Folks in bluegrass know Jr. Williams well, as a singer, banjo and guitar player, and a good ol’ boy from eastern Kentucky. He made a name for himself as a member of NewFound Road, with his own group, NewTown, and now as a solo artist with an album due this spring on Mountain Fever Records. These days he performs with the Tim Shelton Syndicate, who have a new record on the way as well.
They also know him well in his hometown of Irvine, KY – population roughly 2,800 – located in Estill County, about 50 miles southeast of Lexington, where Williams is running for Mayor. A primary election is coming up in May, and Jr. says that he is quite genuine about trying to win this election.
“I’m very serious about this. I want this job, and to be able to help facilitate services where they are needed.
My dad always told me, ‘if you think you can do something better, do it yourself.’ So I figured, why don’t I. So I’ve jumped in the race with both feet.”
Jr. tells us that his desire to serve his community goes back a long time, and shared a funny story about the last time this urge came to the surface in 2005.
“Back when I was in Newfound Road, Tom Williams was our Mayor. He was a friend of mine, and asked me if I might be interested in running. He wanted to step down, and explained to me what all was involved. I was planning to do it until Tom’s son, Kevin, decided to run so I stepped away. Another friend then suggested that I run for state representative, so I talked to the party people in Frankfort.
The next day I came home from taking the kids to school, and I find a message from the Republican National Committee asking me to think about running for the US Senate.
After listening to the message in disbelief, I noticed the light on the answering machine still blinking, and I realized I must have missed another message. It was from a guy in the White House who also wanted me to run for Senate.”
Scratching his head, Williams dialed the number that was in the message.
“It was unreal. When I finished dialing, I heard the operator say, ‘White House,’ and I almost didn’t know what to say. I asked for the guy who had called and they put me straight through.
He told me, ‘We want you to run because you’re just an average guy. You’re not a doctor or a lawyer, and you would have the full weight of the White House behind you.’
I’m thinking, this is getting out of hand… I told him that I had just wanted to run for Mayor, and this is just too overwhelming. I’m just a guy from East Kentucky who plays music. He said that he understood completely.
When I started thinking about it, I was getting visions of Mr Smith Goes to Washington. I was absolutely blown away.”
Irvine is very close to Jr.’s heart. It’s a small town at the center of Estill County, where a lot of people work at the Carhartt facility or at the regional hospital. The Kentucky River forms one of the city’s boundaries, and it has existed since 1812, named for an early settler, Col William Irvine. The city was officially incorporated in 1849.
Williams said he has watched some things around town go down a bit with the change away from coal, and wants to do what he can to help.
“Some of my friends started pushing me to run for Mayor. I talked to some local business owners who also urged me to run. I just decided that the city has fallen away, the downtown doesn’t have much activity. So I’m thinking what can I do… how can I help?
I want to start having town meetings again, meetings with residents and business people. Let’s talk about downtown beautification. We have the Mountain Mushroom festival every April. It’s finally on again after two years of COVID. What do we need to help it grow bigger? How do we enhance the community?
Irvine used to be a booming railroad town, processing coal for power plants. In the ’60s, part of a movie was shot here, The Film Flam Man. There is a scene where George C. Scott drives out of an A&P parking lot and across the bridge. Everyone in town knows where that is.
Irvine has come back to some degree, but it can do better. We need to find a way to keep young people from having to move away to find work.
People here know me from playing with Gospel group, The Bishops. Several of the Bishop family live here, and I have gotten to know a lot of people in Irvine. This is something I’ve waned to do for a long time. I figure, if you think you have something to offer your community, do it. If you think you can help, do it. Be of help to your neighbor.”
With a population under 3,000, there isn’t much spectacle running for what is essentially a part time job. There won’t be any fancy TV commercials or campaign headquarters. Jr says that he will start visiting door-to-door this weekend, talking to his neighbors and explaining his vision for the city.
“I like my little town, I like my community. Our school sports teams do well, and I want to find ways to have the community show some appreciation for them.
I’m proud of where I live, and I want to show people.”
And that just may be enough. Best of luck to Jr. Williams in his campaign!