Jimmy Hall might write a book some day, and the whole thing will be about that one song, the one that got the most air play back when Wet Willie was a full-time thing, the one that still gets air play.
“I was talking to myself in some ways when I wrote Keep on Smiling,” says Hall, lead singer, multi-instrumentalist and co-founder of Wet Willie. “A lot of my songs are autobiographical, and this one is no exception. You know, ‘stay strong, you just gotta keep on smiling.’ So I was talking to myself a little bit, and talking to the whole world, and a lot of people heard it.”
And they aren’t shy about sharing their stories of the song’s personal significance.
“I’ve heard so many stories through the years from people who say that song really meant something to them. I really should think about writing that book,” says Hall, whose distinctive sax and harmonica, and powerful soul-searing vocals really defined the Wet Willie.
They had a top 10 hit – Keep on Smiling – and several other chart toppers, including Weekend, Airport and Dixie Rock. The band earned a reputation as one of the hardest-rocking Southern bands to achieve national acclaim (along with the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd) in the 1970s, and Hall’s voice left deep impressions on fans and other musicians alike.
John Bell, lead singer of Widespread Panic, says, “If you are asking me who I think is the best Southern rock singer – hands down, Jimmy Hall, no question.”
Legendary guitarist and Stax Records staple Steve Cropper says, “For my money, Jimmy is the best white R&B singer alive.”
Hall and Wet Willie are closing the two-day Sautee Jamboree (Sept. 23-24) as Saturday night’s headliners, here in the foothills of God’s country. Leading up to that, says Hall, the band is “building up some steam, doing some festivals, getting ready for Sautee.”
Each Sautee Jamboree has had a life of its own. Heavier on the bluegrass and jamband music in the early years, those elements remain as integral pieces (the Mosier Brothers and Sol Driven Train return to the festival). But the lineup, especially the headline acts, have grown more diverse, stylistically, the last couple of years.
“We always try to mix it up a little bit, present something that we know our audience loves as well as something they might not have seen around here before,” says festival co-producer Tommy Deadwyler.
In addition to Wet Willie, the Mosiers and Sol Driven Train, the lineup this year includes American Anodyne, Davin McCoy and the Coming Attractions, Larkin Poe, Michelle Malone, Shovels and Rope, Home Grown Revival, Insonnia, and Carly Gibson.
Hall counts himself a big fan of McCoy’s, and considers him one of the best rising songwriters in the Southern music scene, which will play out in multiple genres on Sautee’s outdoor stage.
“There definitely is that pleasing sense of the old and new coming together at this year’s Jamboree,” Deadwyler says.
In Wet Willie, the Sautee crowd gets something old and new in one shot – this is the first genuine classic Southern rock band to play the venue.
The band was formed in the late 60s in its hometown, Mobile, Ala., but moved to Macon, Ga., in 1970 to join the growing roster at Capricorn Records, recording an enviable array of albums from 1971 until 1978, and earning a reputation as one of the busiest touring bands of the era. Unlike fellow Capricorn label-mates, the Allman Brothers Band and Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie brought more of an R&B sound that reflects Hall’s early musical inspirations –Ray Charles, Sam Cook, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding.
“I grew up in a very musical family. Mom was a piano player, dad was a listener and appreciator, but he brought a lot of music into the house,” Hall says. “We listened to a lot of gospel music growing up.”
From the start, there was something in the DNA that set Wet Willie apart as one of Southern rock’s iconic groups. For one thing, the band featured siblings Jimmy and Jack Hall (bass), and later included their sister Donna, one of the back-up singing Williettes.
Though Wet Willie split in 1980, the band has reunited from time to time, with most of the original nucleus – including the three Hall siblings – intact.
Jimmy Hall, whose harmonica and sax are as strong as his voice, lives in Nasvhville today, and has remained one of the busiest players in Southern music through the years. In the early 80s he was one fourth of a bona-fide Southern super-group, BHLT, which featured Dickie Betts, Chuck Leavell and Butch Trucks in addition to Hall. They only played live gigs, never recorded.
“Man, Jimmy Hall is one of my favorite folks in the whole world,” says Leavell, who now spreads his time around between the Rolling Stones and numerous solo projects, when he isn’t writing books or working his tree farm in central Georgia.
“He made such a great contribution to Southern music. He brought soulfulness to the forefront of the genre. And his stage presence was electrifying. He really knows how to bring an audience in.
“The thing is, he’s known so much for his singing voice, a lot of people forget that his harp playing and saxophone are extraordinary.”
Hall has reached some of his loftiest professional heights since Wet Willie broke up as a fulltime band – he was nominated for a Grammy for his work with Jeff Beck, and has worked extensively with Hank Williams, Jr.
But for legions of boomers, he is still remembered best for co-writing and singing Keep on Smiling.
“Every time I play that song, I run into a new story from someone who was touched in some way by it,” says Hall. “You know, someone who says, ‘your song really pulled me through,’ or ‘that song really encouraged me when I needed it.’ People really relate to that song.”
Hall was living in a weathered farmhouse in rural Gray, Georgia, a few miles from Macon, when he wrote the lyrics, which were inspired – not surprisingly – by his girlfriend at the time.
“We were together about eight and a half years, at that time I guess I sort of had the blues, ’cause we were trying to figure out where to go with this relationship,” he says. “We were at the point of, ‘OK, love the one you’re with, what happens on the road, stays on the road.’ You know?
“I mean, that’s the way the Allman Brothers did it, so why can’t I do it. I really wanted my cake and wanted to eat it, too, so I was trying to rationalize a lot. She didn’t understand that, of course, and figured, ‘what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.’ But I was still crazy about her. So, we hurt each other. Then we got back together.”
So from there, it’s not difficult to piece that part of the story together through Hall’s lyrics: “Yeah, you’re about to go insane, ’cause your woman’s playing games. And she says that you’re to blame. You got to keep on smiling, keep on smiling.”
There is an overwhelming empathy for the song, though, and Hall has heard more stories from guys getting through divorce, people who have lost a parent, veterans who say things like, “that song helped get me through ’Nam,” or some such.
But the most powerful testament came from a friend who had succumbed to muscular dystrophy.
“This was an old family friend, and I remember seeing him through the years, his body deteriorating, but he had this great spirit, and he really was a fan of our music. He came to our shows, and it was something that always brightened his day,” Hall says.
“I was probably on the road when he passed away. But I’ll never forget, one of his last wishes was to have Keep on Smiling played at his funeral. They buried him in his Wet Willie t-shirt. That was a big epiphany for me on the power of that song.”
Sometimes, Hall tries to put himself into the soul of a fan, imagine the perception of the dude in the audience, and it helps him understand what the music means on a more universal plane.
“I think about what music does for the listener. They want to be entertained, but they want to feel part of it,” Hall says. “I know what music does for me, it’s something I’m passionate about, and I keep that in mind where the audience is concerned, too.
“So I really try to communicate with the crowd, think of what its like for them. And when you really reach the people in the crowd and communicate with them, that’s when they get their money’s worth.”
His preparation at for a live performance has stayed fairly consistent, inwardly focused and loosey-goosey
“It’s mainly a mental process. I think about getting into the zone, I focus and put my worries away,” he says. “I’m fairly irregular about warming up and cooling down, though. But I’ve been fortunate. My voice is my main instrument, and it’s a natural gift that I can push. It’s like a fine-tuned racecar that will do whatever I ask it to do.”
It can, and has, been intimidating for other performers, that voice. Gregg Allman (who calls Hall “my soul brother”) has said Hall, “is the hardest man to follow on stage that I ever worked with.”
Even Hall’s musician sons (Ryan and Alex, of Slow Motion Centerfold) wonder how their old man does it, still, with such power and range.
“I’m 62 and I didn’t have any idea when I was 22 or 32 that I’d still be doing what I’m doing, singing like I sing, even surpassing what I used to do.” Says Hall. “My voice is the instrument I was born with, and it’s still running with a lot of horsepower.”