Journalists beware: Some years ago, while Keller Williams was experiencing the height of his mainstream recognition as a folk singer with eccentric sensibilities, a writer from Blender magazine produced an unfavorable review of the Fredricksburg native. It admittedly irked the singer-songwriter, who retaliated by writing a song comically asking the author to eat, well, to eat something that’s not edible.
But Williams, who has a significant cult following, is not grumpy. In fact, his songs are filled with buoyant and often hilarious if odd lyrics. What does mainstream music media know anyway? Williams, who plays the Birchmere on Friday, is no doubt still around, while Blender is a defunct victim of the industry.
The point is that Williams’ style caters to his own creativity and the minds of his fans bar goers who like to laugh, think and interact with his acoustic guitar, electronic looping machine and his subtly subversive lyrics. Those lyrics range from cautioning against prioritizing money over all else to narrating what to do should one find a doobie in his shirt pocket at the airport to sticky Virginia summers.
Williams talked with the Times about performing at his backyard venue, why real Fredricksburg residents do not consider themselves Northern Virginians and his newest album Odd, a studio compilation that lives up to its name.
Alexandria Times: Have you ever played the Birchmere?
Keller Williams: I have. This will be my third or fourth time.
Because you’re from Fredericksburg, is the Birchmere show a welcoming change for the road or a mundane stop on the tour?
Any and all venues are amazing with the lights off no matter what city it’s in. The Birchmere, especially, is one of those venues that is what I call a dying breed in the sense that it’s a listening room where people are actually expected to be quiet while the musician is on stage performing. And this is a concept that is very far from my world. My show is kind of a party or something of that nature, whereas the Birchmere is completely different.
So you like its old school style even if it’s not exactly conducive to your interactive performances.
Well, no, it’s not. I’m used to playing where there are no seats and people are used to that. And so are the other generation that comes they don’t quite get the seated thing. I’ve been to so many shows at the Birchmere, though, and it was really, really intimate even more intimate than it is now. And so I have lots of respect for that place and look forward to going and sitting down and listening and being served by a waitress or what not. So the respect is huge for me and I’m very honored to be able to play there.
You’ve been playing some songs on Odd for years at your live shows. Was it tough do decide what went on the studio album?
Choosing the songs for this record wasn’t that difficult. It was kind of a culmination of the songs that have been written between the last album and now and the songs that I’ve written that haven’t really found a home on a record. And this was the perfect record for those songs because they were all slightly odd in nature.
Tell me about the song Ear Infection.
Ear Infection is what came out of a writing assignment I gave myself to write something on a topic that I’ve never really written about, which was physical pain. I was waiting to get painkillers from my doctor and just to occupy my time I wrote this song about the horrible pain that I was experiencing.
Did the story you tell in Doobie in My Pocket really happen?
It’s based on a real story. There’s a lot of exaggeration but the actual process about wondering about the doobie that’s in my shirt that’s in my suitcase that I’m checking that actually happened. And then getting my bag and not finding it and then realizing the doobie was in my pocket the whole time? That happened.
What did you do with it?
I smoked it.
In the airport?
What makes you stay in Northern Virginia?
I’ve moved around, travelled the country for years with no real address. But I married a girl from Fredericksburg. We have lots of land with a river and that’s basically I why I live there. And Fredericksburg is a wonderful little community that we don’t consider part of Northern Virginia.
Why is that? Is there as stigma?
I’d say yes, there is a stigma. We are very close in proximity, and yes, the outskirts in Fredericksburg have been Northern Virginia-ized. I think it’s just the whole Northern Virginia commuter idea. Relatively speaking, we probably are an extension of Northern Virginia. But people like me who were born and raised in Fredericksburg we just fight it.
Tundra is a great song about Virginia’s swampy weather.
Summertime in Virginia, man … they’re really, really hot and it’s just one of those times you write a song about what’s happening right now. July and August are just brutal. I mean it’s, OK if you’re around water, or some shade, or have air conditioning the tundra.