Webb Wilder is the Idol of Idle Youth, the Last of the Boarding-House People, a Burning God of Love, and the Last of the Full-Grown Men.
He is also a cult icon of Americana who is making his highly anticipated return to Savannah with his band the Beatnecks after a long seven-year absence.
Wilder was born John McMurry in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in 1954 with music in his blood.
“I would like to be considered a showman, probably as much or more than anything else,” Wilder said. “I think it all comes from being a guy who played make-believe that he was in show business as a very young kid and later as a class clown, and then by somebody who the whole time was preoccupied with music.”
That preoccupation with music included deep dives into American blues, country, rock ’n’ roll, and R&B records, and a love for British Invasion bands like The Faces, The Who, Free, and The Kinks. As a teen, Wilder was surprised to learn that his aunt, Lillian McMurray, was the co-founder of Trumpet Records, which had released records by Elmore James, Jimmy Swan and Sonny Boy Williamson in the early ’50s.
“My parents didn’t listen to Elmore James,” Wilder said. “I don’t think they were impressed with that much, so they didn’t really talk about it. I didn’t really understand that that had occurred and that it was so heavy.”
Wilder learned about aunt Lillian’s music experience when she saw him toting around a copy of The Who’s “Tommy” and she called it “an abortion.”
Wilder found out that the only song on the album not written by Pete Townsend, “Eyesight to the Blind,” was originally put out by Sonny Boy Williamson on his aunt’s record label.
“I always knew her to be a great cook,” Wilder said. “Later she mentored me a little bit.”
Creating Wilder, Beatnecks
The persona of Webb Wilder was born when Wilder acted in a short comedy made by his friends about a hard-boiled Southern detective. With a fedora hat, a cheap tie, wire frame glasses, and low, sonorous drawl inspired by Fess Parker’s Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone television characters, Webb Wilder was born. The film went on to win awards and was even nationally broadcast on USA Network’s “Night Flights.” Wilder enjoyed inhabiting the role so much that he took on the name and made the persona a regular part of his music.
Webb Wilder and the Beatnecks first album, “It Came from Nashville” in 1986, was recently named one of the top 50 Southern Rock albums of all time by Paste magazine.
“We made that first album which is not truly a pure rockabilly album, or a pure anything, but it’s really got a rockabilly tempo,” Wilder said. “It’s really fast and it’s twangy tones, and a lot of low, hillbilly singing. People sort of labeled us rockabilly, and I love rockabilly, but I didn’t want to be labeled and put in that box, like ‘I gotta live here for the rest of my life?’”
With subsequent albums, Wilder’s sound grew more eclectic and diverse, drawing on his many influences and allowing the band to fit in all sorts of formats. Wilder even performed on the Outlaw Country Cruise this year.
Wilder has excepted that because of his stylistically diverse music, he falls under the umbrella of Americana and roots music.
“Americana is about anything that is rootsy and there is a lot of variety there,” Wilder explained. “I remember back in the ’90s when somebody labeled me Americana and I bristled, because I thought I was rock ’n’ roll.”
Webb Wilder and the Beatnecks are currently touring on their latest release, “Powerful Stuff,” a collection of remixed rare songs and live recording from their early days. They are being presented at The Jinx on May 11 by Knocked Out Loaded Concerts.
Knocked Out Loaded founder Jim Reed has been one of Wilder’s loudest advocates since he first saw him perform in 1985 as a teen and has had a hand in promoting Wilder in Savannah for almost all of his gigs over the decades.
“These guys cooked,” Reed said about the first time he saw Wilder and his band perform. “They had the raw energy of punk music coupled with the tasteful, precise licks of old-school country and western, and when they took off on a fast boogie number, it felt like you were watching Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard back in their heyday, but without any pianos. Nothing but electric guitars, bass and drums. It was wild.
“To be honest, that show changed my life in many profound ways,” Reed continued. “It forced me to understand that world-class, star-quality musical acts and singers can exist completely outside of great fame and fortune. I learned that night that Webb Wilder and the Beatnecks were easily as good if not better than most any other rock ’n’ roll or country or soul band I had ever heard before in my life — including superstars — and that taught me that fame and fortune has absolutely nothing to do with talent, or worth, or importance or the ability to bring joy and inspiration to people through one's art or music.”