From left: Everett Lilly, Roger, Don Stover, Bea Lilly, Ross Whittier;
circa 1964 at the Hillbilly Ranch in Boston, MA
Roger Williams was born to traveling musicians Gerry Lee and Curley Williams, who were on the road performing with Ray Bradley and His Tennessee Champions (Gerry on upright bass and vocals, and Curley on Dobro and vocals). At that time, they were working in northeastern Maine in the town of Presque Isle. By the time Roger was a month old, Gerry realized that being on the road constantly wouldn't allow her the time to be the mom she wanted to be. So she returned to her hometown of Lawrence, Massachusetts where Roger spent his formative years. Although she no longer toured, music continued to be a vital part of her life and those of other family members, and she passed her passion on to Roger. From an early age he learned to sing the harmany parts to Gerry's vast repertoire of old country songs.
In his early teens Roger developed an interest playing the Dobro after having seen one being played on a weekly television show featuring local country and bluegrass acts. Roger's father Curley--who ultimately would be honored by the Massachusetts Country Music Hall of Fame--gave Roger some pointers to get him started. Roger, newly obsessed with this strange new instrument, took it from there. Within a year Roger was sitting in with The Lilly Brothers and Don Stover at the world famous Hillbilly Ranch in Boston, Mass. where they had performed for nearly two decades. Since then he has gone on to perform and/or record with many well respected bluegrass and folk acts on the national and international circuit, including Don Stover & The White Oak Mountain Boys,White Mountain Bluegrass, Hazel Dickens, Joe Val, Bill Harrell, Delia Bell & Bill Grant, Southern Rail, Ray Legere (with Mark Schatz and Wyatt Rice), Mac Wiseman,The New England Bluegrass Band, Salamander Crossing, Slavek Hanzlik, Mark Erelli, Hiro Arita, and others. Career highlights include thirteen overseas tours with various artists and teaching workshops during Bluegrass Week at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, WV. Roger currently performs with Amy Gallatin & Stillwaters, which has a steady presence in Europe, UK, and Canada, as well as the eastern seaboard of the U.S.
The accolades he has received over the years are a testament to his musicianship, perhaps best summed up by songwriter and frequent collaborator Randy Spencer: "When I sit in the control room and hear tracks that Roger is trying out on dobro, I know I'm in the presence of greatness. Characteristic of a short list of musicians, Roger doesn't merely play along or complement a song, Roger interprets. I don't even start a CD until I call Roger."
In addition to his Nashville duet album with Amy Gallatin ("Something 'Bout You") and his work as producer, arranger, engineer, and musician on Stillwaters' "Everything I Wanted Love To Be" and "Phoenix", Roger also has three solo projects: "A Resophonic Retrospective" (a compilation disc from his first two instrumental projects of "Fireball" and "Route 2 To Amherst"), " River Of No Return", a collaboration with long time musical associate Ray Legere, and most recently a duet, all original effort with his son, JD Williams entitled "Williams Squared". He has been involved in numerous of the CMH label's Pickin' On series, where different musical genres are interpreted in the bluegrass vein.
For more info on Roger's recordings, please visit the 'Albums' page.
mom Gerry Lee passed away
on January 1, 2008 at the age of 84 after a brief illness.
Her brother Adalard (nicknamed 'Shorty Davis') was also musically inclined. He could sing as well as play the fiddle and guitar, and was comedically gifted as well. Gerry's talents included singing as well as playing guitar, mandolin, upright bass, and piano. In 1938 Shorty befriended Arthur Demers, who would eventually become known on the music circuit as Curly Williams, and Gerry and Curly were married in 1943. Curly played the resophonic guitar (also known generically as the "Dobro") and eventually the pedal steel, and the three of them started getting together and rehearsing their favorite country music songs of the time. Eventually they joined up with a man named Ray Bradley and formed a group called the Tennessee Champions. Country music (or 'hillbilly" music as it was also called) was quite popular at the time, and the group traveled around the Northeast playing barn dances and school auditoriums, as well as doing the radio shows that were common in the wee hours of the morning. They also made several 78 rpm recordings in NYC in the mid-1940's. Gerry remembered the promoters playing up her native American looks and heritage by clothing her in headresses and fringed buckskin dresses for her performances. In later years, she would continue to sing and play primarily at home or house parties and the occasional jam session at a bluegrass festival.
mom will live on in the music I play; it's very much a part of me.
and me at the Hartland Hollow Bluegrass Festival, September, 2007
story of the missing RQ Jones as told by Randy Spencer . . .with just
a little creative license!
One spring In the mid-1980's. Roger was about to embark on his first overseas tour with a bluegrass band. In the years that followed he would do seven more, but this time the schedule would take his group through much of continental Europe. He checked his instrument at the Logan Airport baggage desk and boarded a British Airways jet bound for London's Heathrow Airport. With little sleep and a gig that very night in the Netherlands, Roger went to baggage claim somewhat bleary-eyed and ill-prepared for the bleak news: his dobro had not come in on the plane! There was nothing to be done about it on the spot; the group had to leave and fast, and Roger was forced to borrow a lesser dobro for the upcoming performances. It bore little resemblance to his R. Q. Jones handmade masterpiece, at the time the finest available. But Roger's instrument was special beyond its name. From one of his many ... national dobro competitions, he had won a sound chamber cover plate, engraved with the date, 1977, the only one made that year. His instrument also had a tortoise shell bridge, a unique feature that Roger found produced better sound. But now, all was lost and what followed for Roger Williams was a very dark period of his professional life.
Returning from the tour that summer, Roger checked with the airline and the airport repeatedly, but to no avail. Once, there was arumor that the instrument might have mistakenly gone to Istanbul. Dejectedly, Roger tried to come to terms with the full ramifications of his loss. From now on, everything he played would come up short, and at most, could only garner second-best status. His R.Q. Jones had been his inspiration and his friend. At night, lying in bed in a state of twilight consciousness, he would wonder where it was-even try to send a kind of telepathic message to it to see if he could feel some response. This practice led to an ongoing "dialogue" with his lost dobro and it was this dialogue that prevented Roger from giving up hope completely.
Late that summer, the name of Jerry Douglas came up once again in Roger's life. At the time, Jerry was having special dobro accessories made in Nashville, and Roger-always trying to achieve better sound-wanted to try one of them out on his now second-best instrument. Lacking Jerry's phone number, Roger called fellow dobro aficionado, Jim Heffernan in New Jersey believing that he might have it. He did indeed, and in the course of the phone conversation, Roger related the recent loss of his R.Q. Jones, something that could only be fully appreciated by a peer.
Hearing the sad news, Jim Heffernan said, "That's funny, I've got an R.Q. Jones sitting right here. It was just shipped to me from a music store in Amherst, Massachusetts so I could try it out. The thing is, it's got a tortoise shell bridge and it's not exactly what I'm after. I'm driving it up there tomorrow to return it cause they told me if I don't take it, they've already got another buyer."Roger felt his body temperature go up. He wrote down the directionsand phone number for the music store in Amherst. He told Jim he would meet him there, then called the store and told them all the details surrounding the loss of his R.Q. Jones and begged them to hold back on the sale of this instrumentuntil he got there. If it was his, he could prove it...
It was a man with a mission that got up in the dark that late August morning and drove from New Hampshire to Massachusetts to shake hands with Jim Heffernan in an Amherst parking lot. It was a man who had the sensation that he was watching from outside his body when Jim opened the trunk of his car to reveal an all too familiar guitar case. When he opened the case, there, resting in a velvety shrine was the R.Q. Jones dobro with the tortoise shell bridge. As though in a dream-state, Roger leaned over and squinted at the cover plate. When he stood up, emotion blocked his speech, for he had seen what he already knew would be there: "1977" engraved on the plate he had won that year, the only one of its kind in the world.
To this day, Roger doesn't know where his dobro had been those dark months. What he does know, and he doesn't mind if you doubt it, is that the dialogue he opened between his instrument and himself was what started its progress toward him. He had faith that the strings of fate would have these partners reunited no matter what it took, and through an uncanny sequence of events, those strings are still playing today through the artistry and virtuosity of Roger Williams, the dobro man.
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