Play That Country Music

Carl Ray Williams looks to break through country's color barrier

The moment came while Carl Ray Williams was performing in Fort Sill, Okla. He was working his way through a set, performing his own material and the classic country-and-western songs he digs so much, when some soldier in the back of the room stood up to yell.

"Play that country music, black boy!"

It might have been ugly. Alcohol was involved. Tense guys, getting ready to go to Iraq. But it was just a drunk trooper having fun with the title of that monster hit from the disco days: Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music, White Boy." Later, the exact same challenge—or praise—was hurled at Williams at a country music festival in Switzerland.

"Somebody was trying to tell me something," Williams says. It would give him a title for his new CD as well as the single that, in a righteous world, would scale the charts.

The Swiss incident that bookended Williams' epiphany comes as a result of Williams' friendship with Swiss promoter Albi Matter of Show and Music AG, an entertainment giant based in Zurich. The two met while Williams was performing at Fan Fairs during his Nashville years. The festival is one of several events Matter organizes to satisfy the appetite for American music in Europe. Williams returns to Matter's 32 Nights of Country Music this week backed by musicians freshly recruited from Knoxville's talent pool.

The only really strange thing about a black man fronting a lily-white band of Knoxvillians is that Switzerland business. Black musicians and singers have been part of country music from its antebellum roots. The rare black artists associated with the Grand Ole Opry—harmonica wizard Deford Bailey and honky-tonk jukebox king Charlie Pride—are not the anomalies they might seem to be.

Williams was born and raised around Houston. His years of scuffling around the singer/songwriter circuit included sojourns in Oklahoma and Nashville. Knoxville has been home the past three years. But it was that Texas upbringing that made the lasting imprint, beginning with a blues guitar-playing great-grandfather. "He died before I grew up but the family story was that I just lit up watching him play guitar," Williams remembers.

"I listened to all kinds of music growing up and was drawn into the country experience partly by my Texas upbringing," he says. "Then it just springboarded as I developed as a person." Weeping pedal steel guitars and heart-tugging fiddles notwithstanding, it was the storytelling element in country songs that hooked him. As a young man, Williams kept his country music yearnings to himself. But he was always eventually outed.

"I played in a lot of black bands growing up, doing R&B, but when they'd find out, they'd say, ‘Boy, you ain't nothing but a little redneck,'" he says.

Oddly enough, the first big turning point in the early days of his music career was when he was taken under wing by possibly the first non-Jamaican singer to score a reggae hit: Johnny Nash, best known for early '70s feel-good single, "I Can See Clearly Now."

"He would help me shape and craft my songs," Williams says. "The real issue is the song… A great song can be done in any genre." At Nash's Texas ranch, Williams brushed up against fellow guests like song stylists Lionel Ritchie, Roberta Flack, and Brooke Benton. Nash furthered Williams' appreciation for country music through Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, and Patsy Cline. As for singing styles, Williams lists Nash and Vince Gill as influences on his own silky tenor.

In order to assemble a band to work with in Knoxville (his album relies on Nashville session players), Williams sought out the advice of people at AC Entertainment. He was referred to banjoist/WDVX DJ Matt Morelock, who then turned to the husband-and-wife duo of Jeff Barbra and Sara Pirkle for vocals, guitar and fiddle; Robert Richards (bass); and Jon Whitlock (drums). The sidemen represent such Knoxville bands as the orchestral Band of Humans; the jazzy Christabel and the Jons; and the cow-punky Drunk Uncles and Naughty Knots. The chemistry Barbra and Pirkle bring to the equation gives Williams' band—dubbed the Doubletakes—gorgeous three-part harmony, layering Williams' crystalline lead vocals into Pirkle's warm alto and Barbra's baritone.

At a recent rehearsal at Williams' home, near Sequoyah Hills, the Doubletakes put their own touches to songs being worked up for the group's quick tour of Switzerland this week. Morelock slips a wicked "Dixie" lick into "Play That Country Music," and the band mixes "Tennessee Waltz," "Blowin' Smoke," "Waltz Across Texas," and many other country standards from Bill Monroe to the Kentucky Headhunters with originals written or co-written by Williams.

"This is what country is supposed to look like," the singer says of his band. "That's what makes the music interesting. Diversity."