Pure genius encourages eccentricity. Case in point, Watermelon Slim, who on Friday releases a brilliant album, “Church of The Blues.”
William Homans III acquired his blues name for his time as a watermelon farmer. But he spent most of his working life off stage as a truck driver. He destroyed his shoulder pulling lumber off an assembly line. Among many other jobs, he’s worked as an investigative newspaper reporter and has made money selling his paintings and by bowling. After initially flunking out of college, he served in the Vietnam, where he first picked up guitar and, as is his bent, approached the instrument in a most unique way. He later became an anti-war activist and earned two college degrees.
Watermelon Slim made his first blues record in 1973, but it was more than 30 years later when he became an “overnight sensation.”
At the age of 69, Slim reflects on his life and eventual death on his 13th album. The opening song, “Saint Peter’s Ledger,” sets the tone with a rousing tempo and quintessential blues verse and guitarwork from Muddy Waters’ bandmember Bob Margolin. “Holler #4” is a powerful death stomp. “Post-modern Blues,” one of seven originals on the 14-track record, is a seriously thought-out take on technology: “Don’t think about the future, forget the past; obey the machine.”
There is a litany of well-known special guests on the album, co-produced by Slim’s long-time studio partner from his home state Oklahoma, Chris Hardwick.
Watermelon Slim lives in Clarksdale, Mississippi, now, and he heads north to perform Saturday, Jan. 26, at the Rum Boogie on Beale Street in Memphis at the end of the International Blues Challenge.
It took a while to get Slim on the phone to talk about his new album. When we finally did, he was on his way to the Mississippi Saxophones & Blues Emporium in Clarksdale.
Watermelon Slim: I’m going to give you a special treat. I am going to an errand downtown at the harmonica making and repair shop of Deak Harp, who is formerly James Cotton’s road manager and one of the pretty famous people we’ve got here in town. We will be conducting this interview as I am walking around. It will be a very special interview for you and I know, as a good journalist, you’ll handle it just fine.
I am walking in here and the best drummer of Clarksdale is also in here. You are in blues territory right now. His name is Lee Williams and he plays with just about everybody.
Lee Williams: How are you doing?
Tahoe Onstage: I’m good. Do you ever play with Slim?
Williams: I’ve played with Slim a couple of times.
Tahoe Onstage: What makes Slim an outstanding bluesman?
Williams: The way Slim dresses with his nice, cool clothes and his old hat.
Tahoe Onstage: What bands do you play with?
Williams: Heavy Suga and the Sweet Tones (and several more.) My biggest thing was playing with B.B. King in 2002.
Tahoe Onstage: Will you be at the Rum Boogie with Slim and Bob Margolin?
Williams: Yeah, I will be there on the 25th and 26th (of January).
Slim: Here’s Deak Harp.
Deak Harp: I make harmonicas. I’ve made them for Ozzie Osbourne, Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins, Dan Aykroyd, Charlie Musselwhite, Slim, and I repair all of Slim’s harps whenever he comes by with a bagful. We go through them and I get them up and running again. He gets all of his harmonicas here whenever a newfangled harp comes out.
Tahoe Onstage: Can you talk about Slim’s harmonica style?
Deak Harp: He’s a master. He can play in any key, in any position. The man is a savant with any instrument you give him. Right now, he’s taking a harmonica out of the box.
(Slim plays several notes on the harmonica.)
Slim: It works! … Lemme take back over the phone. Thank you, Deak and Lee. I just bought a custom version of a Special 20. That’s generally what I’ve always favored. Instead of looking like a blues harp, the black one, the walls in there are a little fatter. I think the harmonica is a couple of millimeters longer. You wouldn’t think that would matter, but it’s like playing with your own bowling ball the way it fits your fingers and you know how to flip it.
Tahoe Onstage: Are you going to reunite with Bob Margolin at the Rum Boogie?
Slim: His band is playing immediately after me. We’re taking the stage at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, a half-hour after the end of the IBC. We have a lot of international friends who will be coming in. Bob Margolin was one of the guest stars on the new record he’s expecting to play at least a song or two with us. I have known Bob a long time, but not when Muddy was alive. He’s been a good friend ever since I met him in the 1990s.
Tahoe Onstage: There are quite a number of high-profile blues players guesting on your new album. Is that unusual?
Slim: To have that many, yes. This is a Chris Hardwick produced album. This would be his eighth he’s produced with me, I think. He always comes up with somebody. This is a little higher number than usual and several of them are picks that I made and that’s a little unusual. … We had John Nemeth and Sherman Holmes singing with us. Sherman is the last surviving member of the Holmes Brothers. I got to know those fellas. One day I was out in Australia, I believe it was in Byron Bay. And in comes Sherman Holmes who asked me how I played guitar. Nobody plays guitar like me, but I don’t think of myself as a Joe Bonamassa of a guitarist by any stretch of the imagination. But he actually came and asked me how I did what I did, and I consider that as one of the highlights of my musical career.
Tahoe Onstage: You are left-handed and play right-handed guitar?
Slim: I play left-handed on a right-handed guitar backwards and I do not play anything but slide. I’ve never played any fretted guitar in my life.
Tahoe Onstage: I love that opening song, “Saint Peter’s Ledger.” — “I’ve been living one credit, eating up my borrowed time. Saint Peter – Hey buddy, can you spare a dime?” — How did you come to choose that song and lead the album with it?
Slim: Well done. Very well asked. “Saint Peter’s Ledger” was written by a truck driver friend of mine named Ronnie Lereaux Meadors. One day he was in Clarksdale and he hands me this song on paper. I said, “Hey, I like that, I may have to put that on my next record,” and in a matter of a few months, that’s what we did.
Ronnie Lereaux Meadors is a harp player of from Springfield, Missouri. He spends as little or as much time as necessary out on the road driving 18 wheels. As we truck drivers like to say, you can get along without your bankers and your computer operators and those kind of people but if all the truck drivers decided to sit down – kaboom, everything comes to a screeching halt. Truck driving was the other major career I’ve had in my life besides playing music.
Tahoe Onstage: I had a career in newspapers and I always thought that was the lowest paying profession. What pays best — reporter, watermelon farmer or musician?
Slim: Undoubtedly, musician pays better. But up until that point it had to be truck driving because my aborted journalistic career didn’t do me any good at all. At this point, I am a sometimes columnist but not an investigative journalist. If I have to investigate something, I have the skills. I have an investigation about energy transfer partners up at Standing Rock I was going into in 2016 but that’s a whole other story. We’re not going to tell that now.
Tahoe Onstage: I read that you learned to play guitar while serving in Vietnam.
Slim: I started to learn there, yes. I don’t know if I’ve learned yet how to play slide guitar. But I started in January 1970 in what was the 926 evacuation hospital in Cam Ranh Bay. I was walking around recovering and I met an old Vietnamese man in a tiny commissary about the size of two restroom stalls. He was putting insignias on people’s uniforms with an old sewing machine, unelectrified. And he had this old guitar sitting in the corner of his little shed. It was the nastiest looking guitar you ever saw but it still had six strings on it. I happened to have a little military payment certificate in my pocket. I said how much? He said $5. I played it for a while in Vietnam. I couldn’t take it back to the United States. They were being hard on people bringing stuff back. That’s when I did start trying to develop this style that I have. I didn’t know it was a style at that point but it has become, I guess, the reason people listen to me is because I’ve got a style. I’m not a great guitar player, but I do have something like a unique style in everything I sing and play.
Tahoe Onstage: Your bio says that in 2006 — with your self-titled album — you became an overnight sensation. That’s a helluva long night.
Slim: The first time I got paid anything to sing and play was in 1968 when I was 19 and fixing to go in the service because I failed in college. But I’ve been playing gigs in places for some sort of compensation or not since 1970. So it will be 50 years next year.
The year I made my first and only (vinyl) LP release was in 1973. I released it by myself because it was the OPEC oil embargo. It was that year, so suddenly the price of polyvinyl fluoride jumped 400 or 500 percent, and suddenly record companies, which had been used to paying about 25 cents a gallon, were paying up to 78, 79 cents a gallon. So suddenly they weren’t interested in artists with unproven commercial capability. So I didn’t record from 1973 to 2000. I made a couple of tries at it but nothing ever got to the published state. In 2004, I was still driving a truck and I had already made two nationally released CDs at that point. So I wasn’t exactly lifting off of the ground in a hurry because by then I was an old man. Now I’m an older man.
Tahoe Onstage: On Post-Modern Blues you say you are still living in the 20th century.
Slim: I don’t do real well around technology. If I were recommending anybody to understand the historical sweep of technology into dominance I would refer them to a book written by a fella named Jacques Ellul. The book was written in 1960 and it was called “The Technological Society.” It was at least 10 years before anyone was even thinking about the effects that the modernization and the electronicization of society that was going to be. Jacques Ellul knew the concept of technological determinism. If it can be invented, it will be invented. And if it is invented, it will be used. And I might say that that is the reason that the second bomb dropped on Nagasaki. They had to see how the plutonium bomb worked. That’s the best example I can think of why Harry Truman overruled his own science advisers, dropped the first one and then dropped the second one. So I haven’t gotten past the 20th century. My education doesn’t stop there, although my formal education does. But the more I go through this world, the more I think that I may be in this world but I am not of it. That’s a quote from Jesus. A paraphrase. Be in this world but not of this world, he was trying to tell us.
Tahoe Onstage: Jumping back to the record, you did a Hill Country version of “Smokestack Lightning.” Was Mississippi Fred McDowell a big influence?
Slim: Absolutely. Mississippi Fred was the music that I was trying to play when I first had the guitar and a cigarette lighter (slide) in Vietnam. John Lee Hooker is undoubtedly my No. 1 influence overall over all time but Fred’s got the greatest influence on my guitar. I’ve incorporated everybody. That’s a question that I get quite a bit. Who are my influences? Well my influences are A, B, C and D but I like to pat myself on the back and say, but you don’t sound like any of them. You’ve incorporated all of them but you don’t sound like any of them.
Tahoe Onstage: How long have you been selling paintings?
Slim: Really, just this century. I haven’t gotten to a point where I am painting for a living. I’ve had a couple of orthopedic issues that make painting hurt a little bit more than it used to. I’ve got a very bad shoulder. The shoulder is mostly bad because of sawmilling, which was the blue collar career I did next longest to truck driving. Repetitive motion with quiet a lot of weight. And under doctor’s orders I am retired from bowling right now. But I have a good right shoulder and I can still dance. I made money in my bowling career before I had to hang it up.
Tahoe Onstage: Hey Slim, it was a treat to talk with you.
Slim: It wasn’t exactly the normal profile thing as a journalist … I thought I’d jazz it up.
Tahoe Onstage: It was a pleasure, Slim.
Slim: Blues fans: I am not at this moment retiring. I am just going slower. Don’t worry about it. I will be around to see you all after a while. God bless you and Kirk out. (Click.)
— Tim Parsons
- Watermelon Slim
‘Church of The Blues”
Release: Friday, Jan. 25
Producers: Watermelon Slim and Chris Hardwick
Studio band: John Allouise, electric bass guitar, and Brian Wells, drums
Guest artists: Bob Margolin, John Nemeth, Sherman Holmes, Joe Louis Walker, Albert Castiglia, Nick Schnebelen, Red Young, Chris Wiser, Ike Lamb and Chris “Wick” Hardwick
- Watermelon Slim appearances
Jan. 26 — Rum Boogie, Memphis
Feb. 1 — Marriot Hotel Downtown, Des Moines, Iowa
Feb. 2 – Key Palace Theater. Red Key, Indiana
Feb. 7 – Slippery Noodle Inn, Indianapolis
Feb. 8 – Brauerhouse, Lombard, Illinois
Feb. 9 – BB’s Jazz Blues & Soup, St. Louis, Missouri
March 1 – Blue Canoe, Tupelo, Mississippi
March 2 – VZD’s Restaurant & Bar, Oklahoma City——