Leave it to Webb Wilder to perfect the art of singing in the shower — or, at least, realizing when such an activity can be best optimized on a record.
At the close of his “Missississpi Moderne” album, Wilder’s newest sampler of typically varied roots rock delicacies, the veteran Nashville-by-way-of-Hattiesburg singer includes a version of the blues chestnut, “Stones in My Passway,” that was recorded in purposely primitive conditions — specifically, on a hand-held recorder in the shower. Wilder never intended it for professional or public release, but the ultra lo-fi result proved a fitting way to open and close the album.
“It was pretty silly,” Wilder said of his “Stones” realization. “I will go to my grave reserving the right to be silly.
“Look, I am from Mississippi, and if I grow up in an Afro-Celtic culture, I like to think I can do that sort of thing with as much soul as the next guy. But that was never meant to be released. It was kind of a ‘Ha ha, listen to this’ deal. I made that thing up in the shower in the mid ’90s. I call it ‘hand-held’ because I recorded it on a hand-held cassette recorder. We wound up putting it on the multi-track. Tom Comet, our bass player, had the idea of putting just a little snippet of it at the beginning, so the album is bookended by it.”
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Mixing rootsy drive and authority with a discreet level of giddiness has mostly been the modus operandi for Wilder over the last three decades. Wilder the musician actually grew out of Wilder the hip 1950s private-eye character created for an indie short film. But ever since the release of his debut album, 1986’s “It Came From Nashville,” Wilder’s askew but devout roots music — which regularly incorporates rock, rockabilly, country, surf, swing, blues, soul and more — has remained vibrant.
“For a lot of us, music is our core,” Wilder said. “It’s our spirituality. To be a musician is a lifelong pursuit. Ahead of everything else in life, it’s a pretty nutty thing to do. So the only people who really do it are people who are unable to not do it. It’s like a calling. So I was born into music, apparently.
“I was in the fourth grade when the Beatles spearheaded the British invasion. I think for a lot of us, it just meant the world. It meant, ‘This is the new world. This is how it is.’ The Beatles were in a category by themselves. On one album, they would have a Broadway show tune, a Chuck Berry song and something they wrote.
“By the time I started making records, that’s not what record companies wanted you to do. They wanted you to have a sound, and that was what you were. Well, I’m sorry. I like rhythm and blues. I like country. I like blues. I like rock ’n’ roll. I like British rock ’n’ roll. I like American rock ’n’ roll. I like rockabilly. I like cowboy songs. But I also can’t be a play-it-just-like-the-record duplicator of any of it, so all of it does come though my filter. Hopefully the ‘me’ element does unify it. The challenge comes from focusing the eclecticism.”
To be a musician is a lifelong pursuit. Ahead of everything else in life, it’s a pretty nutty thing to do. So the only people who really do it are people who are unable to not do it.
Outside of a few brushes with major label exposure (as on the 1989 Island Records release, “Hybrid Vigor,” whose title still nicely sums up the cross-genre joy of his music), Wilder has essentially been an indie artist, touring clubs and theaters with workmanlike regularity while maintaining a celebratory mood that has not dissipated through the years.
“I don’t know what it is that fuels my particular approach to performing, but I think my default setting is that of a performer as much as a writer or recording artist,” Wilder said. “Live is sort of my element, so I like a level of spontaneity to be there.
“I get stage nerves, and I have nervous energy, so, yeah, there’s some kind of it’s-really-who-you-are thing going on there. You really mean it and you’re pretty serious about it even if you’re being humorous or whatever. When it clicks, you’re lost in it and it’s more a feeling than thinking thing and you’re surfing 6 inches off the ground. Hopefully when you’re not, you’re up for the task enough to where no one notices.”