This interview first appeared in the autumn 2022 edition of British Bluegrass News
Many UK readers will be aware of the bluegrass hub that exists in Cheshire, England, in the village of Helsby and nearby towns of Frodsham and Runcorn. For the last 30 years and more, the Williams family has created a thriving musical community, and the unassuming Stuart Williams has been at the heart of it all, as an accomplished musician, renowned music teacher and enthusiastic concert organiser. Maria Wallace caught up with Stu recently for a chat about his wide-ranging life in music so far…
Thanks for doing this Stu! I’ve known you for quite a few years now, but I still don’t know the full story of your involvement in music. Should we start with how you first got into bluegrass?
Yes! It was purely through my dad [Bryn Williams]. He got into bluegrass years ago and we were all brought up listening to it from a very early age. I got a guitar for my 10th birthday and Dad sent me along to guitar lessons and he also taught me. He’d also play a lot of bluegrass records in the house, Dan Crary mostly. Then my Dad took me out to folk clubs, and to a few concerts which the late Dave Bresnan used to put on in Liverpool, initially at The Old Swan in Wavertree. Dave was quite influential early on in bringing [bluegrass] people over here and my Dad would take me along to these gigs. I was about 10 or 11 at the time. My dad would take me and my guitar and he’d get me to play. Everyone was very helpful and accommodating. That’s where I get some of my desire to help young people, because people were so kind to me. It was all very encouraging and that stuck with me.
Do you remember any of the particular artists you saw in concert at that time?
Dan Crary was the main one, I saw him two or three times, and then he came over with his trio Berline, Crary, Hickman, which was just completely amazing. It sort of blew my mind and that’s when I started to hear banjo a bit more. Also Laurie Lewis played there, she was absolutely fantastic! This is another reason why I put gigs on now – because I benefited from seeing amazing musicians in small settings. It’s the sound that always stayed with me so vividly – the singing, the instruments, the harmony, not so much the fancy playing, you know, good as it was. It was more the tone of it all and the sounds of the bands. I just totally loved it.
When did you take up the banjo yourself?
I played guitar mostly, up until I was about 16 or 17. I had gone to these gigs and also Edale [Bluegrass Festival]. Of course, that was a huge influence and again, everyone was very encouraging. There were a few young players there – that’s when I met Jonny Hulme, Simon Brady, Steven McCluskey and a few other great young players. Also Chris Moreton, Bill Forster and some of those guys were there as well, and very encouraging to the younger generation. After a few years of going to Edale and playing, I just suddenly got into the banjo more for some reason. I joined a band called White Lightning (on guitar) at age 17. It was a bluegrass band and they were all quite a bit older than me. It was fascinating and the banjo player (Eamon Walsh) was a particularly good musician. I just got listening to the banjo more – I’d grown up listening to my dad playing banjo, so it was kind of in my head and my ears already. I became gripped by the banjo. I was supposed to be studying for my A-levels at the time, and most of that went out the window! So I was playing guitar in the band, and learning banjo at the same time. Banjo took over for a number of years and that’s how I got into teaching.
So did you go to college to study music in a formal way after that?
No, not at all. I learned mostly through my dad and through tapes and recordings, and by playing in bands. Once I got in that first band, it really opened up my ears to learning by ear. Eamon was very keen on that, he’d just send me home with a stack of tapes and say “learn all those solos for next week”. I learned a lot from doing that but I didn’t find it easy, it’s just hours and hours of work.
How did you come to start teaching?
I started teaching by chance. I was about 19 or 20, and by that time I was playing with my dad and my brother Russ in the band Johnny Plank & the Planktones. It was just the three of us at the time, our sister Lucy was a lot younger than us so she joined the band later. We’d go off and we’d play at folk clubs and festivals, having a whale of a time. One or two people started asking if I’d show them a few things on banjo. They seemed to like it, I enjoyed it, and it just spiralled from there. Before I knew it, that’s what I was doing full time. I didn’t really advertise, it was just through word of mouth. Mostly teaching banjo to adults, and then I ended up teaching a couple of people guitar, once they realised that I played bluegrass guitar as well.
So was it around then that Helsby Bluegrass Club started up? Did your dad Bryn establish that?
Well, we started Helsby Bluegrass Club together. I was teaching banjo to a few people who wanted to learn to jam and play with others. I had learnt a huge amount from the Banjo Newsletter. That was my main other source of knowledge apart from my dad, who was there on tap all the time! He gave me a big stack of Banjo Newsletters from the 1970s and 1980s. Through my Dad I got into The Murphy Method by [award winning banjoist and teacher] Murphy Henry. She used to have a column in the Banjo Newsletter and wrote about “The Misfits”, which was a group of her adult learners who weren’t confident enough to go to regular jam sessions, so she started a session for them. I thought that would be a nice thing to do with some of the people I was teaching. Not that the Misfits is the best name for our group! It was just the idea of starting a group for adult learners that would be a bit more supportive, similar to what we now call a slow jam. There were two or three people to start with and it snowballed from there.
Wow. So when was this, sometime in the 1990s?
Yes, around 1991, 1992. We started out in the local community centre in Runcorn, and then moved to the function room of a local pub, The Millstone in Whitley. It grew quite quickly, we had 15, 20 people sitting around in a big circle, mostly banjos (!) every Thursday night and everyone was enjoying it. The ethos was that you didn’t have to be the best player, everyone was welcome. That’s something else that comes from my dad, it didn’t matter whether you could play or not, you were welcome to just join in. Growing up and going to a lot of festivals, I saw lots of jams. They were great, but occasionally you got the impression that they were a bit exclusive and only for the best players, and I never really liked that. We got confident enough to go into the main pub at the end of the session and play a tune or two for the locals – bearing in mind that none of these people had ever performed before or anything like that! It went down well, so we moved the whole thing into the main pub.
We eventually moved to Helsby to The Horse and Jockey pub and 30 plus of us would take over the lounge room every Thursday. We also had concerts – Tony Furtado played there as well as Bob Brozman, The Shankman Twins and many others. We outgrew that venue and moved to the Ex-Serviceman’s Club in Helsby for a number of years. Around that time we formed a not for profit group called ACLAIM (Acoustically Live and Inclusive Music) to try and put things on a slightly better footing. My dad and I had been doing everything really, and we got a few people together to help. At that time (mid/late 1990s) we were also going into schools and trying to promote bluegrass a bit more. ACLAIM was successful in getting some arts funding and we put on festivals/picking weekends and that sort of thing. We had a lot of support from Halton Borough Council and hosted events at the Queen’s Hall in Widnes and The Brindley, a local theatre in Runcorn. We sponsored students to go to Sore Fingers [bluegrass camp] and put on workshops in the local schools. That’s when I started to branch out more into teaching young people.
Fantastic. So meanwhile, your day job was still as an individual music tutor? How did you start teaching children? Was it through the friends and family of people at the bluegrass club?
Yes, and because of that, I also made a few contacts in local schools and with Music For Life, a Cheshire based music service. Up to that point, because I was completely unqualified in a formal way, I didn’t think that the way I taught or the music that I taught would fit in with education in schools. Music For Life really changed my mind on that. I met the director who had a fantastic outlook on music and education. They gave me two or three students in one school to start with and within a year I was teaching more than 150 children on a weekly basis! This wasn’t necessarily bluegrass, just guitar. But of course, I would squeeze in as much bluegrass as I could along the way!
So you’re still working with Music For Life now?
Yes, I’m still working with them. In 2005 I also started teaching at a local high school and formed a folk group there. We put on concerts, we did a big concert at the Brindley Theatre called Bluegrass Meets Big Band, featuring the county’s big band and junior orchestra alongside our bluegrass groups. Some great players came through the group, Jay Bradberry [and Mike Giverin, who went on to form Jaywalkers with Stu’s sister Lucy Williams], Sam Rose (of Hot Rock Pilgrims) and many others – but also, everyone knew that complete beginners would be just as welcome. The idea is that everyone has a chance to play. I’ve always enjoyed teaching everyone, but in particular, teaching in schools is just great. I don’t think it matters what the genre is. Whether it’s jazz, bluegrass or rock clubs or whatever, I think young people are open to a lot more than we give them credit for. If you are passionate about something, that rubs off on the people that you’re teaching.
Does teaching in schools still take up quite a proportion of what you do day-to-day?
It’s a smaller part now, just a day and a half a week. Some students come along when I put concerts on, like when we hosted The Slocan Ramblers in September. We’ve always tried to have an arrangement where children come in either free or half price etc. They seem to enjoy it, even the ones that supposedly aren’t into bluegrass! That band is young enough to appeal to them as well, not that that should matter, but actually I think it does for young people and there aren’t enough young musicians around to inspire the younger players.
Yes. Representation matters! Seeing younger people (or women, or people of colour) up there performing is important, and I definitely believe it makes it more relatable for youngsters. Plus, we need the input of younger folks to help keep the music alive.
Definitely, otherwise it just becomes that old, white genre, which it doesn’t need to be, and you have to make an effort for that not to happen. I think this is what a lot of people don’t realise. They think it would be great to have young people playing – but you’ve got to actually make the effort to get them involved. You’ve got to go into schools, or put concerts on and actively encourage them to come.
On that note, I wanted to ask about your own young children playing music – how did that come about? When did you start trying to encourage them to pick up an instrument?
Because I was brought up to play music, It was natural for me do the same. They’ve both played from a young age. Years ago we bought some small travel banjos for children, back when we were doing some fundraising. We’ve always had and continue to have a young musicians fund which helps to buy instruments/ send young musicians on courses etc. Through donations we bought five little plucky Goldtone banjos years ago, and a lot of children have learned on those. Finally, my own children were old enough to benefit, and our daughter Eve learned banjo from age six. Then her brother Fred also started on banjo but now plays fiddle, guitar and double bass.
Then lockdown happened, which of course wasn’t great, but it WAS great to have my two kids at home with me. Jo [Williams, Stu’s wife, also a talented musician] was working and I was doing home schooling with the children. So we got into this nice routine. – although it was a very hectic time, with Jo working, me homeschooling and then teaching all my lessons in the evenings and at weekends. But we just listened to music, Hank Williams and all sorts of stuff, while we were having lunch every day, and had an hour or so put by just for music – because they don’t do enough of that in school. Eve was already fairly proficient by then and Fred really progressed, so I just had my own band at home then, which was great! We could just sit and jam.
I couldn’t believe how confident and accomplished Eve and Fred seemed, when I saw them at Crossover Festival in May! Do you have to bug them to practise, or do you just leave them to it?
Yes, I do have to bug them to practise, and I’m pretty full on with that really. I’m quite strict myself about that, I practise a lot and play a lot, and make sure they do the same. Hopefully it’s still fun, but I treat it like any other subject. You know, at school they have to read, they have to do maths, I think music is no different; they just have to do it. They probably do 20-30 minutes a day by now, and the hard thing is the routine of daily practice. It would be so much easier for us all to do something else but if you want to get better at something, you’ve got to get into that habit of practising every day, or at least most days. When you form that habit, it becomes much easier and it pays off. I’m quite obsessive about it, I suppose. Not everyone is, and that’s fine. With my children, it’s not that I want them to be great at music particularly, it’s that I want them to get good at dedicating themselves to something. If it happens to be that they get better at music, then great. I do it to give them confidence in other areas and to show them that if you work at something it pays off.
Did the children enjoy the festival experience at Crossover this year?
Absolutely, and that’s one of the reasons we are doing it. The festivals are a great environment to be in and I really want them to benefit from coming along, it’s fabulous being surrounded by like-minded people. That’s how life should be really! When I was younger, I benefited from that supportive environment, and I do think it’s one of the biggest strengths of the bluegrass community.
Going back to your involvement in concert promotion – that’s something you’ve kept up over recent years, and I’ve sent you some great bands that I’ve had here on tour as well. It seems to me from the times I have visited your gigs that it’s still very much a family affair and a real community effort.
Yes definitely. My dad was the one that pushed for these gigs at the very start, I think Ross Nickerson was the first player he invited over from America. My dad’s ethos has always been that we need to see good players, and a lot of the best are obviously in the States. Ross Nickerson came over and did a weekend with us, and it sort of snowballed. Once we’d made that initial contact, other bands would tag on a gig for us if they were playing in this country, and we had many UK bands too. This sort of culminated in the year 2000 when the Lonesome River Band came to play the Ex-Servicemen’s Club in Helsby. They were playing at Cambridge Folk Festival and my dad somehow managed to get in contact with their agent. I still can’t believe that they agreed to do it. I think we had over 150 people there, totally capacity crowd and people queuing outside to get in! After that we had Rhonda Vincent the next year, at the Queens Hall. We got some support from Halton Borough Council at the time, and from the Brindley. Michael Cleveland came, Tony Ellis, Bruce Molsky, Curtis Jones, Jack Hatfield, Valerie Smith, and many others. Around the mid 2000s, arts funding started to get cut and we had to scale things back a little bit. More recently it’s been smaller gigs that we’ve put on, mostly down to you. It’s mostly because you [True North Music] are bringing over these high quality acts that will come and play in small venues. That’s how we’ve carried it on.
In a way, that’s the beauty of this scene isn’t it? Because it’s quite a niche genre, it’s fantastic for audiences to be able to see and hear world class musicians in intimate gig situations.
Absolutely, we are totally privileged, but it’s only doable with people like you doing this. We’ve got a good scene here, but actually bringing these high quality bands over and setting up a full tour, that’s a massive job and we get the benefit of it really. We do have lots of local support, but it’s the quality that does it, that’s what brings people out. John and Moira, at Sore Fingers [Summer School] have the same sort of idea, they’ve done a huge amount to bring quality musicians to the UK. I believe it is a strong scene, but only because we’ve had access to these top quality musicians. Without that, I don’t think there would be anywhere near the level of audience support.
Getting back to your own music, let’s pick up the thread – we left it back in the early days of Johnny Plank & the Planktones…
Yes, we still play occasionally as part of the Planktones. In the 90s, I played with White Lightning for a year or so, then joined a group called Southgators, which included Russ and Loraine [Baker-Wakefield], playing Cajun music and all sorts. Out of that came Baker’s Fabulous Boys with Jonny Hulme on banjo. All of it has always been for fun, I’ve never wanted to do the band thing full time because for me it would stop the enjoyment of playing. We played all the festivals and had all the fun that goes along with that. Then my children came along and the playing side of things went quiet for a little while – we were all getting older and busy doing other things. In the meantime, the Planktones were still going, with Lucy on bass once she was old enough. Now we do just one Planktones gig a year at Manley village hall, around the time of my dad’s birthday!
Now that our children are a little bit older, we have a family band, and recently Jo and I got together with Loraine and Pete [Wakefield] to form The Bakerfield Band. We performed at the Junction picking weekend in the summer and we’ve got a couple more gigs lined up. Hopefully we’ll do a couple of festivals next year, but it doesn’t really matter – we just enjoy playing together. Eve and Fred have also been playing music with Freya [Wilkie, daughter of Midnight Skyracer’s Eleanor Wilkie]. So we go over to Pete and Loraine’s to practise, and as Freya and her parents live nearby, the children can practise together with their band (The Sugar Donuts)
So are you mainly playing banjo in The Bakerfield Band?
Yes, banjo and sometimes guitar. I’ve finally got to the point where I can sit in the background and play banjo and let other people do the rest of it, all the singing and talking. Which is pretty much what I’ve always wanted to do!
That’s great. I look forward to catching a live performance. You are a big inspiration, Stu! Thanks for all the work you do, and for spending the time to talk to me for British Bluegrass News.