Wink Keziah is a true son of the South, an urban hillbilly by birth, and a musical outlaw by his very nature. Yet at the same time he’s a man of many other worlds, too. All that and more can be heard on Cowbilly, his latest album on his own label, Great South Records.
Hailed as “a master of many styles that all speak to blue collar America” by Vintage Guitar magazine, Keziah knows of what he writes and sings about in his supercharged real-life country songs. He grew up dirt poor in Charlotte, NC’s hardscrabble redneck ghetto, first met his father through the chain-link fence of a prison yard, and later watched his mother shoot his dad twice as he was getting ready for school. “My life reads like a cheap C movie script,” Keziah says with a chuckle. But it’s one with a happy ending where the hero triumphs.
The man also knows his music and all about playing it live for people from many walks of life. He started in his first band at nine years old, began writing songs by the age of 12, and at 14 had a regular gig with a group in a strip joint. He went on to blaze a trail throughout the South with bands like The Rollin’ Tumbleweeds, Adam’s House Cat and The Houdauls before stepping out under his own name to make three critically-acclaimed albums of hardcore rocking country.
Now with Cowbilly, Keziah delivers his strongest and most varied collection yet of songs that ring with the truth and never stray from the true spirit of genuine country music. Recorded in North Carolina, Austin, TX, and Los Angeles, it was produced by Keziah with the assistance of his guitarist Dale Meyers. Guest artists include such Austin notables as hip honky-tonker Jesse Dayton, Mark Stuart from the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash and neo-rockabilly guitar star Danny B. Harvey plus LA-based talents like guitarist Doug Pettibone (known for his work with Lucinda Williams, Marianne Faithfull, Jewel, John Mayer and many others) and singer Marcy Levy (who has sung with the likes of Eric Clapton, Leon Russell and Bob Seger, co-wrote the Clapton hit “Lay Down Sally,” and was one half of the chart-topping duo Shakespeare’s Sister). And throughout the album the songs are laced by the lovely accents of North Carolina instrumental wizard David Johnson on violin, viola, cello, mandolin, pedal steel and banjo.
The disc opens with “When I Get Paid,” a working man’s lament that’s spot on for the hard times we currently live in. And then runs the gamut from the sacred on the closing bluegrass gospel number “When The Shadows Come A’ Callin’” to the profane blues-inflected country-rock cautionary “Moonshine and Dope,” and from the lonely lament of “Cincinnati” to the search for a better place with “Time To Move On” to the Cajun-flavored rave-up of “Life on the Bayou” on to the haunting last thoughts of a condemned killer on “Dead Man Walking.” Keziah carries on his tradition of red-hot honky-tonk on “Holdin’ On (Gets the Best of Me)” and “Second Chance (At a First Impression),” and delves into gentler and more sensitive songs and sounds as he examines family legacies on “The Quiet Kind” and “Faithful Son.” All told, Cowbilly showcases the ever-expanding breadth and depth of Keziah’s musical creativity.
Despite growing up in dire poverty, Keziah’s youth was musically rich. His mother would spin 45 RPM singles by her favorite artists like Jim Reeves, Ray Charles and Johnny Cash on the hi-fi console in the living room, and for Christmas when he was age four, his older sister bought Wink The Best of the Box Tops. “It had all these great songs and lit a fire under my ass,” he recalls. On his next birthday a mere month later, he got a Sears Silvertone guitar and combo amplifier/record player as presents along with a Learn To Play with Mel Bay instruction book. “Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck learned from the same book.”
Even though he spent his teen years playing music by night, Keziah still excelled enough by day in school to win a college art scholarship. Unable to afford the other costs, he instead went to cosmetology school and started what eventually became a chain of three salons with nearly 50 employees, living prosperously for 20 years among the redneck aristocracy on North Carolina’s Lake Norman.
All the while Wink was also singing and playing everything from Southern, new wave and indie rock to country music throughout the South, cutting four independent albums with different bands, and sharing stages over the years with everyone from Marty Stuart to Black Flag, also including Joe Ely, John Anderson, R.E.M., The Blasters, Southern Culture on the Skids, The Hoodoo Gurus and Martina McBride, to name some but hardly all. His band The Rollin’ Tumbleweeds eventually won a development deal with MCA Records. But Keziah turned down a full contract with the label for fear it would lead him to compromise his music. The decision broke up the band.
It also eventually led him after a five year hiatus from music and stab at living “a normal life” to step out under his own name with the 2005 release of his album Delux Motel, backed by his band of the same name, and pursue his music full time. The disc earned airplay across North America and Europe, and launched Keziah on a round of some 150 club and festival dates here and abroad over the year that followed. His next disc, Working Songs for the Drinking Class, was hailed as “pure genius” by the Philadelphia Inquirer, “masterful” by the Knoxville Voice, and “ten songs’ worth of honky tonkin’ that Waylon, Willie and Tompall would give their outlaw country stamps of approval to” by Stomp & Stammer magazine. In 2008 he bought a second home in Austin, TX, where he now bases himself for part of the year and has become an integral part of the city’s thriving musical community. “It gets me away from Carolinas and all the things I’ve known, and it’s another place to be at home,” he says. The following year Wink expanded his stylistic range even further with the release of Hard Times, recorded in LA with his pal Mark Stuart producing.
As No Depression notes, Keziah “has mastered a variety of musical styles, but also understands everyday life in rural America.” As he says, “I want people to know that what I’m talking about is real. I have seen some really bad times. I have seen really good times. A lot of people have had some kind of trouble in their lives. Maybe they’ll hear something that gives them some kind of hope. And it might do some good for somebody. People say, “How can all these drinking songs and things help somebody?” Well, that’s just life. But if you listen to the words, really, there’s something else in there.”
He’s also a musical lifer who after 39 years of playing has still racked up well over 100 shows in 2013, including one of his regular visits to Scandinavia, where he’s a popular musical attraction. “I am dead serious about what I do,” Keziah asserts. “I’m not going away until I die. The records are going to keep coming. And that’s what keeps me going. I’m gonna keep digging my heels in and keep gettin’ it until I can’t do it anymore.”