo at CD Baby, or on the Free Willy Band web site.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.