Published: July 18, 2013
If extensive life experience is a requirement to sing the blues, like Watermelon Slim believes, then he hits it hands down.
The 64-year-old blues musician, born Bill Homans, is a Vietnam veteran, twice-divorced and the father of an almost 21-year-old daughter.
He's been a longtime truck driver, a general assignment newspaper reporter, watermelon farmer (hence the nickname), sawmiller, collection agent and funeral officiator, among other professions. It's all fodder for the hillbilly country blues that come tumbling out of his harmonica and slide guitar. His gravelly rumble of a voice is the icing on the cake.
Slim headlines Blues Under the Bridge on Saturday, along with singer and guitarist John Hammond. This is the seventh year of the festival, which, appropriately enough, is held underneath the Colorado Avenue bridge. Last year, as many as 1,400 people attended the event presented by KRCC 91.5 FM, says Jeff Bieri, program director.
"I sing my blues about three different things," Slim says: "work, long-term relationships and mortality."
It was a brush with mortality - a heart attack - that put the spurs to his music career in 2002.
"It focused me," he says. "It reinforced my knowledge that I'm going to die."
Up until then, Slim hadn't done gangbusters in music, even though he was raised on the blues - John Lee Hooker, to be exact. He's played harmonica since the age of 10, and 10 years after that, he carried his harp with him to the Vietnam War. He caught some sort of disease, he says, and recovered in Cam Ranh Bay. He bought a ratty guitar for $5 at the commissary there and taught himself to play a slide guitar upside-down and left-handed, using a Zippo lighter as a slide and a triangle pick cut from a rusty coffee can top.
"I had no choice, I'm left-handed," Slim says. "I'm a left-handed player on a right-handed guitar. I never had training in playing, there was nobody to ever teach you to play left-handed. All the teachers are right-handed."
After he was honorably discharged from the military, he came home and made his first record, "Merry Airbrakes," in 1973. It was the first of its kind - a protest album from a war veteran - and caught some attention.
But then the music and limelight faded, he went back to truck driving and it was 1999 before a second album came out.
"I really wasn't talented enough," Slim says. "In the early '70s, I had a gimmick. Then suddenly the oil embargo happened, and people at Atlantic were no longer interested in recording artists of unproven official pedigree. I had no pedigree at that point."
He never stopped playing, but it wasn't until this century, he says, that somebody in the music business took notice of him and decided he was worth another listen.
"That's the way you get in the music business," he says. "You have to have an insider introduce you to other insiders. That means you have to be absolutely lucky or have family connections, like John Hammond, or Jonny Lang."
Nowadays, Slim lives in Clarksdale, Miss., "ground zero for the blues," he says. He finally gave up the truck driving, though he still keeps a radio and spends time talking to other truckers who are on the road. In 2004 he went on tour with his band The Workers, and has claimed full-time musician status ever since.
He's received more than 20 Blues Music Award nominations, including wins for Band of the Year and Album of the Year. His latest album, "Bull Goose Rooster," was released last month.
"Watermelon Slim's vocal delivery, full of passion, laid it on the line. He plays his guitars (Dobro 01235) lap-style with slide," wrote concert reviewer Lewis A Harris in 2012 on Bluesnights: The Dorset Blues Society website. "Slim performed superb renditions of 'Highway 61' and 'Smokestack Lightnin'' with powerful riffs and lots of energy. A very skillful harp player, he held the sold-out audience spellbound."
As it turns out, Slim believes there are life requirements to play the blues.
"I do think it is important that if you're going to sing about work at all, then to actually have done some work," he says. "People under 30 years old have been born under a post-industrial technocracy. What that means is that our capitalists, our bosses, our rulers, have outsourced all the hard work, the manufacturing, out of the country, leaving ... the tech or service jobs."
And if another couple of decades pass between albums, you'll know where to find him.
"If it all just blew up," he says, "I'd just go home and sing in church."
Blues Under the Bridge
When: Gates open at 1 p.m. Saturday, music from 2-11:45 p.m.
Where: Under the Colorado Avenue bridge, 218 W. Colorado Ave., $10 parking next to festival or free in Antlers Hilton parking garage
Tickets: $35, $25 KRCC members (limit two), $91.50 VIP includes VIP seating, food and drink tickets, T-shirt and water; 473-4801, bluesunderthebridge.com
2-3 p.m.: JustUs League
3:20-4:35 p.m.: DB Rielly
4:55-6:25 p.m.: Slide Brothers
6:45-8:15 p.m.: Blues Caravan
8:35-10:05 p.m.: John Hammond
10:25-11:45 p.m.: Watermelon Slim
• 5-8 p.m. Friday: Watermelon Slim and Big Jim Adam, The Mining Exchange — A Wyndham Grand Hotel, 8 S. Nevada Ave., free.
• 9 p.m. Friday: Austin Young, Jack Quinn Irish Alehouse and Pub, 21 S. Tejon St., free.
Jennifer Mulson can be reached at 636-0270.