I was fortunate enough to be able to conduct an interview with Driver Williams from the Eric Church Band at Tortuga Music Festival. Not only is Driver the long time axe man for Eric, but, he is also an established songwriter having spent many years on the publishing side of Nashville. In the interview we touch on many things from his love
Aaron Otto from Raised Rowdy: This is your 3rd time playing Tortuga. What is your favorite part about playing festivals like this?
Driver Williams: Getting to see all my buddies that I have not seen all year. We’re all touring and we’re all in the same town and live in the same town, but, we’re all over the place. I get to see Jaren and Neil from Cadillac (Three) who I grew up with and Kip (Moore) he’s hanging over from last night with his buddies, and Brothers Osborne. Those are just our brothers and its cool to catch up with all of your old friends. That’s my favorite part about festivals.
Being a songwriter, do you set time aside to write or do you keep a notebook and write down ideas when the inspiration strikes?
Driver: So, in my notes section in my phone, I’ve probably got a thousand different ideas. Either titles, one-liners, verses, something that was cool that somebody said on TV. Usually that can turn into a song or at least a line in a song. Also, in my voice memo section, I’ve got about a thousand riffs too. So, if inspiration is not striking in the lyric department, I’ve always got a bevy of riffs I can always come up with. As far as writing goes, I write for a publishing company, which is River House, which is the Luke Combs guys. They book writes for me. So, if I’m not on the road, I’m writing every day.
What is your favorite part about growing up in Nashville?
Driver: I think the openness for art to be an ok thing. I think a lot of people grow up in towns that kind of shun art and music as a way of life and a way to make a living. I was an athlete, but, that was never my focus It was always playing guitar and writing songs. I think that Nashville really embraced me from the very beginning instead of saying “don’t do that, you can never make a living doing that”. So, it’s that and it’s beautiful and I couldn’t even think about living anywhere else.
With your father being in the industry, did he push you into it or did it come natural to you?
Driver: It came natural to me and my younger brother too. He never forced any of it on us. I was kind of pushed to play sports by my mom. She was more of a sports nut and my dad was the music guy. He was gone a lot. As a publisher, and a guy in the music business, you’re out late nights scouting talent and you’re out of town doing that kind of stuff. But, it wasn’t until I was around 12 or 13 that I knew that it was something that I wanted to pursue.
When did you start writing?
Driver: The writing started more not as songs per se, but, as riffs. I grew up on southern rock, classic rock and 90’s country like a lot of us did. That is what my dad had playing in the house and in the car. But, by the time I was able to discover music on my own around 10-12, it was heavy metal. It was Metallica, Megadeth, Pantera. Also, some of the Nu Metal that started creeping in like Korn. That’s where I found myself in music. So, it started out with just writing the riffs, then putting together songs based on riffs, and finding someone who would be able to scream or sing over them. The more kind of singer-songwriter country stuff didn’t come until later on in high school after I started playing for Mindy McCready. That’s when I started saying “you know what? This is definitely something I can see myself getting into”. It was just something new to me.
What would you be doing if you didn’t play music?
Driver: I was an English major in college, so I would probably be teaching right now. I would be doing that or doing something with publishing. Like you said, my dad was a publisher. Before I got the gig with Eric and before I started being a songwriter, I worked for my dad and I was a song plugger. I still kind of want to do that. I’m not sure how long I’ll have this gig, but I know I’m never going to quit writing songs and will always have some kind of songwriter job. If its plugging or being a publisher, that’s fine by me too.
Tell me about the first time you met Eric
Driver: The first time I met Eric was probably in 2002 or 2003. It was soon after he had just gotten his first publishing deal at Sony/ATV in Nashville. This was before he even had aspirations of being an artist. He had moved to town to be a songwriter like a whole lot of people. So, my dad’s song plugger and creative director was a girl named Katherine Blasingame, and Eric and Katherine were dating. All my friends were at college. So, when I would come home from college, I would hang out with Katherine and Eric. We liked to drink Jack Daniels and listen to old country. So, I think the first night I met Eric, we went out to dinner and ended up at one of the honky-tonks on Broadway. We got hammered and probably played The Weight by The Band. I don’t even know where we were, but, we eventually made it back to Katherine’s town-home in Mid-Town. I woke up on her couch and had a raging hangover and that was the first time I met Eric. I did tell him that night “man, I know you’re here to be a songwriter, but, I know you are going to be an artist and a star. When you get your record deal, I’m going to be your guitar player”. That is exactly what happened.
So, you saw it early on?
Driver: Absolutely. I heard his songs and I was like “nobody is writing stuff like this”. The trouble with Eric early on was that he was not getting a lot of cuts, even though he was writing these incredible songs. The note he kept hearing over and over again in A&R meetings was “these sound like you” Finally, after hearing that a number of times, Eric was like “shit, why don’t I try to do this artist thing”. Arthur Buenahora, who signed him over at Sony, kind of spearheaded that and introduced him to Jay Joyce. They just started doing demos together and that’s how the whole thing started. Then, Lightening and all these great songs started coming out and it was impossible not to give him a record deal.
With the Holdin’ My Own Tour being so unique in that there was no opening act and there was an intermission between sets, what was it like every night playing different setlists and city specific covers?
Driver: We always had a template. We did between 38-42 songs every night. We knew what we were opening with during the first set. That first three or four songs to hit you in the teeth. We had around the mid-section of both sets some wiggle room to change songs in and out. When it got to the covers sections, sometimes we played three each night. We didn’t get those songs until right before or even during soundcheck. So, it was a nerve racking tour. We were learning pretty intricate stuff that Eric doesn’t necessarily know and we definitely don’t know. We had to know every single song he had ever cut for this tour, because we didn’t know when he might call an audible. So, putting together the setlist, we knew there were songs we were going to play every night. Then, there were sections where you just kind of brush up on stuff you hadn’t played in a long time and learn covers quickly and pray you get it right.
What was the first gig you ever played?
Driver: Like I was saying earlier, the first pro gig I played was with Mindy McCready, who has since passed, God rest her soul. I was 17 years old. I missed the first month of my senior year of high school to go on a radio tour with her in 1999. I learned quickly what to do on the road and what not to do. We would fly in, do a 5:00 AM radio show, do a 9:00 AM show, some kind of lunch hour thing, go do an afternoon show somewhere, then, play a gig that night. It was just non-stop, but, it was the best way to get introduced to this world. You learn really quick if you’re up to it or not and I loved it. That was my first pro gig. After that, I moved out to Arizona. I wanted to get as far away from Nashville when I was 18. I was a metalhead. I knew country was always an option coming back, but, I wanted to be in the next Metallica. I started a band that ended up touring more with Insane Clown Posse than metal bands. I had a blast out there, but, I knew it was time to come home and hopefully put my brand of rock into country.
What is your favorite part about being on the road and what is your least favorite part about being on the road?
Driver: biggest high you can ever have. You get to play your songs in front of thousands of people and do your thing. There is nothing better than that 1 and ½ hours, sometimes 3 and ½ hours. The worst part is I’m a dad. So, it’s the rest of the time. I get paid for the time being away from my family. I don’t get paid for the shows. That’s for free. It’s the time away from my family. When we go to Europe, the west coast, Canada, and you can’t come home for 3 weeks, it’s hard. So, that’s the hardest part about being on the road.
Let’s do a little word association. I say something and you tell me the first thing that comes to mind
Driver: The new cereal they just put out, which my kids love. I can’t believe they have waited that long to do it. Also, they need to bring back the coconut oreos.
Driver: Hard. It took us 10 years to break into Texas. It’s like its own country. If they don’t like you, they will let you know right away. It took a long time to get accepted in Texas doing what we were doing. Having said that, it’s one of my favorite places now that it has come around. Jeff Hyde, who is in our band, is one of my favorite people in the entire world. I think he is the definition of what a great Texan is. So, I do love Texas.
Driver: Rowdy. Nashville. My brother. Whiskey among other things. One of my all-time favorite people.
Driver: Me. Jaren Johnston. Neal Mason. In Nashville, we call natives “Unicorns”. So, there aren’t many of us around, so, me and Jaren are unicorns.
Driver: Now, I would say they fucking hurt. I love them. I have them all over my body. I just got my chest done and it hurt so fucking bad that I don’t want to get another one. However, I love them. They define me in a lot of ways because all of them have a story to tell.
Driver: Bring it on. I’m a metal head. I love it.
Last question, how do you define success?
Driver: Being happy. As long as you are able to make a living doing what you love to do, I think that you are successful. Even if I was not at the level I am now with Eric and was still playing in dive bars and clubs, I would still think I was successful. I love what I do.
I want to thank Driver for sitting down with me and giving me the time out of his busy schedule.