There is probably no happier a bluesman on the planet than Lil' Ed Williams.
You can tell that just by looking at the cover of his 2008 album Full Tilt: The champion Chicago slide guitarist, dressed in red right down to his sneakers, is caught in mid-leap with a smile as electric as the reconstituted roadhouse music that has long fueled his career.
Slip on the CD, and the grooves all but grin at you. His sirenlike slide runs lock horns with the sweaty propulsion of his band, the Blues Imperials, on the album-opening original Hold That Train, and the closing take on Hound Dog Taylor's Take Five is juiced-up juke-joint party music. Adding to the fun on both songs, as well to the 12 feisty tunes they bookend on Full Tilt, are vocals that shout jubilation at every turn.
This, then, is the blues? It is according to Williams. He might have a prestigious blues pedigree as the nephew of the great Chicago bluesman J.B. Hutto. And there isn't an instance on Full Tilt that fails to reflect the soul-drenched depth of his singing and playing. It's just that Williams doesn't accept the blues as some kind of a self-pitying whimper. In his hands, the blues is an affirmation of life's joys and the sometimes unexpected places you might discover them.
"I define the blues as a feeling of the heart, of the mind and of the soul," said Williams, who is the headliner at Sunday's inaugural Red Mile Blues Festival. "It's a view of life — of learning, of experience.
"If people feel bad, the blues lets them know that feeling is not going to last forever. I think that's what people like about the blues. They know the music might say, 'I got this bad, bad feeling, but tomorrow I'm going to wake up happy.' People want to hear that in their lives. I know I do. That's the stuff that keeps you going."
As a nephew of Hutto, Williams had more than just a slide guitar teacher in his family. He had a role model willing to prepare him for life on and off the bandstand.
"J.B. put me where I am today," Williams said. "He told me about what I was going to go through in my career before I ever went through it. He told me what to expect. I remember him saying, 'You ain't ever going to get rich playing the blues. Did you ever think about that?' Of course, I was running around thinking I was going to be a millionaire.
"But he would also tell me, 'Your fans are your most important people. Don't you ever treat a fan wrong. If you hang around people, you've got to treat them with respect.' Man, that just lit me up."
Forming a band with his bass-playing half-brother James "Pookie" Young, Williams was signed by Chicago's premier blues label, Alligator Records, in 1986. He has been making albums that generously recall the bright, rocking blues of Hutto and Taylor ever since.
But those early Alligator days also were important for the artists with whom Williams found himself keeping company — Koko Taylor, Hound Dog Taylor, Lonnie Brooks and the late Albert Collins. For Williams, nothing could have been closer to graduate blues school than playing alongside the Alligator elders.
"It's always been fun working with them. I got to know Lonnie Brooks and his son (the equally acclaimed guitarist Ronnie Baker Brooks). We hit it off. Same with Albert Collins. He was a great buddy of mine. It was just the greatest feeling to be around the really big boys."
Williams hardly views himself as a blues scholar. After seven Alligator albums in 12 years, he says, he still has lots to learn from the blues. But regardless of how versed his music becomes, it's hard to imagine anything dampening William's love of performance — or of life itself, for that matter.
"When I was growing up, I would always say to my friends, 'Hey, let's go play some music.' And they knew I was into the blues even back then, so they would go, 'Man, you're going to be playing them blues. We're all going to be crying. We're all going to be miserable.' But then I started playing and everybody starts dancing.
"See, that's the thing. The blues is fun. The blues is happiness. Believe me, you can have the blues and still have fun."