WILLIE AND THE GIANT
The debut single from Willie and the Giant is a double shot of vintage rock ‘n’ soul, tastefully wrapped and carried like a party gift into the now. Open it up and you’ll find a few key ingredients missing from a lot of today’s music—for starters, space, warmth, subtlety and dynamic range. “Ain’t Gonna Wait” b/w “Poor Boy” begs to be played on vinyl through a hot tube receiver and some big, boxy hi-fi speakers.
Which makes sense. The retro-minded Nashville band cut these new songs at all-analog studio Welcome to 1979, where an impressive list of legends and contemporaries have recorded before them—Todd Snider and Dave Schools’ Hard Working Americans, The North Mississippi All-Stars, Those Darlins, Jason Isbell, even Animals frontman Eric Burdon.
“We wanted that warm, saturated sound that you can only get from tape,” frontman Will Stewart says, ” and Welcome to 1979 specializes in just that. It was cozy, too. Everything there is intentionally stylized to take you four decades back in time.”
“It definitely felt like a special place,” adds six-foot-five lead guitarist Jon Poor (aka The Giant). “From the minute we walked in, we were instantly at ease.”
This positive feel carried over to the sessions, which found the Nashville group’s Alabama roots on prominent display. Both Stewart and Poor were veterans of the Birmingham scene before relocating to Nashville, striking up a friendship and starting Willie and the Giant. For the new single, the band’s two singer-guitarists, bassist Grant Prettyman and drummer Mac Kramer were joined in the studio by friends and ‘Bama staples Matt Slocum on keys and the Chad Fisher Group on horns. The former (who now tours with Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson), and the latter (who has backed everyone from Jason Isbell and Gregg Allman to classic soul groups like The Temptations, The O’Jays and The Four Tops), helped submerge Willie and the Giant’s rock & roll heart, baptizing it in the deep and holy waters of Southern soul.
Everything was recorded live together in the same room—Fisher and Co.’s reserved yet confident horn arrangements, Slocum’s sparkling hammond organ, Perryman’s ever steady in-the-pocket grooves, Kramer’s ebullient, driving cut-time beats, Poor’s subtle Stratocaster licks and Stewart’s silky and expressive lead vocals.
“When we play, we really feed off of each other,” Poor says. “So this approach was perfect to capture our sound and really bring that human element to it. Most of our all-time favorite records—if you go back and research them—were done live, and we wanted to emulate that.”
The spontaneous results offer up plenty of magic, the tracks coming off like Willie Mitchell producing Al Green’s band with contemporary indie troubadour Josh Rouse on lead vocals. Both “Ain’t Gonna Wait” and “Poor Boy” were written in late 2012 when Stewart first moved to Nashville. At the time, he was consuming a steady diet of Green’s classic Stax recordings, chased with plenty of Bobby Womack. And not without reason. “All those old soul songs are either love songs or breakup songs,” he says, “which I was relating to because I’d just gone through a breakup myself.”
That said, Stewart didn’t want the songs to end up being self-indulgently maudlin. So he wrapped his lovelorn lyrics in upbeat, if slightly wistful music, providing a little sonic sugar to make the medicine go down. “I like a depressing song as much as the next guy, but with Willie & the Giant, I want everything to be uplifting and fun. Whether it’s soul, blues or rock & roll, there can be transcendence in the delivery. You’re coming from a place of pain, but you’re not wallowing in it; you’re digesting and moving past it. ‘Ain’t gonna Wait’ is a perfect example of this—taking a crisis and making it better; using it for good.”
The first signees to brand-new label Cumberland Brothers Music (run by the band’s producer and engineer, Nick Worley), Willie and the Giant is now back in the studio at Welcome to 1979, hard at work on their debut full-length. Already, they’re evolving, ready to show off their versatility. “The lead single is more a pair of soul tracks,” Stewart says, “but the rest of the LP is sounding a lot more like the British Invasion. We have a whole bunch of new tunes now, and everybody in the band is bringing ideas to the table, arrangement-wise—helping with bridges, phrasing, melodies. The plan is to keep building momentum—none of us have plans to stop any time soon.”
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