When Brooks Williams was casting about for ideas for his newest album, the singer/songwriter/guitarist decided to take stock of music he loves — but never shows off on-stage.
The result is Little Lion (Signature Sounds 2000), a collection of melodic guitar pieces inspired by music from such disparate locales as West Africa, Brazil and Appalachia. The disc includes Williams’ takes on Brazilian pop, a bossa-nova version of the melody from Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony,” and a soulful nod to the blues.
“I want to share with my audience stuff that I’m really passionate about,” Williams said in a recent phone interview from his home outside Boston.
In his upcoming solo show at Asheville’s Grey Eagle Music Hall, Williams will have a chance to do just that. The musician plans an evening featuring cuts from his new album, along with tunes now in the works and older songs his established fans will recognize.
“I’m a guitar player, and I’m a songwriter — and I also love to interpret other people’s music,” Williams notes.
The freshly released Little Lion showcases his proficiency in all of these areas. Despite its far-ranging influences, the disc is held together by the album’s mellow feel and Williams’ celebrated fretwork. His 10th CD, it is his first featuring only instrumental music — which will undoubtedly please those fans who’ve been waging a campaign for such a work through their notes and e-mails.
Instead of starting with a rocker — which he says traditionally opens his records — Williams launches the album with the playful “O Leaozinho.” The song — written by Brazilian composer Caetano Veloso — means “Oh Little Lion,” and compares the sun to a little lion playing in the surf.
“It’s a timeless melody, played with a beautiful guitar sound,” Williams declares.
Another distinctive tune is the bluesy “Goodbye Walker Percy,” which the musician considers Blind Willie Johnson-style blues — albeit played on a Hawaiian kona-slide guitar. Whimsy also flashes in the title of “Meesa Kaibash,” which he explains is a made-up phrase that translates as “Oh my God, I just screwed up.” But the light, melodic piece — which Williams reworked after hearing a tape of two guys playing electric guitars in an Ethiopian cafe( — is definitely not a screw-up.
Williams revealed a different side on his earlier albums; his 1999 Signature Sounds release, Hundred Year Shadow, includes songs like “Darker Kind of Blue” and “House of Truth” — tunes that play up the singer’s voice and groovability.
High praise for his guitar prowess has issued from such varied publications as the San Antonio Light (which called him “a fret monster who has to be seen to be believed”) and The Boston Globe (which heard “one of the finest guitarists on the circuit.”)
Williams, 41, is a native Southerner without a Southern accent — he began to shed his slow drawl at 17, when he moved from Statesboro, Ga., to Boston to attend college. He learned his craft by listening to the records of his two older brothers — whenever they left the house, that is; his early heroes included Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Michael Bloomfield (Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Joseph Spence are among Williams’ later influences).
“I’m always keeping my ears open to new stuff,” he insists.
Though he started playing professionally at 18, Williams quit that scene two years later, realizing he wasn’t ready for a music career. Armed with a degree in English literature from Salem State College in Massachusetts, he taught junior high school while continuing to play his music privately.
“When I was 27 years old, I quit my teaching job and started to play gigs,” Williams recalls, adding, “That was a big jump.”
Over the years, he has broadened his musical vocabulary as he explores different types of music: “I feel I’m able to draw from a much deeper well than when I started.”
So what’s he brewing now? More artistic departures, promises the musical chameleon, who’s hard at work on another album: “I’m playing the guitar as if it were a gospel piano,” Williams teases.
We’ll be sure to tune in.