Today, it's called "roots" music. Some people call it Americana.
But for 19-year-old Cottonwood singer-songwriter Sean Williams, it's still folk music. In his case, he admits it's a little weird, but still not that far removed from Dylan or Baez 50 years ago or Pete Seeger in the 1950s.
"I play weird folk music," admits Williams, who's just released his debut CD, Birth. "Some people call it psychedelic rock. Some people call it New Weird America. It's pretty much anything that's off the wall with the acoustic guitar. It's on the edge of being surrealistic, but staying true to the emotion of folk music."
And this music, he admits, is much like Sean Williams himself. He freely admits to being weird in a Pink Floyd-Syd Barrett kind of way, but at the same time staying true to the tradition of basic folk roots. He plays acoustic guitar. He sings songs that make you think; some probably will make you uncomfortable. He sings them with passion, power and conviction. He's Connor OBerst meets Woody Guthrie.
Since childhood, music has been a constant in Williams' life. It helps that his dad, Larry, is a career professional musician. For Sean, he began playing trumpet in the school band in fourth grade.
"I did that up through middle school and got fed up with it because I wasn't that good," said Williams. "Then I picked up the guitar and I learned from Ted (Karstadt) who works over at the music store (Verde Valley Discount Music). He taught me all the basics. From there, I just kept at it and began writing all throughout high school and refining it. I wrote a bunch of songs. I would throw some of them out, write some more and then throw them out and then I finally made a breakthrough in 2009 and seemed to find my niche as far as the style I liked and the style I wanted to portray."
Birth has been more than a year in the making and it's been something of a family affair capitalizing on the recording expertise of his brother and father. Larry Williams plays bass on the CD with veteran Verde Valley musicians Dale Caddell playing lead guitar and Mike Morris on harmonica. Sean handles the rhythm guitar work and all the vocals.
Lead guitarist Dale Caddell, who has shared the stage with everyone from blues legend Albert King to Jerry Riopelle, said Sean's greatest appeal is that he likes what he is doing and he is confident with what he is doing. "He is ready to show it to people," said Caddell. "He's very comfortable in his own skin and he's a very creative song-writer. He has a future."
Birth can hardly be described as a collection of songs, but, rather, a singular collective and highly personal statement about Sean Williams' life. It's masterfully woven together with a collection of sound collages and the songs are blunt, honest and powerful. He sings about the highs and lows of his life, of turning away and back to God, of heartbreak, humiliation, redemption and personal transformation.
Whether you are talking with Williams, or listening to his songs, he doesn't shy away from sharing the most personal aspects of his life. Whether in song, or even just talking, he will be painfully honest about the victories and failures in his life. He's not overly critical of his shortcomings and mistakes, but, rather, blunt and honest about them
That painful honesty comes through loud and clear on Birth. "Some of the songs," he admits, "are about me just not being a very great person."
He describes Birth as "a journal of everything I was going through the past few years, so that makes it kind of intimidating to put it out there. I am a little nervous about releasing it because it's so personal, but it's also exciting to finally have it done."
Williams is discovering his audience niche with the college crowd in Flagstaff, but says he's also gained credibility with older audiences primarily by performing with seasoned, career musicians. "I've played with my dad and some of his friends and it helps people realize that I'm not just this kid up there playing guitar. It's given me more credibility with older listeners."
He is committed to growing and advancing his skill set across the board as a singer, player and song-writer, but right now believes he's made his greatest advances as a song-writer. "As a player, I have a lot more to develop. But with every new song I write, the guitar styling becomes more interesting. I can always stand to learn more theory, but with songwriting that just continues to develop as I write more songs. I have a lot of unfinished songs that have a lot of potential."
Williams is equally a student of his craft. He will talk in detail about the history of folk music beginning with the Dust Bowl anthems of Woody Guthrie to the union work movement songs of Pete Seeger and the social consciousness of Dylan and Baez. He's also adamant, though, that folk music is not a relic for history books. He believes it is just as vibrant and important today as it was in 1960.
"There is definitely an audience for folk music with my generation," said Williams. "Most definitely, and I think it's going to become more and more prevalent in pop culture over the next 5 to 10 years as far as folk music being the most prevalent music there is. And even if it doesn't, the underground culture, what I call the outsiders, they understand folk music, and especially weird folk music, and they love it."