In a career spanning over three decades Austin, Texas based guitarist Van Wilks has forged a blazing blues rock path filled with some of the most impressive playing to be found in the genre.
Lauded as one of the city's master players by both critics, fans and fellow musicians such as Eric Johnson and Billy Gibbons, the consistency of his work has made him stand out in a scene overfilled with hot guitarists year after year. While hot in - the - moment young axeslingers come and go, Wilks has earned the vast respect not only for his longevity, but for his commitment to his craft. Always learning a trick or two from newer players, he's succeeded in keeping his music fresh and vital in a genre characterized and bound in many ways by tradition.
Beginning his recording career with the hard rocking critically acclaimed Mercury Records release 'Bombay Tears' in 1980, an album hailed by the English rock mag Kerrang! as "a masterpiece",Wilks soon found himself out on the road touring the world with ZZ Top (with whom he shared management with at the time), Heart, Point Blank and others, showcasing in a live setting the taste and raw power which has seen him top both reader's and critics' polls in Austin as best guitarist time and time again. Declared "a perfect cross between Jimi Hendrix and Van Halen" by the Austin-American Statesman, his incendiary live performances have left many an audience stunned throughout the globe.
When more than deserving rock n roll success eluded him, Wilks turned towards a more bluesy direction after a long recording hiatus with 1995's 'Soul of a Man'. Still inspired by the English guitarists such as Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page,blues greats Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy alongside Jimi Hendrix, it was welcomed by both fans and critics warmly.
1999's 'Koko's Hideway', (which included a duet with Eric Johnson) 2002's 'Texas Jukin' and 2005's 'Running From Ghosts' continued the streak, with critics expousing platitudes in abundance at his outstanding instrumental and songwriting skills, once again establishing him as a unique force to be reckoned with in the highly competitive blues scene. Recently voted by the Austin Chronicle as both Best Acoustic Guitarist and Best Electric Guitarist 2009, its a testament to his enduring presence and talent.
Now Wilks is back with his first ever live album, 'Live & Loud From Austin, Texas'. Packaged as a combination CD/DVD package, for the first time those who have never had the opportunity to witness this exceptionally talented guitarist in a live setting will have the chance to do so. Although admittedly a bit short at 45 minutes due to it being recorded during an opening slot for Robin Trower, it still manages to convey the excitement of seeing and hearing the scorching hot blues rock attack which has been his stock in trade for many a year.
Recently I had the wonderful opportunity to catch up with Van at his home in Austin, where the topics of discussion ranged from the new live album, his thoughts on European versus American audiences, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the music scene in Austin, touring with ZZ Top, his musical influences and much, much more. Read on as we have an exclusive conversation with one of Austin's true kings of blues tone, Mr. Van Wilks.
Interview and text by Nightwatcher © 2009
Nightwatcher's House Of Rock : You have a brand new live album/DVD package out, 'Van Wilks Live & Loud from Austin, Texas'. You've been around a long time. Why did it take so long for you to release a DVD, and how do you feel that it turned out?
Van Wilks : I don't know. We're independent, and we would do something every now and then throughout the years, and it would turn out where I didn't like it. I'm not a perfectionist, but I wanted it to be where if somebody buys it, I want them to say, "Hey, this is okay". We'd just do things, and the guitar tone wasn't right, or something else. This one just really seemed to be us live, without any studio tricks or anything. It was just all right there. I was happy the way the show went down - the guitar sounded like I hoped that it would, and everything just seemed to click this time.
NHOR : You've wanted to release a live album for quite some time. What was it about this show which made it the one to record and film for a live release?
VW : We didn't really plan it. The guy came up and asked, "Hey, do you want me to come film this for you? We've got two cameras, and I can do it cheap". So, I said, Sure, why not". (Laughs) So, I got an engineer friend of mine, Chet Himes, who's done everybody in the world, like Eric Johnson, Ry Cooder, John Hiatt and many others, and he agreed to come record it. But that doesn't guarantee that it's going to be anything good. But I thought that what we were playing at the show was really smooth. We were opening for Robin Trower, and that's why it's only 45 minutes, because we didn't have a lot of time.
To me, that's the only drawback to the whole thing is the length. There's so much more stuff that I'd like to put on there. But that'll lead into another one I guess. It just seemed to flow really nice. We were in tune, nobody fell down, and nobody fell off the stage. (Laughs) It was just one of those nights that just felt right. You can strive all your life for perfection, never achieve it, and never put out anything. And I wanted to put out something that I'm proud of. But we'll do another one and it'll be longer. Right now I'm writing for another studio album and trying to get some new material for that as well.
NHOR : You recently completed a European tour of Germany, France and Switzerland. What was that like?
VW : It's always good over there. Sure, you have your nights where there's a football match going on, and people don't get out, but it's always very rewarding because, now that Bush is gone, they treat Texans really nice over there. (Laughs) They really respect the artist over there. Sometimes we'll play these towns that aren't even on the map, I'll wonder why we're there, you're in some guy's barn that night...I mean it's an official gig, but you're wondering, "Why aren't we in Paris or Berlin?"...but then it turns out to be the best gig of the tour. The place will be packed, the promoter's mother will cook the food, and you just get a sense of the culture. It's not just another gig in a club. It's the real deal, with real people, and you build this grassroots fan base that money can't buy. People that are just so happy that you came to their little town, and vice versa, I'm so happy I came to their little town.
We've never been a band who plays stadiums. We'll play Berlin or Paris, but there's something about these little towns that are scattered all over Germany and France. By little town I mean around 50,000, although there have been some places where I swear the town only had around 3,000 people in it. But it's kind of like Texas, where there's all these dancehalls in all these small towns, and people come from all over on a weekend, and the place is just packed. It's a different kind of experience, and I just love the fact that they love Texas blues rock. Getting radio airplay is next to impossible these days for bands like me, so it's heartening to know that you can go someplace and have an audience that's appreciative.
NHOR : Do you find that fans in Europe are in general more loyal than here in the States?
VW : Well, you've got your pockets of fans in little places everywhere. It seems like, because I've been getting a lot of CD orders...but I don't know. I had people in one German town, and in a French town, where people brought the vinyl album of 'Bombay Tears', from 1980 for me to sign. The guy said, "I've been following you for years". You can't beat that. You can't buy it, and you can't beat it. I love going over there. I like it over here too, but we toured over here for so long, and you get older and think, "Do I really want to do this?".
NHOR : You're from Austin, Texas, where it's said that you couldn't swing a cat and not hit someone who's a guitarist. Not that we'd do that, but what is it about Austin that makes it so conductive to producing so many fantastic players?
VW : It's always been a wide open music town, and it's been a melting pot. In the 70's when I started out here, there were clubs where you could play your own music. Like the Armadillo. They didn't say, "No, you've got to play Top 40 hits". They welcomed any type of creativity. Austin has long been a hotbed of creativity in all kinds of art and technology. Now Austin's gotten so big I think it's lost its charm. But there's still a lot of musicians. They come here expecting, because it's Austin, to be able to make a living playing music, but they learn really quick. It's tough. A lot of times it doesn't really matter how good you are, it's if you've got something to offer people, like a song that people can grab onto, not just a bunch of licks.
This town has produced some great players, but some of that is the city council going "Austin -The Live Music Capital Of The World". The musicians don't really feel that way. We're still trying to work here every day, and the noise ordinances are still shutting clubs down daily. Police are still giving you tickets for trying to load in your gear. Yet all the time the city council is going, "Live Music Capital Of The World!". So people hear that and they say, "Okay, let's go". It sounds negative, but that's the reality.
NHOR : There's always a public perception of how things are, then there's the reality...
VW : There are a lot of bars here, and way more musicians than there are places to play. There's a lot of cool towns though. Louisville, Kentucky...Chicago...New York, there's a lot of towns that could easily lay claim to that title. Of course Stevie put the place on the map. Speaking of that, when I toured with ZZ Top, I had Tommy Shannon on bass before he joined Stevie and Double Trouble, He was in my band Fools right after Johnny Winter and then a year or so after being with me he joined up with Stevie.
NHOR : You just touched on this...You came up in the same Austin scene of the 70's as Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan and Eric Johnson. What was that scene like at that time?
VW : There wasn't a whole lot of jamming going on. You had my blues rock scene, in 1976 we were band of the year, then later on in the 80's, then you had Eric, who was and is absolutely phenomenal, doing his fusion stuff. Then you had the blues, and the blues people were pretty clique-ish. I'm not saying Stevie or Jimmie were, it's just that this town bred a thought pattern of "Well, there's the Roman on a Monday night, and there's no rock n roll there, it's blues". And if you're not cool and tattoo'd, and not playing that, you're not playing. This was more from the fan base than from the musicians I think. We as musicians have always been pretty open to exchanges of ideas.
This town has always had these different facets of music. There's always been a really strong jazz presence here. So that's one clique. Then there was the Armadillo great "Cosmic Cowboy" scare of the 70's with Willie Nelson. That was huge. What I can readily say that I'm proud of if nothing else, is that I've survived all the fads in this town and haven't changed. Like punk rock came out in '78 or '79, then all of a sudden there were all these melodic rock musicians wearing skinny ties, they all ran over to that area. Then the next week they'd be playing with Jerry Jeff Walker. There's nothing wrong with that at all, but I feel it's important to stay true to what you do and try to make
the best of it.
NHOR : Speaking of Stevie, you used to see him all the way back when he was with Paul Ray and The Cobras. Did you ever hang around with Stevie, and if so, what was your impression of him as a person?
VW : We never sat around and played together but we had a lot of mutual friends. Tommy Shannon being one of them. I remember one time, I had a picture of Jimi Hendrix's grave in my wallet that I've always kept with me since we toured with Heart and were in the Seattle area, and they took me to Hendrix's grave in Renton, Washington.
So I showed it to Stevie and he got really quiet. I hadn't realized it, but he never saw Hendrix play live. I'm old enough to have seen Jimi four times, but Stevie never did. It sure didn't slow him down any from being able to channel him though. But he was really introspective and quiet. He wasn't a pushy, in your face type of person at all. Very humble. I'm not going to say I knew him well, but we didn't run in the same circles. He was always really accommodating. A really good guy.
NHOR : You got signed to former ZZ Top manager Bill Ham's Lone Wolf Productions through which you released your first album 'Bombay Tears' in 1980. How did you get hooked up with Bill?
VW : ZZ Top did their rompin' stompin' barbecue thing, that big gig here in Austin at Memorial Stadium with Bad Company and Santana. I didn't know any of them then, but I played a club that night and it just happened that Bill Ham came into the club, saw me play, then about a month later called and said, "Are you that guy that was playing?" So after that we hit the road, it was Tommy Shannon, Phil Ballinger and I, and we toured all over the place.
NHOR : It's been put forth in print that Bill Ham went around signing up all the hot Austin guitarists during that time to lessen the competition for his main act ZZ Top. It's been documented that Stevie Ray and Eric Johnson, to name two, had a hard time in their career because of it. In fact in Eric's case he had an album 'Seven Worlds' which sat on the shelf for over two decades before coming out due to his contractual obligations to Ham. Did you have any sort of problems regarding such legal issues?
VW : I've heard that. If he was smart enough to do that, okay. But I can't see that. I didn't feel it. I didn't feel like I was being held back. I finally did leave like everybody else did. But I don't feel like he did that. I mean Billy's a genius. He didn't need to lessen the competition for him.
NHOR : Your first album 'Bombay Tears' was released in 1980 on Mercury Records and you toured with ZZ Top and Point Blank among others to support the album. What was that experience like touring with ZZ Top?
VW : Nobody wants to open for ZZ. They're a hard act because the fans are so rabid, just fanatics. But we always did okay. They treated me all right. Billy and I are really close friends. Maybe back then we weren't as close as we are now, because we didn't know each other. But we got to know each other, and now we're really close. We've all had nightmare stories of being an opening act, no front lights, no sound check, lousy monitors...they just don't give a damn. But ZZ were fine. We didn't get any special favors just because we had the same management, but it did open a lot of doors, and got us in front of a lot of people. I don't know if it's such a good idea for an unknown three piece band to open for a well known three piece band, but we did it anyway. (Laughs)
NHOR : Seeing as you're long - time good friends with Billy Gibbons, have you ever talked about collaborating on a project together?
VW : Yeah, we have. He's let me use his studio in Houston. I've got some unreleased tracks that he didn't play on but he kind of arranged, and helped me change up some things. They're all on his Fairlight and drum machine and stuff, so they're more like demos. Hopefully...recently he's talked to me about it, asking if I had any ideas, he'd like to hear him. But we're more just friends who sit around and talk about things other than music a lot of times. I don't see him as being in ZZ Top, it's more like we're fraternity brothers or something. (Laughs)
NHOR : It's been nearly four years since your last studio album 'Running From Ghosts'. Have you done any recording towards a new studio album, and if so, is there a time frame when a new album might be released?
VW : Mostly I've just been doing little demos here and there. I haven't decided on any real direction yet. But hopefully I'll have a new album out in a year or so.
NHOR : Your 1980 debut album 'Bombay Tears' has been critically acclaimed, and the British hard rock magazine Kerrang! called it a masterpiece. How do you feel that the album holds up today?
VW : God, it's so old, and the songs are so ancient to me now, but every now and then I'll put it on, or somebody will talk about it. Let me say this. I'm still proud of it. Some of the stuff that I'll listen to I'll cringe a little bit, but that was a different era, and a different recording technique. It's not as heavy as I would like it to be. If we did it now it wouldn't sound so compressed. The guitar tones would be heavier. I was using more of a Stratocaster back then, and now I'm back into using a Paul Reed Smith and Les Pauls, so it's a much heavier sound. But I'm still proud of it and it was an incredible experience to be able to go to L.A. and do your first record.
The funny thing with people's first records is that you've had all those years to write it, then all of a sudden it's time for your second and you go, "Whoa! I've already used my good stuff".(Laughs) And I've never been really prolific. I've never been in a real hurry to put out stuff. There's guys who put out a record every six months, and I admire that. But for some reason I just can't. It just takes me longer.
NHOR : You went out to Los Angeles to record that album, which also features Flo & Eddie on background vocals. You've mentioned that was something you'll always remember. What was it about those sessions with Flo & Eddie that made it such a memorable experience?
VW : The producer, John Stronach, had worked with Joe Walsh, they had some ties, we needed some background singers, so that was quite a trip working with them. They'd been with Frank Zappa, The Turtles and many others, and I was wide eyed and star struck. Not so much by them, but I was in L.A. doing an album. Not doing anything but working on a record every day. It's a great experience to be able to do that. It was just kind of a magical time when I look back at it. I'm sure there were problems, and I'm sure we were griping about something. But all in all I look back and think, "Wow, that was pretty cool".
NHOR : That album has been out of print for years, and Mercury won't allow you to re release it. What are their reasons behind that, and have there been any further developments regarding being able to re issue the album?
VW : It's typical. They own the masters. I own the songs. So that's why I redid "1959" and "Travelin'" on the 'Running From Ghosts' album from a few years ago. So I could re record the whole thing, or if I had unlimited money I'm sure I could buy it back. If they even know where it is. But record companies are just like that. I'd just like the music out there. It never sold a lot of copies, but I'd love people to hear it, or at least have access to it. It's just a part of my history that I'm proud of. I think the guitar playing still holds up to anything else I've done.
I like songs. Even if it's a blues based, riff oriented rock song like most of mine are, I still like it to have something in there that gives it a little edge, rather than just another shuffle. Because there are people who can do that masterfully. I like to mix it up a bit. I've still got that British Invasion sensibility about me that I love. The English guitar players especially. The Beatles of course, then after that when everybody took American blues songs and put a heavier sound to it. Some flat out stole it, like Led Zeppelin and didn't give credit until later on, like "Whole Lotta Love".
But that's what got me to thinking. Actually, I didn't think, I just did it. These plain shuffle like, I - IV - V progressions, but you could put some echo on them, or something. I just loved that. It all changed, in 1968, 1969 with Cream, Jeff Beck, all those bands that everybody loves. We all got something from them. That's why I'm glad to see those guys still going strong.
NHOR : What was it about the English bands that caught your attention? What do you feel you picked up from them musically?
VW : I think a lot of the production values. I hate to use that term, but they'd have things like echo. There's be a spacy sound to it, but it'd still be a blues lick from Buddy Guy or someone. But I didn't know who Buddy Guy was back then. I heard it first, like a whole lot of my contemporaries through the English interpretations of the blues. It wasn't really until Billy Gibbons in the mid 70's made some tapes for me, some cassettes which I still have, that I became aware. I thought, man that's the same lick as Led Zeppelin! I didn't know "Whole Lotta Love" was "You Need Love". Willie Dixon wrote so many of those things, and on my Led Zeppelin vinyl it doesn't say that. It just says Page/Plant. Now it says Page/Plant/Dixon. Because Willie sued them and won.
It's amazing. I've become somewhat of an amateur musicologist. I'll play somebody a Led Zeppelin song, then I'll play them the original. Clapton always has seemed to give credit where it's due, but those first two Zeppelin albums, I don't know how they did that. "The Lemon Song", for example had lyrics right from Willie Dixon. Even The Rolling Stones always gave credit. They were just a cover band in the beginning covering American black music on their first couple albums.
Thank God for those people, because in Texas they weren't playing "race music", as they called it. Maybe Chuck Berry. But the first time I heard "Roll Over Beethoven" it was by George Harrison and The Beatles. I used to be embarrassed to admit that until I realized that in 1964, 1965, they were not playing Chuck Berry in Lubbock, Texas. Or anywhere in West Texas, no way. Or if they did, I didn't hear it anyway. It's good in a way, because it makes you go back. Then you start researching.
NHOR : Who were your biggest inspirations, guitar- wise when you were starting out?
VW : The Beatles, of course. That's what did it. I was around 13, and because of them everybody wanted to be in a band. Then it blossomed from there. There's hardly anybody I don't like. I'm very open, and I believe there's something to be learned from everybody. Even if it's what not to do. (Laughs)
I would also say the Rolling Stones. Keith Richards...there's no way to get around that. It was his rhythm playing that's so phenomenal. I don't think he's that great of a lead player at all compared to other lead players. But My God...things like the open G tuning, when I finally figured out that's what he was doing on a lot of that stuff, I do a lot of open tuning things probably because of him and his influence. Joni Mitchell is also one of my all time favorites. David Crosby is another. That came much later though.
In terms of early inspirations it'd have to be all those English guys. I like all that English stuff. I love Jethro Tull from back then. Martin Barre I think is an incredibly underrated guitar player. But the main ones would be Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix and early Clapton. The Cream stuff, and The Yardbirds I still listen to all the time. I remember discovering 'Five Live Yardbirds', when Clapton was still with them, and it had a lot of hints of what was about to come with Led Zeppelin.
NHOR : What was it about the blues that attracted you?
VW : I think the simplicity on the surface of it. The holes. You don't always have to fill up every hole with a note. To me, it's always been about what you don't play. That can be as important as what you do play. Just leave some breathing room. When I first heard a blues song, I think it was The Carter Brothers' "Booze In The Bottle". I think I even have the 45 still. I don't know how I heard about them, or where they came from, but what I liked about it was that the singer would sing something, then the guitar would echo it. Call and response. That was just different for me. It just really struck me.
I was into The Beatles too, like most of my friends, but somehow I started gravitating towards the blues. I've never been a blues purist, like Jimmie Vaughan by any means. I like everything. So one day I'd be totally absorbed in Muddy Waters then the next day I'd be back to Led Zeppelin. I'm glad about that. I've got a healthy lack of direction because of it. (Laughs)
NHOR : Do you feel coming from a rock background as you did was a benefit to you in terms of playing the blues?
VW : I think so, in the fact that I could develop my own style from stealing from the best. You take a little bit of blues, take a little bit of this, little bit of that. There's only so many notes. We're going to eventually sound like somebody.
NHOR : You collaborated with Eric Johnson on a version of "What Child Is This" for the Texas Christmas Collection' album, which was actually recorded in 1981 and Eric made a guest appearance on your album 'Koko's Hideaway' which came out in 1999. Have there been any discussions between you and Eric towards doing another collaboration?
VW : Yes, and that was just our take on Jeff Beck's "Greensleeves" off of 'Truth'. All of that stuff's really spontaneous. It's just one day I called him and asked, "Hey, do you want to play on this?" And he said, "Okay". I'd love to collaborate more, it's just he's busy and we're all doing our thing. He sits in with me on occasion at gigs, or I'll go out to Eric's studio. We haven't really played together that much, unless he comes out to a gig or something. But he's a monster. Way past the monster stage as a guitarist actually.
NHOR : You recently won the Austin Chronicle's Best Electric and Acoustic Guitarist' awards at the Austin, Music Annual SXSW Music Awards. What was that like for you, being recognized in your hometown like that?
VW : You never know. It's an honor just to keep your name in the news, but you never know why you win them. I used to win those things in the 80's, and I hadn't won one in years. So it's good to still have a musical presence in the musical community where you live. It's an honor especially in this town. It's actually embarrassing to win that, because there are so many fantastic players here. You have Eric Johnson, David Grissom, Redd Volkaert....but I guess it was just my time this year. Next year it'll be somebody else.
NHOR : Live, what constitutes a great performance for you?
VW : Playing good enough to where there's an audience response to the point you feel like they're really digging it, and they're not sitting there drinking and facing the opposite way. (Laughs) Austin's famous for people going to clubs and just talking about the band instead of sitting there and listening to them. I guess a lot of towns are like that. You've got your people who really come out to hear the music, then you have the people who just come out to hang out in the bar.
I think when the tone is right, and the guitar's just kind of playing itself, that's when I'm happiest playing live. Because we're always in a search for tone. It'll never end. It just seems that everytime you get up to play it sounds a little bit different. But you're always looking for consistency and that perfect tone. Always trying a new gadget or a new guitar. Then you realize that all those great sounds you heard...Hendrix didn't have all that stuff. He had a Crybaby wah, a Fuzz Face and a Marshall amp. That was it. A great guitarist, it's in their fingers. No matter what guitar Eric Johnson picks up it still sounds like him.
NHOR : He could play a cheap $50.00 guitar and it'd sound the same...
VW : Yeah, I've seen him do that. (Laughs) He still sounds just like him. It's all in the fingers.
NHOR : What has been the most memorable show in your career so far?
VW : That's impossible to say. There have been so many. After all these years there's just too many to count. I wouldn't know how to answer that. I've liked some of our overseas shows that we've done, like when we opened for ZZ Top in France. That went off really good. Billy sat on the side of the stage, and that made me feel really good. That was a couple of years ago. A lot of it's location. If you're standing on a stage in Corsica looking out over these mountains, you're going, "Man, I'm the luckiest guy in the world. I'm playing guitar".
I think you're blessed if you can do what you love most, perpetuate it,keep it going and make some sort of living. I've never had a hit, but I've always done what I've wanted to do, and survived the fads. I don't know if that was such a great idea now, perhaps I should've switched over whenever something new comes out. (Laughs) But an artist does assimilate things. Like Gibbons did with that drum machine in the 80's. Like The Stones did with "Miss You". They kind of took disco and made it into a Stones type of thing. Or when they did "Shattered", it was a punk song. So the smart ones know how to do that and stay current.
NHOR : But at the same time you can't just chase trends because people will see right through that...
VW : Oh do they ever. And let's hope they continue to do so.
NHOR : You also teach guitar. What is the most prevalent question you get asked by students who you give lessons to?
VW : Usually they want to know something by whoever their hero is of the day. That's what keeps me fresh. That's why I'm glad I teach. Tommy Shannon's teaching with me too in my little studio. A student will come in with some band that I've never heard of because it's a new Internet band or something, and I'll have to learn it. It keeps me fresh. What they ask most...well, I've got such a diversity of students...and before they can ask me anything I'll tell them, "Hey you've got to learn these basic chords before you can do anything". They want to come in and blast out Metallica or something right off the bat. Well, okay, but Metallica had to learn these bluesy things too. I try to teach them things like Jimmy Reed, a kind of shuffle at first. Even if they don't like blues. Sometimes I have to convince the metalheads that even the heaviest bands were doing this kind of stuff.
What I find so amazing at my age, is that we didn't like our parents' music and they didn't like ours. But now the kids today...I had one whose mother wanted her to learn "Stairway To Heaven", and the daughter loves it. What that means to me is it's a testament to our generation of music. It has withstood the test of time. Otherwise there would be no term such as "Classic Rock". Those songs are just as good today as they were back then if not better. All the Beatles stuff, and Led Zeppelin's as big as they ever were.
NHOR : To give a time reference that would have been like someone in the late 60's, early 70's listening to Big Band or Swing music and wanting to learn how to play it. I'm sure there were a few, but for the most part at that time it just simply wasn't done...
VW : But now I love Sinatra. But then, it just wasn't cool. My parents were pretty tolerant. But I remember my mother not knocking it, but I remember her sitting in the other room and Jimi's "Third Stone From The Sun" was on, and she was saying, "That sounds like cows". (Laughs) Now that I think about it, it did. He was taking his whammy bar and making these low rumbling up and down sounds. But there just was not a connection with parents and their kids' music. I think it might be happening today again with rap. There's no connection, at least I can't think of any parents I know that might like a rap tune like their kids might. But I really like the fact that music has brought together these disparate groups, the parent and the kid. They're both listening to Led Zeppelin now.
I have a lot of students that their parents will say, "God, I used to see him 25 years ago, and now my kid's taking lessons from him". It makes me feel good. A lot of the young kids that I teach are wanting to learn Classic Rock. I'd say 90 % of them. Ever since I've been teaching Led Zeppelin's always been a big staple, along with The Beatles. I think it's wonderful. A lot of the younger girls want country music here in this town.
As a musician it keeps me on my toes and if I ever complain about it to myself, I'll go, "God man, you've got a guitar in your hand all day long". It gives me the opportunity to pick and choose my gigs better. I don't have to drive to Lubbock, or somewhere I don't want to go just to make a living. Because I hear guys complaining about that all the time. At least they're still making a living playing music, but here I've got my own studio. It's a blessing. Tommy Shannon doesn't really want to tour that much anymore, so he's beginning to teach a little bit, and he's certainly got a lot to offer people from his career.
NHOR : Your playing has been described by The Austin - American Statesman as "The perfect cross between Jimi Hendrix and Van Halen". How would you personally rate your playing? Are you satisfied with your playing?
VW : No, never. And the day I am is the day I become complacent. I'm always wanting to learn some little lick or riff, and that's one of the benefits of teaching. I have to. It's flattering to be compared to people like that. I remember I was doing all that finger tapping before I even knew who Eddie Van Halen was. I don't know where I got it. Of course he took it to monstrous heights. When 'Bombay Tears' came out in 1980, people were saying, "Oh, that's what Eddie Van Halen does". So, I backed off on the tapping. (Laughs)
NHOR : Are there any guitarists that you have heard recently who have piqued your interest?
VW : There's always somebody. I like Redd Volkaert. He lives here now. He's one of those Country Swing players, like Danny Gatton, just monstrous. A guy named Oz Noy. I'm not completely familiar with all his music but I have a CD someone gave me of his. I was in Europe, and some friends of mine brought him to town. He had David Letterman's drummer Anton Fig and Roscoe Beck on bass. Eric Johnson sat in with them both nights that they played here. so the guy is a monster. I like innovative guys like that.
But I still keep going back to the classics. The older I get...it's not that I'm not receptive to new music, but I like what I like. (Laughs) There's so many good groups out there now though you can't keep up with them.
NHOR : What advice, if any would you give to a young player just starting out?
VW : Be as open minded as you can musically. Learn and play as many different styles as you can. But try and have your own. Try to assimilate it. Don't spend all your time just trying to sound like somebody, just spend enough time to where you get the feel of that person, then try to make it your own. Try to write songs instead of just licks. Most of all have fun with it. Don't get caught up in the business and the seriousness of it. I had one student, this girl who all she talked about is meetings and such. "Oh, I've got a meeting with an attorney etc". I thought if you'd just sit down, play your guitar and had fun with it I think you'd get to where you want to be faster. There's got to be a combination of all that stuff, but I think just playing as much as you can, having fun with it, and stretching yourself, learning new things, keep it moving and progress. We're all going to get into little ruts now and then.
For more info on Van Wilks, for live dates or to order any of his albums go to http://www.vanwilks.com/
Title track from Van Wilks' debut album 'Bombay Tears' 1980 :
"Without A Word" from Van Wilks 'Live & Loud From Austin, Texas' CD/DVD 2009 :