Keller Williams brings ‘Pettygrass’ to Byham Theater
Stop Dragging My Heart Around
When Tom Petty died suddenly on Oct. 2, 2017, singer Keller Williams was in the studio recording his latest album, “Sans.”
“I couldn’t really focus,” says Williams, a multi-genre-crossing singer who is performing at the Byham Theater on Jan. 20. “It was definitely a shock. … He was very much present and then he was gone.”
After the rock legend died, the Petty-inspired project Williams had been working on since 2015 — called “PettyGrass” — became all the more timely and relevant. Behind the scenes, Williams and The Hillbenders band had been rehearsing Petty songs in a bluegrass style and making recordings; and, preparing to do a Petty-themed bluegrass benefit concert in Fredericksburg, Va., where Williams lives.
When Petty passed away, Williams released the rehearsal tapes to SoundCloud — and after a positive response, Williams is touring the country with The Hillbenders, bringing classic Petty hits in an acoustic, bluegrass style.
Tom Petty is hardly a bluegrass artist, but in PettyGrass, somehow the style works well with Petty’s rock songs, Williams says. It sounds like the songs “were written that way,” he says.
“Bluegrass lends itself in such a way where, even if you haven’t heard the songs, you can relate to them,” Williams says. “One, the songwriting is so strong. Two, the energy we put into it is so heavy. … It’s a real fun, energetic show.”
Still, regardless of the change in style, the band definitely “remains true to the songs,” Williams says. Most of the Petty songs are done in the same tempo, and the band has added more harmony to the original songs: “We’ve kind of enhanced it a bit,” Williams says.
People in the audience, regardless of their musical background and taste, will be singing along in harmony – a Williams audience never is quiet, he says. A typical PettyGrass audience contains Williams fans, Hillbenders fans, bluegrass fans and Petty fans – and often, people fall into all four categories.
“Even if bluegrass players play for rock-and-roll lovers and Grateful Dead Heads – everyone can sing along to a few Tom Petty songs at least. We bring a lot of music lovers together.”
Petty didn’t shape Williams’ style as an artist; he heard the rock star’s songs constantly on the radio and didn’t buy his albums as a kid. But Williams greatly admires him.
“As a kid and a young teenager, those sounds were just so prominent and on the radio. … I could sing 15 of his choruses because of the exposure,” he says about Petty. Williams likes “the way that he’s able to be simple but yet deep, and have a chorus that is meaningful and that you can sing along to.”
Outside of PettyGrass concerts, Williams recently finished another unnamed record that needs to be mixed and mastered.
The new album features songs he has been writing during the last few years that haven’t yet made it onto a record. Williams – who released his inaugural album, “Freek,” in 1994 – hopes his new album comes out in late summer or fall.
Kellie Gormly is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.