Lefty Williams is a hard one to peg. Though he's sometimes mistaken for a blues musician, he's more of a Southern-fried mutt with a real gift for the six-string that comes out in a blend of rugged riffage and Teflon solos.
"I've always told people I'm musically schizophrenic," Williams says from his Atlanta home. "One week I'm all into jazz, and I want to play everything Charlie Parker ever did. Then the next week I might be on a Pantera kick and after that REM or Peter Gabriel. Right now, I'm really into Blackberry Smoke."
You might say that Williams has been a music lover since before he was born, thanks to his father who used to put those big 1970s headphones on his mother's belly and serenade his unborn son with Yes' Fragile. In some ways, Williams was destined to be a musician, except for one thing: Jason "Lefty" Williams was born without a right hand — not that it mattered much. He learned to strum on the guitar with the end of his forearm as a child. When he was six, his parents gave him a sock-like apparatus that allowed him to attach a pick to his arm, and when it didn't work, Williams toyed with it himself until it did.
"'There is no quit until you succeed' has been a definitive thing in my life. My whole life's been, if you have a problem, you keep working at it until you figure out how to fix the problem," he says. "Not that I've never given up on anything in my life, but it's definitely one of those things where if it's important to me, I'm going to figure out how to make it work."
Eventually, Williams earned a degree in music from Kennesaw State and then taught at the Atlanta Institute of Music. While he played with bands for years, it wasn't until 2000 that he decided to take center stage. It took some time for him to refine his approach, particularly given his broad tastes. Finally, his wife, who's also a musician, convinced him to focus. That's how his sound coalesced on his first two albums, 2005's Big Plans and 2008's Snake Oil.
"A lot of people think, oh Lefty's a blues guy, and the name Lefty doesn't help, but the reality is that my band is really a rock band," he says with a chuckle. "Most often I get compared to Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers, so there's definitely blues there. The Brothers and Zeppelin were both influenced by the blues, and I was influenced heavily by both of those bands, but we're really just a rock band."
Building on that foundation, Williams is able to let his influences run a little wild. Rootsy licks transform into loose and jazzy Traffic-style jams before touches of soulful Big Easy swing seep in and the whole thing takes a funky, chicken-fried turn.
For the last several years, Williams has been amassing a following up and down the East Coast, and he's hoping to expand his fanbase with his next release, which he hopes to have out by the end of August. Tentatively titled All In, it will be released on the new Tree Leaf Records label. The label is run by Paul Diaz, the owner of Tree Sound Studios, a big-time Atlanta outfit that has produced albums by Outkast, Matchbox 20, Justin Bieber, and Fergie to name a few. "We've been friends forever and traveled in the same scene for a long time," Williams says. "When he started up his label, he offered me a deal. I jumped on it."
Although it's been five years since his last release, Williams is a pretty "regular" writer, by which he means that he might not write a song for several months and then write five over a weekend. Consequently, he's built up a store of more than two-dozen record-ready tunes that he plans to release on a series of five-song EPs at six- to eight-month intervals for the next several years.
"I'm definitely digging my heels in a little bit with the whole Southern rock thing, but not so much on the Lynyrd Skynyrd side and more the Allman Brothers side. I'm really trying to mesh those two ideas and styles into one cohesive thing that really is my own sound. I'm not there yet but I'm trying," say Williams.
He hopes to incorporate jazzier elements, but at the same time toss in ample amounts of riff rock. "I think most people get a little lost when it comes to listening to jazz and think it sounds like noise because there is too much going on. So I try to keep things a little more simple and accessible," Williams says. "I like for the melodies to be strong, but I like that jazz harmony."
Though Williams admits his disability may have given him a little more to prove, he says, "We're really the same on the inside. We all have the same thoughts and fears." To that point, he encourages people to ask questions and not be afraid.
"Often I'll be in a restaurant, and the mom and dad will be walking out with their kid and they'll be going 'Mom, mom, mom, he's only got one hand! What's wrong with his hand?' And of course the mom is mortified," Williams says. "A lot of times I find myself stopping a parent and going, 'No, let them ask. It's OK to be curious. You have to be nice because some people are sensitive, but it's OK to ask.'"