There is no shortage of musicians who spent their early lives involved in crime but were able to clean up their acts thanks to music. For Robert “Big Sandy” Williams, it was the other way around.
“When I was young, I’d listen to my parents’ records — a lot of rockabilly, doo-wop and Western swing,” Williams tells City Paper via phone from his home in California. “I’d lay on the floor of my bedroom with a speaker on each side of my head, absorbing it, daydreaming about being a performer on stage myself one day singing to all the girls. I was lost in my own little world.
“We also had a next-door neighbor who would play guitar, and I really wanted to play. So, when she would leave, I would break into her house and play my own songs and make up my own chords on her guitar.”
Luckily for Williams, he never got caught. The only thing he took from the house was a deeper love, appreciation and fire for music. He’s been playing in bands since he was a teenager growing up in Anaheim, Calif., and in the late ’80s he formed the band he still leads today, Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys. Starting out as a straight rockabilly outfit during the genre’s ’80s revival thanks to bands like the Stray Cats, the band has become one of those magnificent original acts that takes an old sound and makes it fresh, new and relevant.
The band’s style mixes old Sun Records rockabilly with doo-wop, ’50s R&B, Western swing and country be-bop. The result is a transformative group whose contributions are so significant that the band has been enshrined in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. But at the base of it still is the kid who was willing to commit misdemeanor breaking and entering just to play music.
Big Sandy (without his Fly-Rite Boys) hits town Dec. 5 as part of the Rev. Horton Heat’s Holiday Hayride at Jergel’s in Warrendale. This annual show often features guest artists joining the headliner on stage for what’s traditionally a very memorable collaboration.
“I’m really excited to be part of this tour,” Williams says. “I’ve known [Rev. Horton Heat] for years, and I’m looking forward to finally doing something like this with him. The Fly-Rite Boys is my main thing, but I like going out and trying new and different things. I think this will really be a gas.”
Williams has come a long way from the kid laying on his bedroom floor listening to Gene Vincent and Bob Wills records. He began writing his own songs at an early age and started taking legal guitar lessons as a teen. “My mother saw an ad for a music shop that would give you a free guitar if you paid in advance for three months of lessons,” Williams says with a laugh. “I loved that thing. Other kids were out playing sports and doing what kids do, and I worked on music and listened to records.”
Williams credits an early love of vinyl for shaping him as an artist. He still rummages through the stacks at record stores while on the road, looking for something he’s never heard before. “It happens all the time,” he says, even today. “My only passion or hobby outside of playing music is collecting music. It really is my life.
A journey through the Big Sandy catalog, especially a chronological one, allows you to hear and experience the artist’s evolution. It’s not like you’re hearing an artist doing something dramatically different on each record. You experience an artist doing something just a little different. “We started out just trying to recreate that classic rockabilly sound,” Williams says. “Those early records are me trying to sound and be traditional. But then as you write your own music, that changes the way you play. We started messing with some different things, adding a steel guitar and playing more of the hillbilly stuff. But eventually we moved back toward our own version of stripped-down rockabilly.”
A top-notch performer on stage, Williams’ songs and performances display a recognizable sense of playfulness. His songs are fun and memorable and there’s literally something for everyone. Williams’ music is easy to like because it’s genuine, and it’s obvious that he likes it too.
“We just try to go out and do our own thing,” Williams says. “We try not to overanalyze it too much, that’s for others to do. I just try to keep my mind open and not be too confined by styles. I realize that things I didn’t like in my 20s may be something I’m into now. I’m just a fan of music and I want that to come through in what I’m doing on stage.”