It’s been one hell of a nine month period for Amarillo’s Zac Wilkerson. After winning The Blue Light’s fall singer-songwriter competition in November and playing at the famed Larry Joe Taylor Music Festival in April, Wilkerson’s “stock” has just been on the rise.
Wilkerson, in many respects is somewhat of a late-bloomer as a singer-songwriter. Somewhat of one. While he’s been writing for roughly two decades, it’s only been recently that he’s pursued a solo career, something most songwriting friends would probably say he should have done long ago.
As Wilkerson said, he was raised on both country and Motown soul. While the country influence is definitely in the forefront, Wilkerson shows he definitely was influenced by his mother’s Otis Redding records. There are hints and accents of soul in Wilkerson’s voice and songs. It’s something that comes off a bit surprising when you see Wilkerson, who at first glance, you may chalk up as a strictly a Hank Williams III and Mastodon fan (As you can see above, Wilkerson is a bearded mountain of a man).
It’s a pleasant surprise from Wilkerson–and in many ways–very different from than what’s going on amongst West Texas songwriters. For the most part, all the country-tinged songwriters in the area have their country influence and another element that in many ways, defines their own individual sounds. By my count and assessment, Wilkerson is one of the only–maybe the only–artist who has taken the soul sounds of the ’60s and let it creep into his music as much as he has.
When you check out the nine tracks on Wilkerson’s website, they’re all stripped down acoustic versions of his songs, the original “Acoustic Sessions,” which he explains are soon to be re-recorded. While he says that the recordings were rushed, there’s something special about that. It created an atmosphere that isn’t just intimate, but it leaves Wilkerson and his songs exposed. There may be moments that show subtle flaws, but that’s what makes it personal. It feels as though Wilkerson wasn’t singing for anyone other than himself. He may of not been secluded in a log cabin during the harsh Wisconsin winter a la Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was either.
New Slang: I guess a good place to start would be you winning The Blue Light singer-songwriter competition last fall. What were you thinking going into it? Do you go in expecting to win something like that? Just to have that winner’s mindset? What are you thinking going into something like that?
Zac Wilkerson: You know, it’s funny. I have a friend, Casey Berry, he called just about every songwriter in Amarillo and invited them to go. He called me and said “hey, there’s this songwriting thing in Lubbock and I think you should go.” I said OK. I really didn’t have any idea of what it was to be honest with you. At the time, Casey and I didn’t know each other that well. Since then, we’ve spent a lot of time together and gotten to know each other. But at the time, I just hopped in the car with him and drove down to Lubbock. Just kind of showed up. They explained the rules and was like oh, I guess this is some kind of contest. I still didn’t realize what was really going on though [laughs]. To be honest with you, I won that first night, went home and thought, “that’s kind of cool I guess.” Put it on my calendar, the date for the finals. I go to the finals. I’m with Casey again and I said to him, “So what is this thing I’m doing really? What’s going on?” He said if you win, you get to play at Larry Joe Taylor Music Fest. That’s when I was like “crap, I better not screw this up [laughs].” It wasn’t until the night of the finals that I knew that part. Going into it, I really didn’t know what to expect. I had just begun doing my own solo career. I would say in like October of last year. The opportunity was definitely really huge.
NS: What were you doing prior to that as far as music goes?
ZW: I was kind of a hired gun for a number of different bands here in Amarillo. I played in the Chancy Bernson Band. Done a lot of stuff with a lot of bands around town. Never really had my own thing though. I finally decided to strike out on my own and see about my own songs.
NS: What went into that decision? What went into not doing it sooner? Were you a little unconfident in your songwriting? Or had you just begun writing then?
ZW: Well, I’ve been writing for about twenty years. It’s something that I’ve always done. I have a friend who is a musician here in town. This was about a year-and-a-half ago when I first started sharing my songs with people. This friend, course he had heard me. But, we have these music nights where we go over to a guy’s house and play until dawn. Play every song we know. And I had shared a few songs I had written. Everyone who was there was really surprised by them. Someone even said “man, where did you come from?” This friend of mine, he said, “While you guys were out partying, chasing girls, or watching football, he was at home writing songs.” And that’s pretty much the way it’s been. It’s been something natural for me. And so, at that point, the vision to go solo, I don’t know, I guess I just thought it was time. I had always been backing others up and it got to a point where I had this giant stack of songs and just thought, I have to do something with these. It was a culmination of a lot of different things.
NS: Yeah. So how has it been since you won the songwriting competition and Larry Joe Taylor?
ZW: Well, it’s been amazing. I won the contest, and that was a huge boost for my name. People started knowing who I was and knowing I had something to offer in songwriting and music. That was pretty big. Then since Larry Joe Taylor’s, it’s just been surprising to me. I mean, I’ve been playing music since I was four. My dad had me start singing in church. And I’ve never stopped. So it’s not like the music thing is new to me. What’s new to me is people actually appreciating the music that I’ve made. Having an audience. People excited about what I’m doing. That’s pretty new to me.
NS: How was being at Larry Joe Taylor? I’m assuming that’s kind of been a first time experience. How was the crowd for you?
ZW: Well, I was really surprised. I started at noon on a Thursday. My buddies, Casey Berry, Charlie Stout, and my bass player Craig Ames, we all went down there. Going into it, Casey was really good. He told me to just go up there and do what I always do. Give it 110%. I didn’t really know what to expect. Thursday morning rolls around and there was a really good crowd, I played my set, and got a standing ovation. I unplugged my guitar and started walking off stage, and Tommy Alverson said, “why don’t you sing one more?” Which, I found out later, that’s pretty unheard of. They only give people so many songs. It was a phenomenal experience. I got to meet a lot of people I have respect for in the music scene. I got to hang out with a lot of people I’ve known for a while. Being my first time, it was definitely a life changing experience and I hope to repeat it.
NS: You said you have this large stack of songs. What’s going on as far as recording material? Where’s physical material, your debut, at in the process?
ZW: Yeah. I have more songs than I could ever record. But, that’s not always a good thing. Right now, I’m in the process of doing an EP with a studio here in Amarillo called Covenant Studios. We’re doing a full band. I do have a band, the one playing Thursday, we’re just a trio. We like to keep it small and tight. I also have a recording out called “The Acoustic Sessions.” It’s something that I threw together in a much too small amount of time, just so I’d have something for people at Larry Joe Taylor’s. We’re actually, next week, my bass player and I, we’re going on a trip up by Tulsa, and we’re going to be re-recording “The Acoustic Sessions.” Really going to give it the time it deserves.
NS: When do you think they’ll be ready?
ZW: I don’t know. We plan on tracking all of “The Acoustic Sessions” next week. When we come back, we’ll continue tracking the EP. We’ve got a little bit done on the EP. We’re going to really bust our butts to get that done. I’m really hoping sometime in August we’ll be done with everything and ready to unleash it on the world.
NS: I’ve seen you play during the singer-songwriter competition–that’s acoustic. You just mentioned re-recording “The Acoustic Sessions.” Compare that to playing and recording with the band. How do the songs change?
ZW: One of the things I’ve realized recently is that I do play the songs differently when I’m playing them with the band. When acoustic, you’ve got more freedom to focus on the lyrics, the message. And it’s much more intimate. There’s nothing getting in the way with what you’re trying to get across in the song. But at the same time, I’ve noticed on the same songs while playing with the band, it really helps you dig into the music. The lyrics don’t change, obviously. The melody changes very little. Just the way that it is handled and develops with the full band. It allows you to do different things. I have this song that I did on “The Acoustic Sessions” called “Be My Juliet” that I wrote close to 10 years ago. It was a pretty tame, pretty laid-back acoustic thing. When I got in with my guys, it really took on a whole new life. My drummer, Chancely Stater, him and Craig, they really do a great job of helping me figure out new things we can do.
NS: I guess songs can not only change in that way, but they can change over time. You said that “Be My Juliet” was about 10 years old. When you’re looking at older songs, I’m guessing that sometimes their meanings can change for you over time. Looking at those songs, how do you view them when they’re older songs? Or do most of your songs stay pretty much the same as when you wrote them? Like as far as what you were thinking and trying to get across.
ZW: Yeah. It’s kind of funny. I can’t really give a blank answer that covers all of them. Some songs, they’re just as good as they were 10 years ago. And then some songs, man, they really need to change [laughs]. As a songwriter, you get better. Like “Be My Juliet,” that song is pretty much the same. But there’s other songs that I’ve written that I’ve had to make some pretty drastic changes to because as a songwriter, you mature. At my house, I have this little studio. I have this bookshelf, and it’s piled up with notebooks, scraps of paper–anything that’s fallen into my lap for an idea for a song–I’ve written down and it always ends up on this bookshelf. I take a lot of time looking at these songs I wrote years ago, to see if they still have it. Some songs do. Some need a complete remodel before they can be used again. Someone told me a long time ago, if you take your songs too personally, you’ll never write a great song. You have to be able to stand back, look at a song with unknown eyes–if that makes sense–and be able to look at it as something that’s not an outpouring of your personal creativity, but does the song stand as a piece of music. Does it stand as a piece of art by itself. That’s hard, but you have to force yourself to do it. And another thing I do is run them by my guys and by other songwriters. I’ve surrounded myself with guys who are brutally honest. They’ll just tell me, “no, we’re not doing that song [laughs].”
NS: Yeah. You have to have some kind of filter. You don’t want to go up there and sound like a jackass [laughs]. It’s really like that with anything. I was doing some searches for you, and there’s not been a lot of material about you online. I was wanting to do a few more introduction type questions that I normally don’t do since they’re typically already known. What was played around the house as you were growing up? What were you raised on?
ZW: My dad, he’s from a little town in Oklahoma called Buffalo. It’s up in the panhandle. That’s where I was born and where I lived until I was about 12-years-old. My mom, she’s from Oklahoma City. In my house, it was this good ol’ country boy and this more urban girl. So my dad, he had Hank Williams Sr. records and Merle Haggard, a whole bunch of Willie Nelson–believe it or not, there was a time in my life when I was tired of listening to Willie [laughs]. I had my dad’s influences, and on the other side, my mom, she listened to a lot of Motown. She listened to Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Percy Sledge. I grew up to listening to this mixture of Hank Williams Sr and Aretha Franklin back to back. Growing up, I could tell there was a difference, but I didn’t know they didn’t go together. I never really captured the idea of genres until I was older and realized people kind of divided music up, thinking it was kind of weird. My dad also like southern rock. We had some Steve Miller Band, Allman Brothers Band, and Marshall Tucker Band as well. I loved the lyricism, the storytelling of the country stuff and I loved the driving guitar of the southern rock stuff, and the raw emotion of Motown. There was this one time, I was in elementary school. I did this, kind of a talent show. The song I chose was “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” which is this Motown song. I remember it being on “The Big Chill” soundtrack. I loved this song as a kid. Here I was this white bread, chubby little kid singing Motown. I’ve always had this weird little mix. Another thing I left out, I was raised in church and was raised on hymns. Every once in a while, there will be some hymn influences that sneak into songs.
NS: Who’s your favorite writer? You have a favorite book out there?
ZW: Favorite writer. Great question. I read a lot of nonfiction. A lot of autobiographies. So, my favorite writer is probably Teddy Roosevelt. I’m actually reading again “Rough Riders” by Roosevelt, which is about the Spanish-American War. I know it sounds so nerdy when I say it out loud [laughs], but that’s the kind of stuff I love to read. Another book I just read, and my wife and friends were getting tired of me talking about it, is the autobiography of William F. Cody, known as Buffalo Bill, and about how he helped settle the plains. I really am big on that kind of stuff.
NS: What do you watch on TV? Do you have a favorite show out there?
ZW: You know, I have a hard time finding stuff to watch on TV. There’s only three shows I really, really enjoy. The first, is “The Walking Dead.” I love it. We probably shouldn’t get really into why and how much I really love that show. Some psycho-analysis. I just love it. The other two shows I like are “reality shows.” One is “The Deadliest Catch.” Those guys are just so hardcore. I love seeing those guys go out and just being the salt of the earth and being man’s men. Those guy’s are tough. The other show is just out of pure stupidity and silliness. It’s “Duck Dynasty.” Those are country boys and they like to shoot guns. Things I like [laughs].
NS: I’ll get you out on this last question. It has to deal with singer-songwriters who are your contemporaries so to speak. Other songwriters who are in the Amarillo and Lubbock specifically–West Texas in general. What do you think about what’s currently going on right now in music? There seems to be a little bit of a boom. There’s a few guys finding success and a lot of guys who are writing good songs.
ZW: Yeah. Well, you know, my booking goes through Trent Langford, which you know is No Dry County. I love his songwriting. I love No Dry County. We were doing a show in Canyon. Like this summer bash thing at this apartment complex. We were sitting there and had just finished setting up. It was No Dry County, all those guys, and all of my guys. Brandon Adams was just pulling in. We were all kind of soundchecking, and I turned to Trent and said, “man, is every place like the Texas panhandle? You know, there are dozens of songwriters here and more often than not, they are way above average. Most of them are really great songwriters. With my dad being in the Army, we moved all over the Midwest. I don’t recall any other places that I lived being like this. Texas in general. There’s some amazing songwriters in just Amarillo and Lubbock. Charlie Stout, we have a really great friendship, he’s a lot of things, but he’s also a great songwriter [laughs]. I love his storytelling. Casey Berry is the same way. Trent’s songwriting. You’ve got guys up here in Amarillo. Guys like Chancy Bernson and AJ Swope. It’s really exciting to be where we are right now because if you can notch out a place for yourself, you’ve really done yourself well. There’s plenty of competition.