When it comes to bluegrass, Tony Williamson is all ears. “I’ve never had lessons,” the N.C. Heritage award-winning mandolinist says.
After his dad took him to see Bill Monroe, Williamson was so enthralled with the sound that he got hold of Monroe’s records and slowed them down to learn the licks.
“And that has made me an auditory person,” Williamson said recently from his home base of Mandolin Central in Siler City. “I really respond to sound a lot more than I do to visual or even instruction. If I hear something, I can usually play it, and also understand how to work harmonies around it. I’ve done all that just by listening carefully.”
That careful listening has made Williamson one of the most revered mandolin players in the world.
Between playing and recording with Sam Bush, David Grisman, Jerry Douglas and Ricky Skaggs in the ‘80s, Williamson toured with the Green Valley Ramblers, then teamed up with Curtis Burch and Courtney Johnson as Barren County Revival before forming ASH&W with Craig Smith, Vernon Alred and Scott Huffman in ‘86.
Though Williamson asserts that his auditory skills contributed to his success, he did bolster his musical skills in college at UNC. “I took some music theory courses, so I do read music, but not enough to hurt my playing,” he says chuckling.
But Williamson didn’t limit his listening to bluegrass even though growing up in rural North Carolina in the mid-’60s limited his world view somewhat.
“I was already 10 years old before I’d ever seen a television,” he admits. He made the most of the newfangled device watching the musical programs on the local PBS station. “There were jazz programs; there were classical programs; and I kinda dug it all.”
When he reached high school, he was selected to go to the Governor’s School of N.C. in 1970.
“That’s where I really exploded,” Williamson says. “I split the atom on music that summer, because I was exposed to so many different things, from Bach and Mozart all the way to Schoenberg and Stravinsky, and in jazz, everything from Louis Armstrong to Miles Davis and John Coltrane.”
The young mandolinist expanded his musical horizons by transcribing music for other instruments to the mandolin. “For example, the alto sax of Charlie Parker has the same range as a mandolin, and I spent quite a while learning to play the lines that he wrote, and I felt like that really expanded my harmonic sensibility.”
But in the mid-’80s a series of what Williamson describes as “stupid farm accidents” and a car wreck, left him unable to play.
“I tore some tendons doing farm work and an orthopedic doctor wanted to do surgery, but he couldn’t promise me the fine muscle/motor control I needed to play advanced pieces on my instruments.”
The upside of his downtime was that he started his current business, Mandolin Central. He always enjoyed talking to people about their instruments and developed an informal network hooking up musicians with their vintage instruments of choice.
“I never really thought about it as a business ‘til I had my accident. I was sidelined for almost two years, didn’t perform publicly, so my source of income was down to zero,” Williamson says. “I finally decided, well, I know how to trade, buy and sell instruments, so I’ll just start a business. And I called it Mandolin Central.”
But Williamson says his goal is a bit different from most instrument houses. “What I try to do is find these wonderful old vintage instruments, restore them so they can sound their best and their structural integrity is intact, then try to find a great home for them. Someone who will play it, someone who will appreciate it, will take care of it and be a good steward of that instrument. I go to great lengths to secure that legacy for these wonderful instruments.”
Bill Monroe was arguably the impetus for his business as well as his music. “I always wanted a mandolin like Bill Monroe because it was the best sound I’d ever heard,” Williamson says. But it took a while for him to get there from his humble origins as the son of mill workers.
“My first mandolin was 18 dollars,” he recalls. “Then I traded that and a bird dog and a pocketknife to get a better one. Over the years, I got a better and better mandolin ‘til I finally got one that was just like Bill Monroe’s — same year and everything. By that point I had learned the skill of trading instruments.”
That skill and his interest in collecting mandolin-like instruments from all over the world led to creating MandoMania at Merlefest, assembling players from all over the world to play and talk about their instruments.
He also made a connection with Sengalse kora master Dilai Cissikho. “There’s lot of little diphthongs at the start of it that the Africans use, but we just call him Jelly, even though its spelled Diali,” Williamson says.
The two met when they volunteered to play a benefit for the Chatham County senior Center Meals On Wheels program. “I listened to him play while he was warming up, and then he listened to me play before my show. When he was onstage, just out of the blue, he invited me to come up and sit in with him on a song. It was totally spontaneous, and I still think that’s one of the most magical moments of my career, because the two styles — it’s like we met in the middle.
“He’s bringing an ancient culture from Africa, I’m bringing this old tradition from the Carolina Piedmont, and we found this common ground and started this dialogue together that was really based in mutual admiration and love,” Williamson says. “The melodies we’re playing are now coming out of these old traditions, even though the rhythms and a lot of the feel of the music is familiar to a modern concert-going audience, there are still these melodies that have these ancient tones.”
And when his time is done, in spite of the big footprint he’s left, Williamson says he wants to be remembered as a man who walked lightly on the earth. A man “who left an impression in the minds and hearts of the people who came in contact with him. A man who lived his life seeking the joy of experience, and enjoying his experience.”