When it comes to honky-tonk and rockabilly piano in the 21st century, Memphis-based Jason D. Williams is keeping the style very much alive. In fact, in the 1989 Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire, it was Williams’ hands that were shown playing when actor Dennis Quaid was at the piano. Now, the man USA Today called “Jerry Lee Lewis’ most devoted disciple” has released an album appropriately titled Killer Instincts, and it’s chock full of the pumping rockabilly and wild lyrical stories that are a staple at Williams’ raucous live shows—he plays about 160 of them a year all over the country. Mostly written in the studio with Nashville producer/songwriter Todd Snider, Killer Instincts is a boisterous, piano-fueled party cooked up with a good dose of dark humor from what Williams calls “the Dada,” in reference to the anything-goes artistic and cultural movement associated with painter Salvador Dali. Though Williams modestly claims to know more about bird watching than about music, don’t believe it for a second—he’s a wellspring of inspiration. He shared his thoughts on being the heir to the Killer’s throne, how to pound the piano without wrecking your hands, and how hard good boogie-woogie is to find these days.
Besides Jerry Lee Lewis, who were your inspirations growing up?
I’ve known Jerry Lee since maybe before birth! [Laughs.] I got some of the energetic moves from Jerry, and he’s one of the greatest entertainers doing that. I don’t mind the comparison, as long as it stays musical. My cousin who plays guitar calls me a human sponge. I’d mimic the way people were playing more than what they were playing. I’d watch [’70s country music/comedy series] Hee Haw and see Moon Mulligan put his foot up on the piano, so I’d do that. Of course, once you do that, the comparisons to Jerry Lee come right in. But truly, it was Moon Mulligan who did that first. A lot of my inspiration also came from stride piano: Fats Waller, Louis Jordan, and people like that. I also picked up some classical by ear, namely from listening to Vladimir Horowitz. But I don’t read music.
What was your first gig?
When I was five or six, my Momma took me to play for old people at a nursing home. When I finished, everybody applauded and it scared the heck out of me, so I ran to my Momma and started to cry. But I wound up kind of liking it, and it’s been one wild thing or another ever since. I think it’s in my blood.
You once described yourself as “Jerry Lee Lewis meets Jackson Pollock.” How so?
When my band’s onstage, it’s like a Jackson Pollock splatter painting: very spontaneous from one minute to the next. I’m used to being entertained as well as the audience, and I never know what I’m going to do next. It could go from classical to jazz to ragtime to straight out boogie-woogie. But my band is basically rockabilly with the energy of Jerry Lee.
When you started touring, was it hard to find real pianos?
Absolutely. One of the best piano markets was Boston. I left Arkansas and went up there with Sun recording artist Sleepy LaBeef. We’re real close friends—he’s like a daddy to me. After I was done with the Sleepy gig, I found myself doing a solo act with my twang talking and wild boogie- woogie. Now I play an old Kawai EP-308 electric grand piano, which they stopped making in the ’80s. We’ve had 70 or 80 of them over the years, and I still tour with them. We have a warehouse full of parts to keep the three or four I have on the road going.
With such a physically demanding piano style, how do you stay loose?
To keep my energy up, I run five miles a day and I’m basically a vegetarian. My hands have not slowed down at all over the years. I don’t do any excessive hand exercises. I play often enough to keep my fingers limber. But it’s the cardio exercise that flows through the fingers. Keeping my body healthy has kept my hands healthy.
What’s your take on the state of rockabilly piano these days?
I don’t see a lot of players. I know they’re out there and I want to see more of them. Old-style rockabilly piano is a lost art, almost like tap dancing. My whole thing is not an imitation of Jerry Lee, but I don’t see anyone else really following in his footsteps.
What piano players would you recommend our readers discover?
The guys that were very influential to me were Memphis Slim and Booker T. Laury, who was nicknamed “Slop Jar.” Memphis Slim turned me on to him. When I met him, I shook his hand and realized he didn’t have all his fingers. Even so, he was one of the best boogie-woogie pianists I’d ever heard. Some of the popular players are still great. They’re well known for a reason. Coming up, I was always listening to a variety of music and trying to transpose it to piano, like Leo Kottke, who’s a guitar player. Another guy you ought to look up is Alan Seidler. He made the nuttiest record, called The Duke of Ook. I never heard nothing like it. He was a classical Julliard guy that cracked and just went crazy. That record really warped me from an early age. Then I heard George Winston, who started out as a boogie-woogie kinda guy before he went all new age. His boogie playing was more interesting. If you want to hear a great song, listen to his “Miles City Train”—it’s the damndest thing you ever heard.
Was there a defining influence on your musical direction?
My cousin who played guitar was such a mentor to me, and he told me, “There’s no rules on a piano. It’s just a canvas and your fingers are the paints.” I looked up to him so much that I just went back to the piano and started creating these really original solo pieces. But record-wise, I remember hearing Jimmy Dorsey doing boogie-woogie with Glenn Miller and it got me really stirred up about piano.
How do you describe your style?
I call it “pianimal.” It’s just playing your ass off ’til everybody either keels over or goes home drunk!
***Check out these Jason D. Williams Web Extras:
• Show dates and more videos on Jason's site.