Wide Open Heart
Accordion Man Bradley Jaye Williams
By Christopher Gray
FEBRUARY 21, 2000: Bradley Jaye Williams keeps chickens. Five layers and two cockerels, at last count. Granted, that's not quite as essential here as his sublime accordionship in both the Gulf Coast Playboys and Los Pinkys, unless this were some Aggie-sponsored journal documenting the latest fowl-husbandry breakthroughs. It's not even that surprising, considering the Austin musician has been involved with popular beef alternatives for years, spending a decade harvesting the gilled bounty of America's shorewaters (Alaska, Florida, George's Bank), and/or preparing the catch for public consumption. The coop out back is hardly out of place in his Live Oak hood, considering that the house down the block has an entire children's playroom in the front yard. Framed with care in Williams' living room is a poster-sized rendering of some proud rooster (Gallus domesticus) diagrammed out á la Gray's Anatomy -- only in Italian. A gift from a discerning friend.
Listening to the spirited Eastern European music of his heritage opened Williams' eyes to the idea of musical cross-pollination that he swears by today. The combination of Saginaw's sizable Latino population and weekend day trips with his mother hipped him to how easy it is for music to jump across social, linguistic, and regional borders.
"I remember driving out to the country to pick berries on Saturday mornings, and we'd be listening to that Mexican radio because they had the beat," he says. "The Polish beat and the Mexican beat, there's not too much difference at all, because the Polish like the polkas slow as well, like the Tejanos. There's a lot of Polish people that are turning on to Tejano music. They love Flaco Jimenez."
So did Williams, who credits Jimenez with inspiring him to strap on the accordion, though not until much later; Williams revisited his roots for 1996's Mining City Polka Party. At 18, he resumed his musical pursuits, purchasing a guitar, but it was still a sideline. The memory of childhood fishing trips with his dad still fresh in his mind, this youngest of five siblings decided to follow his three brothers into the salt-and-scales world of commercial deep-sea angling.
"They got into commercial fishing down in Florida," he states. "When I was 20, my brother got me on a swordfish boat, and that kinda wet my appetite. This was all major commercial fishing, going out on a 70-foot boat 200 miles offshore, where you're out for two weeks. It's like camping out on the ocean."
Hauling nets full of halibut, black cod, king salmon, silver salmon, and rock cod out of the brine was taxing labor that Williams found rewarding.
"You work 18 hours a day," he says. "When you're into fishing, you put your whole self into it. There's time to sleep afterwards, after the season's over. Especially up in Alaska -- some of those seasons are only two days long."
The stark nature of his surroundings also had an effect on him.
"It sets you right just working with nature like that," he notes, "knowing that at any moment you could be in the water and dead in 60 seconds. The water's that cold."
Williams eventually came ashore in the Bay Area, trading his sea legs for a fishmonger's apron. For a decade or so, he found work at a Japanese wholesaler.
"They supplied all the sushi bars in San Francisco and the Bay Area, so I got in the back door of every Japanese restaurant in the Bay Area, knew everybody," he chuckles. "I even learned enough Japanese to understand the order. That was a blast.
"On top of that, I was smoking salmon every day in a smokehouse. When it was really hopping, we were making at least a ton of lox a week, all natural. I still do that. I still love to smoke salmon right in the back yard -- salmon, chicken, turkey.
"If you hang around the Playboys enough, you'll find that we like to eat, we enjoy good food. We always have gumbo at the gigs whenever possible, and we just got a new guitar player, Bruce Lamb. He makes the best andoullie sausage, so we've been using that in the gumbo."
By then Williams had switched to accordion, and was finding more and more gigs in the Bay Area's fertile folk scene. There was still the matter of paying the bills, however, and for a while he tried to have it both ways.
"There was a time when I was playing with a band 'til 2 o'clock in the morning and getting home at 2:30, 3 o'clock, and then having to go to work at 4am and cut fish," he says. "I had [the band] take me straight to work. One day I just said, 'Man, if you really want to do anything, you just have to make the decision to do it.'"
So he bid farewell to the fish, but his next moneymaking endeavor was hardly a walk in the park -- more like a Sisyphan trudge up a smoke-scarred hill.
"I quit the [fish] job but I was still worried," he recalls. "I needed to have that money coming from somewhere, so I went and took a landscaping job right after the fire that devastated the Oakland Hills. I got a job working for this landscaper, and I was basically a human mule hauling charred brush up an incline. I did that all day, got home, and was sitting in the tub, black water from the ash, sore, and the phone rang. It was Laurie Lewis from Rounder Records, she's a bluegrass singer and fiddle player. She says, 'I want you to come play on my record,' so that was a sign."
That fortuitous phone call soon evolved into a full-time vocation for Williams, thanks to a shrewd scheme involving a major urban public transportation hub and careful timing.
"We started playing on the street at the BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] station in San Francisco," he asserts. "It's a high traffic area at rush hour in the morning, so we'd get there at 6am, play for three or four hours, and hand out a bunch of business cards. We'd do that three times a week. After the gig was over at 10, we'd have coffee and breakfast, go home and take a nap, and then the phone starts ringing at about 1 to 2 o'clock in the afternoon: 'Can you come play in the office?'"
Alongside his duties with Lewis, as well as the California Cajun Orchestra, Williams started an early version of Los Pinkys in the Bay Area with "all white dudes." Said Caucasians were themselves in-demand performers, appearing and recording with the likes of Tom Waits, thus their availability was somewhat limited.
"They could never commit to me," acknowledges Williams. "I was trying to find a new band like every week up there in California."
He began considering a move to conjunto's native land after a conversation with a trumpet player (also a white dude) for Tejano legend Little Joe at a gig in Salinas.
"He came up to me and said, 'Man, you're doing the right thing. If you move down to Texas, the people will love you.' He was right."
Williams had previously ventured down Austin way on a pair of South by Southwest excursions with folk-rockers the Movie Stars and a Chicago House gig with ex-Avenger Penelope Houston. It was during one of these trips that Schaefer shanghaied him over to Ferguson's house, kindling a friendship that Williams laments was "not close enough," his eyes welling. "But he really loved what I was doing." (Williams repaid Ferguson's consideration via a moving Los Pinkys performance at the former Fabulous Thunderbirds bassist's 1997 memorial service.) Upon returning to the Bay Area, a fateful phone conversation with "Fergie" further convinced Williams his fortunes lay in the Hill Country.
"He said, 'Well, either get yourself a monkey and a tin cup or move to Texas, because you're not gonna find anybody to play with.'"
The decades of experience accumulated by his new mates in the Pinkys had a profound effect on Williams.
"The treasure I feel that I have with Los Pinkys is that Isidro, Augie, and Manuel, they've got this body of work; all these songs they've been playing for the past 50 years that's just theirs," he says. "I see what the songs do to people. Isidro's got this voice like a young man, and he's 64, 65 years old. I watch the faces of the older people and can see it's taking them back, back to those old dances where they met each other. It's really sentimental as hell."
The naked emotions stirred up by much conjunto music aren't always of the sentimental variety, however, notes a wary Williams.
"It can spark people to feeling real good, or feeling real defiant," he says. "Like on the old corridos, sometimes they don't want you to play 'em, because it'll get people's blood going and they'll start a fight or something."
Williams, whose speech often assumes the inflections of his adopted Latino brethren, admits sometimes it's not the easiest thing being the only white guy in a roomful of proud, boisterous Chicanos. But aside from the occasional drunken vato with a chip on his shoulder itching to prove something at closing time, he says the racial divide has been much less of an obstacle than he thought.
"It takes more effort for me to come down and learn that music -- to hang -- and they respect that," explains Williams. "I just kinda feel like living out of my heart, a wide-open heart everywhere I go, and if people don't like it, that's fine."
Considering that Mexican culture has always been rightfully suspicious of its paler cousins to the north, Williams' assimilation seems all the more remarkable. Not that he stays up nights worrying about it -- or patting himself on the back, for that matter.
"The racism thing is nonexistent to me," he says. "I don't even like to talk about it. I really think that's the way that we will overcome it, is don't make an issue out of any kind of racist thing. Just don't draw attention to it. We're all just human beings, we're all just musicians. It's all about the music."
His embrace of Chicano customs even extends to a more personal level; Williams met girlfriend Norma Vela conjunto dancing, and their relationship is now seven and a half years old. Though he's hardly a crusader, Williams' all-about-the-music credo is beginning to crack the mortar erected between Texas musics by insularity, suspicion, and ignorance, and he knows it.
"Because I'm from outside of Texas, I can see that this huge state of Texas and all this music that it contains, it can be played all in one night on the same stage -- a polka, a cumbia, country shuffle, it's all there," he says. "Here in Texas, there's all these separated dance communities -- you got your country dancers, you got your conjunto dancers, you got your Cajun dancers, and then you got some of these people that like to dance it all. That's our crowd right there, the people that like to dance to everything."
Even some of his fellow conjunto heavyweights are starting to come around.
"The Playboys opened for Mingo Saldivar at Antone's, and he saw that Cajun accordion," he says. "The wheel starts turning in his head, and he calls me two weeks later, 'Hey, where can I get one of those Cajun accordions?' So now Mingo's got one."
Williams' pan-Texan philosophy was ripe for recording -- though his conjunto chops are well-documented on the Pinkys' three Rounder CDs; the Playboys have a pair of cassettes for sale at shows -- so he turned to contemporary Texas icon Ray Benson to make it happen.
"I just trusted Ray and went along with him," he points out. "He always told me, 'You gotta do your thing, your record, you've got your own personality and your own thing -- mix it all together.' I owe a lot to Ray Benson for having faith in me."
Even though Benson has a lot of weight to throw around, Tex-Mex Gumbo was Bradley's show all the way.
"He was hands-off, man. He trusted me to do my music the way I thought it should be done. I'm really grateful to Ray for just letting me do my thing. What more can you ask for?"
Williams is nothing if not appreciative, also singling out Sanger and various clubowners (Antone's, Broken Spoke) for giving him an outlet, and especially the long list of friends helping him spice up that sumptuous Tex-Mex Gumbo.
"Everybody I play with is worthy of honor, I feel," he says. "I've got 'em lined up to play. I feel like the luckiest guy in town."
Yes, but what about the chickens?
"You look at 'em out there and they're like miniature dinosaurs, the way they act and everything," he says. "They've got a lot of soul."
"They taste good, and the eggs are good. That's basically it."
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