Blues artists come in all shapes and sizes and all forms of life these days, but no one’s more complex than Watermelon Slim, a seemingly uncomplicated artist whose background runs far deeper than most anyone could ever imagine.
Beneath that laid-back exterior, shaded by his familiar broad-brimmed hat and covered in the stylish threads he wears on stage, beneath that outward appearance as a true Southern gentleman beats the heart of one of the most highly educated and deepest thinkers in the blues world.
With a background that includes work as a newspaper reporter, furniture mover, truck driver, watermelon farmer and more, his life is nothing like the straight roads of Oklahoma where he raised crops. It has more twists and turns than the blacktop that wanders through the mountains surrounding Asheville, N.C., his childhood home.
“Most people don’t even know who you are after they meet you,” he chuckles. “I set a low bar for it all.”
By the time you finish reading this article, you’ll know he speaks the truth.
Blues Blast caught up with Slim in mid-April when he was on the street in Clarksdale, Miss., his home for the past few years, and in the midst of multiple conversations as he was making final preparations for the city’s annual Juke Joint Festival, which kicked off the following day.
Despite his Southern roots, Slim came into the world in Boston, Mass., in 1949 as William Homans III. “My parents had me almost on the doorstep…just a rifle shot…from Fenway Park,” he says. “But my mother held me in and got me to the hospital.
“I’m a citizen of Red Sox Nation by birth. But within the next year, my parents moved to Arlington, Va., had my brother and then divorced. I was in North Carolina by the time I was three.
“I’m no Mississippi blues man,” he adds, “but I am a Southern American man, and a non-racist. Boston-born don’t mean a thing. And Southern hospitality is not a myth.”
Homans’ brother remained a Yankee for the rest of his life, but Bill quickly assimilated into his Southern surroundings. His first exposure to the blues came at age five in a region of the nation where Piedmont stylings were born. It was the tail end of Jim Crow politics and an era when true innovators of the music, including Pink Anderson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Blind Willie McTell and others, were still plying their trade.
Despite being known today as a guitar and harmonica player, the first instrument young Bill picked up was a set of bongos, a gift from his mother at age eight.
“I thought beatniks were cool,” he remembers. “They weren’t high-quality bongos, but they weren’t toys. As far as percussion goes today, I’m probably a conga player or a professional tambourine player. But I’m still a percussionist. It’s part of my musical persona.”
He picked up his first harp in 1960 during a trip to Clearwater, Fla. Back then, it was an inexpensive, accessible instrument that was easy to carry around. “Besides,” he says, “I’m left-handed, so there was no instrument that I was likely to find a teacher of because instruments are basically taught by right-handed people.”
His love for the instrument exploded after hearing “Little” Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips” on the radio. Released in 1963 when Wonder was just 12 years old, it was an instrumental that soared to the pinnacle of Billboard’s pop and soul singles charts, an unusual occurrence in that era when the airwaves were as segregated as most communities across the South.
In later years – during his second stay in Boston, Homans fell under the influence of “Earring” George Mayweather, the Alabama-born harp player who learned at the feet of Little Walter in the early ‘50s. Once a next-door neighbor of guitar legend J.B. Hutto and a founding member of his band, The Hawks, Mayweather also played with Bo Diddley and got an invitation from Muddy Waters to join his band after Walter’s departure.
“George didn’t end up teaching me how to play the harmonica,” Homans says of his mentor. “But more than anybody else, he was the one who made it clear in my head how to do a show – even when he was too drunk to be doing it himself.
“He was my fishing buddy. He’d go fishing with me in the same green suit he played in the night before. And he showed me how to put the whole harmonica-vocal moves thing together. I carry those lessons with me today. He was a character!”
Homans’ first gigs came while attending Middlebury College in Vermont in 1969. That stay was short-lived, however. He flunked out, enlisted in the military and, like so many of his peers, quickly shipped out to Vietnam. It was there that he picked up a guitar for the first time after being laid low by a chronic viral infection that landed him in a military hospital in Cam Rhan Bay.
“There was this old Vietnamese man, a papa-san in a little commissary the size of about two bathroom stalls, putting ranks and insignias on people’s uniforms with an old, unelectrified sewing machine and selling little tiny knickknacks,” he recalls. “He had this old guitar sitting in a corner.
“I looked at it. I asked him in French: ‘How much?’
“’Five dollars MPC – military payment certificate,’ he said. I gave it to him. It was built out of something a little stronger than balsa wood — the nastiest thing you’ve ever seen, but it did have rusty six strings on it. So I started playing with it, trying to make it make sounds.”
With the instrument laying in his lap, he used a cigarette lighter – a non-military issue one, he insists — as a slide as he attempted to figure his way around the fretboard.
Previous accounts of his background mistakenly reported that it was Government issue, which makes him bristle. “They weren’t giving us lighters to burn down hooches and fields,” he insists. “They had napalm to do that.”
The rudimentary guitar stylings he learned back then remain the foundation for the techniques Slim uses today.
“That’s the only way I know how to play,” he says. “I don’t know how to play chords with my fingers — only open tuning. I have tried to tune to a standard tuning and think I could actually learn that. I know where the differences are. But at this point in my life, I don’t think it would help with the style I’ve got over all these years. So I don’t do it.
“It’s like I don’t play chromatic harmonica. I don’t think it would help what my current music is.”
When Homans was transferred back to the States, the guitar remained behind because of importation restrictions. He quickly picked up another when he got back to the mainland, and has been playing conventional six-strings ever since.
A founding member of both the Boston and Oklahoma Blues Societies, he’s always had strong anti-war sentiments, which contributed to him developing a lifelong bond with Bonnie Raitt, then a burgeoning superstar in the early ‘70s. Their reverence for Mississippi Fred McDowell — who taught Bonnie how to play slide guitar and who was Bill’s early hero along with John Lee Hooker – drew them even closer together.
“It was June the third, 1972, in Fitchburg, Mass., when I met her,” Homans says. “She supported a Vietnam Veterans Against The War action. I sat in with her for the first time that night, and she partied with us afterwards.
“I knew she was a big Fred McDowell fan, and Fred’s was the first music I tried to play in Vietnam. We talked a lot, and I got Fred’s address, and I wrote him a letter the next day.”
Sadly, McDowell would never get a chance to read it.
“July the ninth, 1972, I heard on the radio station WBCN that Fred had died on July the third, 1972, the day that Bonnie gave me his address,” Bill recalls. “So I had written to him when he was one-day dead.
“That’s my ‘Death Letter Blues,’” he says, referring to a song penned by Son House in the ‘30s that became centerpiece of his performances after being “rediscovered” in the ‘60s.
Homans recorded his first album, Merry Airbrakes, in 1973. One of the rarest of all modern blues LPs, it had a pressing of only 100 copies and had songs that dealt with several themes prevalent in the era: drug use, spirituality and the emotional toll of fighting other humans perceived as “enemies” because of political differences. Gracing the cover was a linoleum-block print designed by the musician, who’s been creating and selling artwork for years.
Massachusetts served as Homans’ home for a good portion of the ‘70s, during which, he says, where he was deeply involved both in activism and in trying to find his both his social and sexual identity.
A staunch environmentalist and anti-war activist, he entered into a personal and professional relationship with Richard Hayes Phillips, a highly skilled investigator whose work contributed to several government actions to protect land from pollutants in many forms.
From 1979 to 1998, they were partners both at home and in the field, working on several diverse studies that received national attention.
Their first efforts dealt with an investigation into the New York Power Authority (NYPA) and its use of 2,4,5-trichlorophoxyacedic acid – a weed killer linked to kidney and nerve damage. They were using it to clear right-of-ways for their transmission towers.
After their findings came to light, the Supreme Court Of New York issued an injunction to block use of the chemical, a primary component of the notorious carcinogenic defoliant Agent Orange used in Vietnam. The Environmental Protection Agency followed up with a permanent ban a year later in 1981.
Phillips and Homans then directed their energies to in Eddy County, N.M., where their investigative efforts into nuclear waste dump sites led to a cleanup conducted under the Federal Superfund Program. Phillips subsequently published the work as his dissertation in pursuit of a Ph.D.
“I was his assistant, bodyguard, chauffeur – and his lover,” Homans says, noting that they were involved in several other studies before parting ways.
Back in Boston, Homans says, he also unearthed an unedited print of the legendary 8-mm. color film of the Kennedy assassination captured by Abraham Zepgruder. He lost it to decay along with several other treasures while living in a trailer in Oklahoma in later years.
“I’m not into tithing,” he admits, “and I’m not good about keeping up with things.”
More recently, Bill served as team leader for an investigation at South Dakota’s Standing Rock Indian Reservation. He secured aerial photo evidence revealing that the Energy Transfer Partners conglomerate was continuing to drill holes in search of natural gas after being barred from doing so by an injunction filed by Army Corps Of Engineers over fears of water pollution.
That study still rubs Homans raw. He remains appalled because that information his team unearthed was delayed from release for so long that it was virtually ignored when it was and the damage was already done.
“It’s like what Napoleon said: ‘It’s not necessary to suppress the truth,’” he sighs. “‘It’s only necessary to hold it back until people aren’t interested anymore.’”
Homans began farming on a whim, he says, after he and Phillips moved to Pushmataha County in southeastern Oklahoma in 1980. It was a small-scale operation that produced cantaloupes, artichokes and watermelons.
“That’s how I got my name,” he says. “I was standing out in the middle of a field of watermelons I grew, and took a harmonica out of my pocket. I had it in one hand and was eating a piece of watermelon with the other.
“I looked at it and looked at the harmonica…bingo! Suddenly, I was Watermelon Slim!”
During that period, he also drove a truck and worked in a sawmill, seriously injuring his left shoulder, got married, divorced then earned a bachelor’s degree from the University Of Oregon, a double-majoring in both journalism and history.
Later on, he attended Oklahoma State University, where he took home a master’s degree in history after submitting a thesis tracing the bombing of the Alfred F. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols back to neo-Nazis, a theory, he says, that’s never been debunked.
Then came a failed attempt to launch a musical career in Europe, when he stockpiled vacation time and used it to try to make a name for himself as a soloist in southern England.
“It was 1987, and I got bounced off of some railroad tracks,” he says, “I never went back for 16 years. The next time I did, I had better advice and people I could talk to when somethin’ went wrong.”
Back in the U.S., he returned to Boston and to trucking, hauling everything from household goods to general freight to logs and finally industrial waste, before returning to farming in the Sooner State in 1993.
“People talk to me about work,” Slim says, “and they have no idea what work is.
“These kids have no idea what fingerprinting (inventorying, loading and unloading) an entire 24-ft. truck is and moving it into the house every day. They have no idea about how difficult it is unloading a whole railroad car of cement bags by yourself.
“And that wasn’t as hard as sawmilling.
“I’m not bitching. I’m proud to have been a hard laborer. But I’ve got a shoulder now that I’m not even a candidate now for a normal shoulder replacement. It’s bone on bone, but the orthopedist told me bare it as long as you can. It’s not gonna get appreciably worse.
“Ironically, I can still pick up and carry whatever I have to. I can still actually be a laborer if I had to. If it did, I’d get a job just to see if I could.”
Even a near-fatal heart attack didn’t stop him during his trucking days. He returned to the rigors of physical labor as soon as his was able. It’s an attitude he maintains today. And a couple of days prior to this interview, he handled all the large objects when the daughter of a friend moved across town.
Slim’s been playing in bands fairly steadily since his most recent Oklahoma stay. In the late ‘90s, he hooked up with Doren Recker and Mike Rhodes, a pair of Oklahoma State philosophy professors, to form the band Fried Okra Jones.
Their revolving lineup included guitarist “Texas” Ray Isom and female bass player Honour Hero Havoc. Their eponymous three-song EP, which was released in 2000, includes the tune “(They Call Me) Watermelon Slim,” his first use of the moniker on a record.
Slim also spent time in Another Roadside Attraction, an eight-member alternative rock ensemble, before finally recording a complete album under his adopted name in 2002. Entitled Big Shoes To Fill, it was produced by multi-instrumentalist Chris Stovall Brown, a longtime musical colleague from Massachusetts, with a lineup that several members of Fried Okra Jones.
It also featured guest appearances by a pair of New England-based musicians who are now stars in their own right: keyboard player Bruce Bears, most famous for his work with Duke Robillard and as band leader for Boston blues queen Toni Lynn Washington, and “Sax” Gordon Beadle, the world-class horn player.
In 2004, Slim was still driving a truck when he released the all-acoustic Up Close & Personal, beginning a professional partnership with producer Chris Hardwick, a relationship that’s resulted in eight albums to date. That album garnered Slim a 2005 nomination for best new artist in the W.C. Handy Awards.
Since then, instead of hauling furniture, freight or industrial waste, he’s been wheel man for his own backup band. Today, he relies on bass player/road manager John Allouise and Mapquest or Google to get him from gig to gig instead of using maps.
“I tore a trucker’s atlas from stem to stern when we were out on the road because John wouldn’t listen to me about where we should be going,” Slim says. Allouise was taking directions from “the GPS lady” and Slim didn’t like it.
He acquiesced after an incident east of Oakland, Calif., taught him that using a computer program was a better choice.
“I finally realized that the functionality of a machine had rendered my superior 20th century geographical education irrelevant,” Slim admits, noting: “I can read a map better than anybody you sit down with. I’m certified to teach the subject at a high school level.”
But he’s still not happy.
“If that woman was married to me, she’d need a restraining order!” he says.
Even though Slim and The Workers lost out to Robert Randolph in the 2005 Handy voting, they’ve been consistently up for awards ever since. Now known as the Blues Music Awards, they received honors band and album of the year three years later. Dozens more honors have followed, including six BMA nominations in one year alone.
Honored as international artist of the year in Canada’s Maple Awards, Slim’s trophy case – if he has one – also includes prizes from both the Independent Music Awards and Mojo Magazine for album of the year. And he’s also picked up three Blues Blast Music Awards nominations along the way.
The late Jerry Wexler, co-owner of Atlantic Records and the man who produced Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and others, penned the liner notes for Slim’s 2007 release, The Wheel Man, calling him “a one-of-a-kind pickin’ ‘n’ singin’ dynamo.” And the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper described him as “a genuine blues character, something that’s in short supply these days.”
Through it all, however, Slim remains modest and humble.
The world of music has changed for the worse in recent years, he says stoically. “It’s a minor-league, working class musical career that I’ve got. I don’t want to put out any illusions that I’m some great big old star or that anything I do is likely to make me explode.
“But I do have a damn good record out there right now.”
Entitled Church Of The Blues, it’s a collection of everything from straight-ahead Delta blues to strong political statements that weave together his originals with covers penned by Allen Toussaint, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chicago sax man Gene Barge, Tom McFarland and Fred McDowell.
The opener, “St. Peter’s Ledger,” sets the theme and was penned by Ronnie Lereaux Meaders, a longtime friend from Springfield, Mo. Both a trucker and harp player, he was in Clarksdale the day Blues Blast and Slim spoke.
He was manning a commercial barbeque grill in preparation for the festival, pre-cooking ribs in advance of the festivities. Slim’s been the minority owner of Bluesberry Café, the restaurant where he plays frequently for the past few years, and Meaders was giving them a hand in their preparations. Slim bought in, he says, as an act of community service, not as a financial investment to make money, which his bottom line in the operation clearly shows.
“I wrote song in 2012 with Slim in mind,” Meaders says. “I quit driving for a while to take care of my dad who passed away a few years ago at 93.”
It’s written from the perspective of someone who’s lived life on the edge and always in debt. The man gets to the Pearly Gates, discovers that all the entries about him in St. Peter’s book are underscored in red then pleads for mercy, claiming he’s lived a good life despite all his troubles.
“I just tell everybody that Slim plays it a helluva lot better than I do,” Ronnie jokes.
The thirteenth release in the Slim’s catalog, the disc features an all-star lineup that includes Bob Margolin, John Nemeth, Nick Schnebelen, Albert Castiglia, Joe Louis Walker, Sherman Holmes and a full horn section. It’s been extremely well received since debuting in January.
In the midst of promoting the album during the past few months, Slim also announced to the world something that he’s known for most of his life: that he is a gay man. The news barely made a ripple, he says, but the response he’s received has all been positive in nature.
And that’s a good thing, he says, adding: “Everybody knows that if anyone gets in my face and be an asshole about it, they’re gonna fly out faster than they fly in. I’ve never had any gay-bashing problems.
“I’d rather have done it (made the announcement) in a position of power like most people in the entertainment business do…‘Here’s my lover’…‘Here’s my husband’…‘Here’s my girlfriend’ or whatever.”
That was impossible, however, because “I’m no closer to anybody now than all those years I’ve been separated. I wish I had more response.”
Unlike the flamboyant Jason Ricci, a bisexual who’s now in a happy, heterosexual relationship, Slim insists: “I’m a standard old man who has lived straight, been straight…done the entire nine yards…wife…child…but I’ve been gay all the time. I was just doing what was expected of me. Now, I want to be a happily married gay man by the time I pass on.
“I’ve been a responsible heterosexual man – except that I’m gay!
“It’s not that I don’t love women. I’ve loved all my women very honorably and well. I don’t want any dependents, and I don’t want to have to figure out any more why women are really mad at me.
“I know for a fact that I’ve had to fail at a whole bunch of things in order to have any sort of perspective on living now this late in life.”
His political views remain consistent, however. As a writer under his birth name, his commentary pieces frequently appear on the www.opednews.com website. It’s an effort, he infers, that’s akin to Don Quixote tilting against windmills because “we’ve already said everything we can about how out of control it all is right now. What is me saying it going to do to achieve justice now?”
Another constant is his never-ending appreciation for the folks who come to his shows, buy his albums and keep food on his table.
“God bless all you fans who’ve made it even marginally goin’ on as long as I have with this and likin’ it the way you do,” Slim says. “We are a culture without borders, and I’m as proud to be a part of the musical culture as I am to have been a working man. May you all be happy.
“As the old blues man said – I forget which one it was: ‘If it weren’t for you, wouldn’t be no us!’
Find out more about Slim, pick up his albums and find out where he’s playing next by visiting his website: www.watermelonslim.com.