Musicians usually have a sense of humor, but Webb Wilder is among the few who bring that humor into their music. “I was always the class clown,” says the Nashville-based guitarist. “Little Richard, the Beatles, the Stones, the Faces, and other people I admire have the humor thing.”
Born John Webb McMurry in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Wilder’s arch persona debuted in 1992, in a homemade short film, Webb Wilder Private Eye. “It gave me another reason to wear a hat—in addition to losing my hair,” he explains.
Wilder’s music embodies the anarchic rockabilly spirit without any retro trappings. Instead, his recordings and live performances serve up the same pastiche of American roots music that created rockabilly in the first place: country, R&B, and blues. His latest, Mississippi Moderne [Landslide Records], is serious about emphasizing the blues aspect, with covers of Otis Rush and Jimmy Reed tunes, while also containing elements of those other building blocks, all of it delivered with the famous Wilder wit.
What makes you want to cover a song?
If it’s got good melodic characteristics and it’s a topic I can relate to, be it serious, humorous, or both.
There’s a wide variety of music on the record. What do you think holds it all together?
Focusing the eclecticism is always the challenge. Sometimes the stars align and my albums are diverse but end up coming together. Doo Dad was pretty diverse, but those songs hung together and these do too. On Mississippi Moderne, it’s because there is an aspect of the blues in every one of them. The way we do Conway Twitty’s “Lonely Blue Boy” is bluesier than the original record. “Yard Dog” is blue-eyed soul. And then you’ve got the real blues songs: “Lucy Mae Blues,” “It Takes Time,” and Charlie Rich’s “Who Will the Next Fool Be.”
Did you record pretty much live?
We had a good live take on Bobby Field’s song, “I’m Not Just Anybody’s Fool.” I think we might have replaced the solo. I’m not going to tell you there were no overdubs and fixes, but we usually set up with three or four people to get a track. If it ain’t working, we try something else. “Rough and Tumble Guy” is real live. Bob Williams is on baritone guitar on that one.
What baritone was he was using?
It is some kind of Stratlike baritone he put together. I’ve got a Mexican Tele baritone with Curtis Novak pickups that we take out live. On the tune Joe McMahon produced, “Lucy Mae Blues,” I’m the only guitar and it’s Joe’s funky old Teisco baritone thing with four pickups and maybe a 26" scale tuned to C. It’s just got tone.
What amp do you use with the baritones?
We used some kind of old Magnatone amp. For regular guitar I used a killer silverface Fender Princeton. The first silverface amp I ever saw was heartbreaking. I thought it was uglier than the blackface. But they are still better than most amps. Princeton Reverbs are so versatile because, depending on where you set them and what guitar you play, you can pretty much get any tone. You can also use them with extension cabinets. I’ve got an old Fender Bassman cabinet with tilt back legs and old 12" Creamback Celestions with bass cones. I mostly record with that cabinet.
There is often tremolo on the rhythm tracks. Is it from the amp or a pedal?
The tremolo in an amp usually sounds better than a pedal tremolo, but for convenience on “Not Just Anybody’s Fool,” and on some other stuff, I used my Marshall Vibratrem, which kicks the volume up a little bit and sounds good. I never would have dreamed I would use it on recordings, but I did. Joe also has this pedal called the Bigfootfx Magnavibe. It approximates that Magnatone warbly pitch-bending vibrato pretty well.
What kind of electric 12-string is on “I Gotta Move” and “Too Much Sugar for a Nickel?”
Any 12-string would have been Bob Williams. He’s got the Tom Petty Rickenbacker, but I think his go-to electric 12-string is a DeArmond—the kind you can’t get anymore.
Why did you decide to use two electric sitars on “Only a Fool?”
We were sitting around deciding what to do with that track and I said, “Maybe electric sitar.” I don’t know if it even clicked that Dan Penn, who cowrote it with me, wrote “Cry Like a Baby,” which also had electric sitar. I just knew it would sound ’60s-ish. Bob started playing it and then handed it to [Wilder band bassist] Tom Comet.
Did you all have a hand in the arranging?
Tom really had a great hand in that song. I had a demo for 20 years or so. You’d think if you write a song with Dan Penn you’d record it sooner. But before this we couldn’t even figure out what beat to play.
Did you and Bob play the traded guitar solos on “It Takes Time” in the room together?
A lot of my lead stuff, if not all of it, is from the basic tracks. I wanted Bob to trade licks with me on the last solo, so he overdubbed that. If you listen to it, we may overlap at times.
That’s amazing—it sounds like you guys are in the same room.
I’m not fleet fingered. I wasn’t playing a lot of crowded phrasing so there was plenty of room for him. We haven’t started trading bars live. I kind of wish we would. We’ve still been playing it like we used to, where we just trade entire solos.
Tell me about the Tele with your initials on it.
It is a modified Mexican reissue of the Fender Telecaster Deluxe. I can’t believe I’m playing a guitar with that much non-nitro finish on it. But the original would have had a polyester finish anyway. I had it converted to a four-bolt neck because the damn thing would move on me. I have learned on the battlefield why three-bolt is a bad idea. I put a Seymour Duncan Trembucker in the bridge and a Duncan Seth Lover in the neck, and went to three pots instead of four, like my Flying V. I like a volume for each pickup. I don’t use the tone control much anyway, so why have two? I also put on titanium saddles.
I’ve been in and out of the humbucking thing. I’ve had Gibson 335s but I like the long Fender scale and the way Teles stay in tune. I also have a Les Paul I used on “It Takes Time” and “Who Will the Next Fool Be.” I think it’s a 2004. It has an ugly plain top, but really gets the overtones, even with the stock pickups.
What are you using on your pedalboard?
I love the Xotic EP Booster. It’s the least pedal-y sounding pedal I’ve ever heard. I’ve got an old Lovepedal Church of Tone, and for some reason those two sound good together. I’ve got one of the early Fulltone Fat-Boosts, a Boss tuner, Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Nano, and the Vibratrem.
Do you do stack the EP Booster and the Church of Tone or use them individually?
I do both. Most of the time, when I’m playing rhythm, I’m not using any of them. I have found the Church of Tone is like a 50-watt Marshall. You can get crunchy without getting a lot louder. The EP Booster makes it louder without sounding any different. The Fat-Boost is for getting the solo out there with an emphasis on mids. If I want to make everything feed back, I’ll turn the guitar volume all the way down, turn them all on, and then swell it up.
Did you use overdrive pedals in the studio or just the amp for drive?
I don’t think I used anything but the Vibratrem and the EP Booster because that EP Booster will just warm up the front end. I probably used that a good bit.
What amps are you using live?
It depends on the gig. I’ve got a blackface Deluxe Reverb I bought in Austin in the late ’70s. If I play somewhere really small, I may use that. My main amp is my 50-watt Hiwatt head. I never get the output above 9 o’clock. I’ll take my blackface Fender Bassman head, my Hiwatt, and a 1x12 cabinet with a 100- watt Scumback. I decide which amp I need and then I have a spare.
What’s next for you?
I’m just trying to exploit this record to its fullest and look ahead to the next one. When things calm down in February, I’d like to do some writing or looking to see what unreleased stuff can be released. It sounds corny, but it’s an honor to be interviewed for Guitar Player. They did a big spread on me in ’87. It came too soon in some ways, but I was very honored then as well.