Sooner or later, just about everyone who hears Paul Williams sing wants to know the secret behind that clear-as-a-bell and oh-so-sweet high tenor. So here it is:
Potato chips. Just two or three before he goes on stage and he’s ready to go, he told two dozen folks at a vocal workshop over the weekend at FiddleFest in Roanoke. It’s the salt, which helps the saliva flow, which lubricates the vocal cords.
So now that every bluegrass singer in America is going to add potato chips to his or her diet, let me say a bit more about Paul Williams. It’s hard to believe anyone can sound as good after nearly 60 years of touring as Paul did at Roanoke, where some lucky folks got to hear him on eight occasions over the two-day event. There were two hour-long outdoor shows with temperatures topping 90 degrees, two shorter indoor shows, two vocal workshops and two extended jams in a Hollins University dorm with other artists. (In fact, I think it’s fair to say no other artist worked harder than Paul at FiddleFest, except maybe Mike Conner, who played four sets, taught two bass workshops, played in one of the jams AND organized the festival.)
To me the most amazing thing isn’t that Paul’s voice sounds so good after all those years of traveling with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers and being one of Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys (and Jimmy’s brother-in-law, as well) before his storied career in bluegrass gospel. It’s that he has done it so well for so long while suffering with chronic bronchitis.
Much of the material Paul and his band played in Roanoke is from his new release, Satisfied, on the Rebel Records label. Backed by Dan Moneyhun and Adam Winstead on vocals, Paul uses the album and his frequent personal appearances to continue what he sees as a musical ministry. He makes no bones about the fact that he is spreading the word of God, no matter the setting. “I don’t live in a pretense world,” he said. “I am what I am, wherever I’m at.”
The new project is vintage Paul Williams – a strong title cut, several songs with just the three voices and varied, nuanced melodies that keep every song sounding fresh despite the single topic.
After seeing how hard he worked at an age where he couldn’t be faulted for slowing down, I appreciate Paul even more than before. If Jimmy Martin was, as they say, the Super King of Bluegrass, then I suggest it’s fair to call Paul Williams the Crown Prince of Bluegrass Gospel.
Photos in this post are courtesy of Jenny Slaughter. You can see more of her images from FiddleFest on Facebook.