Grounded in the Ozarks, the Forrest Williams Band keeps evolving
The Forrest Williams Band’s presence online is minimal and mild as websites go, but its presence onstage is something else.
The band played four shows a week for 345 days last year from Seattle to Chicago to St. Petersburg. They’re jammed in more ways than one because as fans know by now, their chops are as tight as a sailor on shore leave — and double so on the husband-and-wife duets, rich as whipping cream smoothies.
Their repertoire runs from purring cocktail loungies like What’s Going On to musically stark country laments like Nothing on My Mind with vocal styles ranging from suave Euro-influences at one end to Armadillo World Headquarters at the other. And never do they resort to any suspender snapping for attention.
Coming onstage, aside from a tip of the hat to the audience, they just burst into guitar, keyboards and drums, full-tilt roadhouse rhythms and then, out on the dance floor, everybody gets up to get down.
“My grandmother Robeax was from down around New Orleans,” Forrest said. “But Pherrel and I come from Arkansas. Derek, our drummer, is from North Carolina.”
Back home near Fayetteville, Forrest Williams first picked up a guitar when he was 14, and between then and now, learned to be a welder and trained to be a combat medic in the Army. All along his way, he worked at paying his dues as a musical entertainer.
“Oh yeah,” he said, “early on, I played some Blues Brothers-type venues, stuff flying through the air.”
Things spun out of control, Williams recalled, at a Fayetteville watering hole frequented by both blue-collar workers and University of Arkansas students.
“Normally there was peaceful co-existence, but one time there wasn’t, and a general brawl ensued. I was playing that night, and when it started I said, ‘I don’t want to get into that, at all!’ I put my guitar behind me to protect it and backed into the furthest corner of the set!”
Forrest remains close to the Ozarks and still enjoys chilling out in the woods and bowhunting there.
“Anyway, how we got down here is that my younger brother moved down to Destin before I did. He kept telling us he thought that we’d like it down here. So Pherrel and I came down from Arkansas to check it out — and we did!”
With Pherrel Williams, one gets more than he sees at first. Her reticent manner isn’t shyness; it comes from knowing who she is and where she’s been.
“My maiden name was Foster,” she said, explaining that The Fosters were a traveling musical family known nationwide on the gospel circuit.
“So from when I was 13 all the way up to 25, I tour-bussed the gospel circuit singing and playing bass and keyboard as a member of The Fosters.
“Home-schooled,” she declared before a question about her education was all the way out, and then she offered a rueful smile.
“We were eleven, including kids, on the road all the time. Until I graduated homeschool, there were times I know my mom wanted to wring my neck!”
And then there’s Derek Givans, who doesn’t just keep the beat going — no! Attending a Forrest Williams Band performance, one realizes after a couple of beers that the vertical vibrations from the Texas hatboxes rattling and thumping in front of him reflect the horizontal vibes from Forrest’s strings and Pherrel’s keyboard back out to the audience, pushing out an all-embracing wall of sound. Givans plays the guitar, too, sometimes at solo gigs.
“As a kid,” he laughs, “there were always guitars available at home. When I was 3, I wanted to dress up like Kiss. Later, there was metal until I was in high school, then I branched out wide.”
A North Carolina boy to start with, but some members of his family tree must have followed the historical frontier settler’s route from North Carolina to the Panhandle because he came south to Freeport to live in his grandparents’ house, which is one of the landmark, old-style Florida places in town.
“Pherrel and I came down to Destin in 2011,” Forrest said, “then moved from Destin to Santa Rosa Beach. We weren’t wanting to be hermits or anything. We were just looking for someplace more tranquil, less crowded. A slower pace and a little space.”
In fact, for five years, two-thirds of the Forrest Williams Band turned their rural backyard into a weekly venue featuring local talent — stage and all, with “no distractions from having a bar.”
They called it Backyard Boogie, a big success in those free-booting days until copycats came in and pulled the local kill-joy authorities down on themselves and Backyard Boogie, as well.
Vocally, Forrest’s style changes from album to album. Subtle gliding inflections in Gonna Take Love call to mind Brian Ferry. His back-home songs like Whiskey Tornado are way Waylon Jennings! And with Pherrel’s iridescent notes — totally cowboy, except for Derek’s flat hat!
So far, the Forrest Williams Band has chalked up three albums: Forrest Williams in 2007, Gonna Take Love in 2012 and in 2022, Eight Hundred Miles of Sunshine, inspired by a motorcycle trip to Key West where Forrest and friend Bryan Kennedy swore to write or at least initiate a song a day, all the way.
Down and back?