2011 National Heritage Fellow, blues guitarist and singer Warner Williams and Jay Summerour on harmonica, percussion and backing vocals will bring their unique take on the Piedmont Blues to the Mainstay in Rock Hall on Saturday March 17 at 8:00 pm. Admission is $15. For information and reservations call 410-639-9133. Information is also available at the Mainstay’s website.
Piedmont blues singer, guitarist and 2011 NEA National Heritage Fellow Warner Williams and his musical partner Jay Summerour on harmonica and percussion began playing together during the early 1990s. They have been featured in concerts, on television and radio, and at festivals across the country, including appearances on the National Public Radio series “Folk Masters”, at the National and Lowell folk festivals, on the National Mall during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the American Roots Fourth of July celebration and three times in the “Folk Masters” series at the Barns at Wolf Trap.
Born in 1930, Piedmont-style singer and guitarist Warner Williams grew up in a musical family in the Washington, DC suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland. His father played guitar, fiddle, and piano; his mother sang hymns; and all eight of his brothers and three sisters sang or played instruments. Williams is often referred to as a “songster” for the breadth of styles, sources, and songs he is able to perform, but he prefers the term “Guitar Man.” Now retired, he brings the Piedmont blues to schools, blues clubs, and folk festivals with his musical partner, harmonica player, Jay Summerour.
Williams and Summerour are an outstanding example of the East Coast guitar/harmonica duet tradition of John Cephas and Phil Wiggins and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
The Piedmont region runs from Maryland to Georgia and west to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Dating back to the early 20th century, the Piedmont blues has included gospel, fiddle tunes, blues, country, ragtime, jazz, and popular songs. Williams’ diverse repertoire shows that range of musical influences, from bluesmen Blind Boy Fuller, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Muddy Waters, to country artists Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, and Gene Autry, as well as jazz, big band, and popular influences.
Harmonica player Jay Summerour has been involved with music for well over 40 years. He began his musical education on the trumpet at age 7, and learned harmonica from his grandfather Smack Martin. Largely self-taught, Summerour picked up bits and pieces from “folks he ran into”—folks like Sonny Terry, James Cotton and Magic Dick.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Summerour took the traditional harmonica into the popular arena, joining the Starland Vocal Band and playing with Nils Lofgren and his band Grin. Four of the Starland Vocal Band’s records went gold while Summerour was part of the band.
Williams draws on an endless repertoire of blues, county, jazz, pop, gospel, rock, and old-time classics. He imprints each piece with his own style, the mark of a true songster. Over the course of his life he’s picked up lots of songs and as long as it’s good music, he doesn’t discriminate. With his outsized cowboy hat, boots, jeans and shades, he’s hard to miss; and when he starts to play, whether it’s Blind Boy Fuller, Fats Waller, or Fats Domino, he’s impossible to ignore.
As a youngster he played at home, at church, and on the streets. When he was old enough, he played in jooks and taverns, at times working with various bands. But for the most part, music has been a pleasure and a hobby secondary to a day job and raising his own musical family. Three generations of family-based music provide the context for his skills and musical choices blending rural, urban, black and white traditions. He admits a preference for older songs that date back as far as the country breakdown his father once played, but much of his repertoire comes from the blues, jazz, country, pop, and rhythm and blues of the late 1940’s and 1950’s. Now retired, he has dedicated more time to playing and has expanded his musical reputation.
In 2004, Smithsonian Folkways released a CD of Williams’ and Summerour’s music titled “Blues Highway,” produced by Nick Spitzer, folklorist, professor at Tulane University and host of public radio’s “American Routes”. In the liner notes, Spitzer, refers to Williams as a “musical almanac”, saying that, “…Warner Williams, the Guitar Man, brings consummate playing to his eclectic repertoire, complete with unexpected jazz chords, jaunty single-string work, ragtime strums, and basic Piedmont finger-picking — all complementing his warm, gravelly voice.”
In describing the CD Smithsonian Folkways called Warner Williams “one of the greatest unsung heroes of the Piedmont blues” and “an old-style community entertainer of national significance.”
In 2011 the National Endowment for the Arts concurred presenting its highest honor for traditional arts, the National Heritage Fellowship, to Warner Williams. In presenting the award the NEA recognizes the “recipients’ artistic excellence” and supports “their continuing contributions to our nation’s traditional arts heritage.”
The Mainstay (Home of Musical Magic) is the friendly informal storefront performing arts center on Rock Hall’s old time Main Street. It is a 501(c)(3), non profit dedicated to the arts, serving Rock Hall, MD and the surrounding region. It is committed to presenting local, regional and national level talent, at a reasonable price, in an almost perfect acoustic setting. Wine, beer, sodas and snacks are available at the bar.
The Mainstay is supported by ticket sales, fundraising including donations from friends and audience members and an operating grant from the Maryland State Arts Council.
For information and reservations call the Mainstay at 410-639-9133. More information is also available at the Mainstay’s website.
Upcoming Mainstay performances include:
March 24 Dick Morgan Trio
April 1 Kevin Clark Quartet
April 13 John Jorgenson Quintet
April 15 Alturas Duo
April 21 Tempest
April 29 University of Delaware Jazz Ensemble