By Johnny Griffith
Some music is written to be listened to.
Now, before I get the “Well, Duh” response, allow me to explain.
Some music is written to be passively consumed in a subdued, structured, vanilla environment, and then there is music that is written to be not so much listened to…but rather actively experienced. Yes, you hear it with your ears…but you feel it in your soul in such a manner that you almost have no choice but to let the music move you, get you out of the chair, and onto the dance floor. That kind of music isn’t just written from a place of theory and technical proficiency, but rather its written from a place of being…a place where the music isn’t just what you know…it’s who you are, it’s what’s happening around you, it’s your North Star, and it’s your foundation.
This, my friends, is the foundation upon which Big Sam Williams has built his Funky Nation.
If you’ve never heard of Big Sam’s Funky Nation (BSFN), you are in for a rare treat. One of New Orleans best kept musical secrets, BSFN was the brainchild of Sam “Big Sam” Williams, a Crescent City native, dynamically gifted trombonist, and graduate of the prestigious New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Big Sam came up through the musical ranks in the Big Easy, gigging non-stop for most of his life in and around the streets and venues shadowing the banks of the Mighty Mississippi. Sam didn’t even let Hurricane Katrina keep him from a regular gig…at one point driving 9 hours from San Antonio every weekend for almost two years just to play back home.
Talent, hard work, and persistence will get you on a lot of people’s radars, and Big Sam has plenty of all three. After several years of playing an all-star run of gigs with acts like The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Widespread Panic, the Dave Matthews Band, and recording with legends Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello on their collaboration, Williams was ready to step outside the box to mix it up a bit. Big Sam drew on his extensive experience and put together a phenomenal ensemble to share the stage with and collaborate on this new force of nature that wasn’t just another brass band from New Orleans. Big Sam’s Funky Nation takes the signature Big Easy horn sound and blends it with guitar, bass, and keys to weave a tapestry from threads of multiple genres and time periods, bringing people from all walks of life together in appreciation of not only the music…but the experience.
Big Sam’s Funky Nation will make a stop on their current album promo tour in Tyler at Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q, Thursday, July 12th, for one show only, bringing the funk to the people of East Texas. I recently caught up with Big Sam on the road to get to know him and the Funky Nation a bit better.
Johnny: When did you first develop an interest in music?
Big Sam: I developed an interest in music around the age 15. I was in the marching band prior to that, but once I got to high school, I wanted to dig deeper, so I auditioned for New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), and I’ve been rolling since then.
Johnny: Growing up in a city where music is much a part of the fabric of life, was it always in your mind to find a way to make a living doing this thing you love or did the path find you along the way?
Big Sam: The path found me… I had no idea that I would ever be a musician, especially full-time. When you have a calling, you can’t deny it, you better answer!
Johnny: Speaking of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, there has obviously been an all-star roster of musicians to walk the halls there before you. How much did following in the steps of musicians like the Marsalis brothers, Harry Connick Jr., and Terence Blanchard inspire you to take your talent and love of the gig to the next level?
Big Sam: BIG TIME! Those are some heavy hitters, so to think that you’re in the same building that these cats came up in is enough motivation on its own.
Johnny: So you’ve had quite the impressive resume before BSFN, helping found the Stooges Brass Band, performing in the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and sharing the stage with a diverse roster that ranges from James Brown, to Dave Matthews, to Elvis Costello. Do you feel being able to interact with and create with such a large range of personalities and styles helped plant the seeds of the Funky Nation?
Big Sam: Definitely! As a musician, you organically create from your experiences with other gigs and experiences in life. All of those ingredients help you create your own gumbo and Funky Nation is my gumbo.
Johnny: So how and when was the Funky Nation born?
Big Sam: BSFN was born in 2001 but I was touring with Dirty Dozen 300 days a year, so it was impossible to pursue my own thing full-time. After I left Dirty Dozen, I got a call from Allen Toussaint and performed with him whenever he had his big band, including the Elvis Costello tour and album “River in Reverse.” I didn’t pursue Funky Nation full-time until 2007-2008.
Johnny: You guys aren’t just another jazz band coming out of New Orleans; your sound is a mix of old and new that isn’t afraid to step outside the box and combine genres with flair, proficiency, and a little extra swagger. How would you describe your music to someone who is about to walk in to their first BSFN show?
Big Sam: Thanks! I would describe it just the way you did! Here’s the thing… some people have a preconceived notion of what “New Orleans music” is… especially when you say it’s a horn band. They think brass band and/or Trad band… but that’s not us. We come to bring the FUNK! Get out of your seat and dance kind of music! If you intend to sit down and drink some wine, this isn’t the show for you. You’re going to sweat and possibly wake up sore the next morning because you’ve never danced so hard before in your life.
Johnny: This tour is in support of the band’s latest album “Songs In The Key Of Funk.” How has the reception to this release been so far?
Big Sam: The reception has been off ‘da chain! The show is different than before now, so fans are getting a mix of some of the classic BSFN catalog mixed with the new and a couple covers. Some of the new favorites seem to be “Apple Pie,” “PokeChop,” “Buzzin,’” and “What’s My Name.”
Johnny: The new album has a definite throwback feel that takes the listener back to threads of the P-funk and R&B sound of the late 70’s and early 80’s. What inspired the fusion of sounds?
Big Sam: This is the sound that I’ve been going for for a minute.. even though “Evolution” was more of a rock album, you can hear where I wanted to go on “Coffee Pot” and “Bad Karma.” Even going back to “Funky Donkey.” We just took a slight detour, but we’re here to stay with the funk! The funk is here to stay. This is a dance album which represents the band perfectly.
Johnny: So for all the first timers who are thinking about making the trip out to Stanley’s to catch the show…what can they expect from a Big Sam’s Funky Nation experience?
Big Sam: Expect to party and have a good time! This music will definitely get you moving!
Big Sam’s Funky Nation is: “Big Sam” Williams (trombone, lead vocals), Drew “Da Phessah” Baham (trumpet, vocals), Jerry “JBlakk” Henderson (bass), Keenan “Butta Cream” McRae (guitar), Alfred “Sgt. Gutta” Jordan (drums), and Kendrick Marshall (keys).
For more information, tour dates, and music check out the Funky Nation on the web: