Roger Williams receives BBU Heritage Award

Roger Williams with his award – photo © David Hollender/Roger performing on stage – photo by David Malloy

Most, if not all, bluegrass music associations reward those who have excelled in their field.

Almost two weeks ago, the Boston Bluegrass Union (BBU), which has been supporting bluegrass in New England since 1976, recognised the many and varied contributions to bluegrass music in the area made by veteran resophonic guitar player Roger Williams. Williams is the latest recipient of the BBU Heritage Award; it is “long overdue,” in the words of band-mate Eric Levenson, who presented Williams with the 2018 award. 

In presenting the award, Levenson said that …

“Roger has been a New England treasure for decades, having played, since he first took the stage in 1963, with the Lilly Brothers, Don Stover, White Mountain Bluegrass, Southern Rail, and the New England Bluegrass Band, in addition to the last twelve years with Amy Gallatin and Stillwaters.”

Prior to that Levenson shared these observations with Bluegrass Today … 

“The BBU website states that awards are presented each year to honor those who have made substantial contributions to furthering bluegrass in New England. Roger Williams has certainly done that – for over 50 years!  

When I was introduced to bluegrass in 1970, I regularly saw Roger play with Don Stover, and subsequently had occasion to play occasional live concerts with him and to work on several recording projects. Working and traveling with him the past ten years as members of Amy Gallatin and Stillwaters has been a high point of my musical career. Roger is a fine singer, a great musician, and one of the kindest and humblest people I have met.”

Roger Williams admitted to being humbled when he was informed of the award …. 

“When I got the call from Stan Zdonik of the Boston Bluegrass Union, informing me that I was to be awarded the organization’s Heritage Award, I was gratified and humbled by this wonderful gesture. I’ve been performing with various New England-based groups since first sitting in as a teen with the Lilly Brothers and Don Stover at the Hillbilly Ranch in Boston back in 1963, and later touring with Don and subsequently with Mac and Hazel McGee of the esteemed White Mountain Bluegrass band over a period of more than thirty years.

As someone who has been a participant in the New England bluegrass scene for the past 43 years, it has sometimes felt like we north-eastern bluegrassers are toiling in obscurity, so it’s nice to know that somebody is listening!

I continue to be active in the New England music scene and am currently performing with Amy Gallatin & Stillwaters as well as our new group The Hot Flashes and in annual Christmas shows at various New England locations.”

Roger Williams with his 2018 BBU Heritage Award - photo © David Hollender

While in his early teens Williams, a New Englander by birth, followed his father’s footsteps in electing to play the Dobro®, or resophonic guitar. His father, Curly Williams, a well-known pedal steel/resophonic guitar player with an 18-year tenure at the famous Hillbilly Ranch in Boston, gave Williams some playing tips, and Williams’s mother, Gerri Lee, a well-known country singer in her day, also passed along a passion for music; teaching him when he was a youngster to sing the harmony parts.  

By the age of 16 he was sitting in with The Lilly Brothers and Don Stover at the world-famous Hillbilly Ranch in Boston, Massachusetts. 

Since then Williams has gone on to perform and/or record with many well-respected bluegrass and folk acts, all either of national or international renown. These include Don Stover & The White Oak Mountain Boys, White Mountain Bluegrass, Hazel Dickens, Joe Val, Bill Harrell, Delia Bell & Bill Grant, Southern Rail, Ray Legere (with Mark Schatz and Wyatt Rice), Mac Wiseman, The New England Bluegrass Band, Salamander Crossing, Slavek Hanzlik, Mark Erelli and Hiro Arita. 

Williams has played on 13 overseas tours with various artists, including those with Amy Gallatin & Stillwaters, of which he is an important part currently. 

He has presented the Dobro® Mid-Course Development (intermediate) classes for the BBU, taught at the workshops during Bluegrass Week at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia, and at the DobroFest in Trnava, Slovakia.

Williams has three solo albums, A Resophonic Retrospective (a compilation CD from his first two instrumental projects of Fireball (released in 1984) and Route 2 To Amherst (1992)); a collaboration with long time musical associate Ray Legere, River of No Return; and most recently a duet, all-original effort with his son, JD Williams entitled Williams Squared.

Also, he has a 14-track collection of retro-country “brother-style” duets with partner Amy Gallatin, Something ‘Bout You, and two alums with Stillwaters, Everything I Wanted Love To Be and Phoenix’, on both of which he worked as producer, arranger and engineer as well as musician. 

Sing Out magazine has said this about Roger Williams ……..

…Williams isn’t quite the household name on his instrument as say, Jerry Douglas or Mike Auldridge. But resophonic aficionados will quickly tell you that he’s easily in the same league.

The Heritage Award was presented by Eric Levenson, on behalf on the BBU, on Saturday, February 17, 2018, during the 33rd Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, Sheraton Framingham Hotel, Framingham, Maine. 

Amy Gallatin recorded Roger Williams’s touching acceptance speech ….. 

The Heritage Award is presented annually to honor those artists and others who have made substantial contributions to bluegrass music in New England and beyond.

Since 1976, the BBU has sponsored concerts, organized festivals and workshops, and hosted jam sessions throughout the Boston and New England area.

The Boston Bluegrass Union was awarded the 2016 Distinguished Achievement Award by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). 

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.