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Willie Farmer Envisions a Blues Retirement

inArtist Storyon April 6, 2021

By Scott Zuppardo

“People say I was born with the blues,” Willie Farmer says. “The blues is in me.” 

There’s a loneliness that goes with growing up in the rural South. Willie Farmer has embraced that loneliness for years, but its spell on him is waning. He’s a self-taught auto mechanic who, for most of his life, has made his living in garages. But Willie is also self-taught at guitar, songwriting and singing, and he hopes his immediate future will be his time to spread his version of the blues around the world. 

After the release of his last record, “The Man From the Hill” on the Big Legal Mess imprint in 2019, the odds were favorable for Farmer to hit the road behind the record and capitalize on his recent uptick in popularity. The album garnered favorable press across the globe and many opportunities for him and his fellow Music Maker Foundation artists to play well-attended stages. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic wiped away a slot at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and countless other shows booked nationally and worldwide. 

Willie instead found himself back in Duck Hill, Mississippi, under the familiar glow of drop lights, wearing grease-tinged clothes, and uttering four-letter expletives under the hoods and undercarriages of automobiles. It’s a decent way to make a living, but not any man’s desire for their golden years, particularly when there’s blues to be picked. 

Just shy of 65 years young, Little Willie Farmer is still a babe in bluesman years. His last offering was an impeccably distorted, Hill Country boogie record. I read the press release for that album, which said Willie intended to play and record his blues as a form of retirement in a press release. I just had to pick up the phone and see how that was working out for him. We finally connected on a Wednesday evening, each of us fresh off a long workday. I found Mr. Farmer to be a jovial man once the initial feeling out was done. I accidentally broke the ice when I made the mistake of calling Willie’s Uncle Walter (a local hero player of the blues and gospel) “Willie.” 

Willie is the father of nine, three daughters and six sons (including one set of twins), but with all his kids grown, Willie has plenty of road visions for the future. Happily married for over 45 years, while he does enjoy the fawning over by the fairer sex when he’s on tour, he loves and cares for his wife deeply and is by all means a family man. 

“I don’t want no reputation, see,’’ he says. “I’m a one-woman man and always will be!” 

Willie Farmer in a tintype photograph by Timothy Duffy

His early days in Sweatman, Mississippi, on the family farm gave birth to his musical dreams. He worked picking cotton for an entire summer to buy his first guitar. His family could hear immediately that he had a gift for the instrument.

“You play what you feel,” Willie offers. “Anyone can play a note like anyone else but it ain’t you until you put some you in it.” Farmer spent endless nights putting some of himself in it and still does. “The notes are all the same, but it’s the player that breathes life in it, makes it his own.” 

Willie often speaks in parables, and more than a few times during our conversation, he hit me right between the eyes with sweet, poignant truths.

“I don’t lie about nothing. I play the truth,” Willie says. “I just tell it like it is and leave it alone. I play what I feel. My Daddy always told me, when you play, don’t never go around braggin’ — just do a good job and people will take care of the rest. You just play, do the best you can, and you set down. Just like that. Don’t need to tell anyone nothing afterwards.” 

As Willie progressed on guitar, so did his father’s recognition of Willie’s newfound skill. His mother and father lovingly referred to his guitar as “the box.” One night his father came into his room and said he was sounding just like his Uncle Walter and quickly grabbed “the box” from the boy and tuned it to standard tuning. Willie only knew an open tuning, but from that point forward it was like a penguin on an iceberg. Blues progressions seemed to come to Willie out of nowhere, and Farmer’s insatiable search for endless boogie arose from the audible delicacies of his Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker records. Willie played the local jukes and toured with several gospel outfits, most notably the Rising Son Gospel Singers, of which Willie was a founding member. They toured extensively throughout the Southeast. But all the while, Willie was wrenching on cars and trucks for a living. 

“My next record is gonna be called ‘Sweatman Blues,’” Willie offers. It was at this point I mentioned to Willie that I in fact am a partner in a small independent label called Cornelius Chapel Records, and that we just recently released a record by one of his fellow partner artists at Music Maker, Alabama Slim. I took the opportunity to express our interest in getting in the studio with him and some choice folks to make a new record, to set us all up for some new touring opportunities and help perpetuate Willie’s dream of playing the blues, to get out from under the hood for good. 

Willie immediately let out a bevy of ideas.

“I got one called ‘Tomcat’ where I take my guitar and bend [the note] all the way up and get to whining like a tomcat lookin’ for heat,” 

I couldn’t get enough. 

“Then I got another one with an owl. I make the guitar scream like a owl, hootin’ for a good time, you know. I got a bunch of new ones!” I asked him about demos, and he said he’s been thinking about doing that for some time now. I’ll probably send him down a digital recorder and walk him through how to use it over the phone.

We promised to speak again in a month or so. I asked him to write some songs and then we’ll see about getting some equipment down to him to record the demos. 

In parting, I told Willie to holler at me if he needed anything in the interim, and that’s when he made me the butt of the joke. 

Willie told me to keep my eyes peeled for a good deal on a Gibson J50 acoustic guitar. Guitar folk will know that you can’t sniff out a decent J50 for less than $2,000. But I knew, at that precise moment, Wille Farmer and I would be fast friends.

 

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