By Stephen Pitalo
When the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe, has you serve as his longest-tenured banjo player, and Lester Flatt hires you as his until his death, you know you’ve got the chops. And having recorded six albums with Monroe and another two with Flatt, make no mistake that the name Blake Williams personifies quality banjo playing. But that’s just one aspect of this multi-faceted performer’s personality.
“I was raised in Sparta, Tennessee, a community with a rich bluegrass heritage,” Williams explained. “There were a lot of good bluegrass groups in the area that fostered my love for music and radio. I started the banjo at age 12 and was the youngest DJ at WSMT radio at age 15.” In 2009, the City of Sparta, Tennessee erected new city limits signs declaring Sparta as the Home of Lester Flatt, Benny Martin, and Blake Williams.
Williams has always been attracted to country and bluegrass music, being so close to Nashville and its great TV shows, as well as WSM radio.
“My dad ran a general store and began trading on acoustic instruments,” he said. “A 1950s RB250 Gibson, Flathead, Bowtie “spoke” to me when I was 12. After buying Earl Scruggs, Sonny Osborne, Ralph Stanley, and Don Reno records, the journey began.
“Bobby Smith & The Boys from Shiloh introduced me to road life, recording, Josh Graves, and the legends of bluegrass,” said Williams of his early touring as a teen. “We worked a lot of the shows where I watched my music heroes and became acquainted with my future employers.
“The first time I played with Lester Flatt was as a fill-in for Kenny Ingram,” Williams recalled. “This was in 1976 and I was still 19 years old. It included several Carolina shows and the Grand Ole Opry. Benny Martin was filling in for Paul Warren at the time who was in declining health. It was exciting and scary to not only be on stage with this group of legends, but also the stage of the Opry. I broke a string! Lester laughed about it. In 1978, he offered the job to me when Kenny left the band. Lester was the consummate emcee and showman, and he looked like a star, He also treated the music as a show.”
Bill Monroe was one of our most musically creative people in country music history, strong-willed, driven, and always ready to work, he said. “Traveling and working most of the great venues in the world was quite a ride. From cornfields to Carnegie Hall, the Opry, Kennedy Center, Japan, Europe, and world leaders, Bill let his music and powerful presence do the talking.”
In addition to his musicianship, Blake is an excellent master of ceremonies and one of the best country comedians in the business. He has also enjoyed songwriting success having his songs covered by Lester Flatt & The Nashville Grass, Rhonda Vincent, and The Expedition Show. Blake is a 3-time SPBGMA (Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America) “Entertainer of The Year” nominee (2007-2009).
Blake is a 2015 recipient of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Recorded Event of the Year for his work with Becky Buller on “Southern Flavor” for Dark Shadow Records.
Williams gained much from his time with Mike Snider, one of the great comedians of the Grand Ole Opry.
“He treated me very good and it was a pure joy to be on stage with him, and witness an audience laughing and enjoying themselves. It has been said that laughter is the solvent against the harshness of life. Comedians that do clean, family humor are becoming a lost art. In the early days of our music, comedy was a big part of the show.”
He embraces all aspects of the bluegrass showmanship that has formed his legacy. Many moments backstage at the Grand Ole Opry are near and dear to his heart.
“Stories being swapped, jam sessions with legends, and the laughter,” Williams recalled. “Most people see the performers on stage and have an idea of what they are like. I was honored to get to know a lot of the Hall of Famers on a personal level. Sadly, most of them are gone now.”
As much as he is a performer, a week in Blake Williams’s life gets a little mired in the business of the job.
“These days my focus has shifted to more of a business regime. Kimberly (Williams’ wife) and I work hard with East Public Relations, a company she launched in 2005. It’s a full-service publicity company that represents Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, Carolina Blue, and a couple of events. From tour support, album support, social media, consultation, and everything in between, it keeps us quite busy. We also volunteer our time to help the City of Sparta, TN with Liberty Square: A Lester Flatt Celebration. And I emcee several festivals throughout the year including the Southern Ohio Indoor Music Festival and the Milan Bluegrass Festival.
“The desire to be a full-time traveling musician is no longer with me,” Williams admitted. “I have been blessed with my journeys all over the world but these days, my life is more rooted in our farm, family, business, and active church life. I am a blessed man.”