Appropriate? Or appropriation?
It’s a line and a conversation that is rarely easy to navigate when discussing art.
Who owns a story, an experience, a view of the world, a look at a culture?
And who can decide?
It’s something that Calgary roots and blues legend Tim Williams has had to ponder with the release of his new album Corazones y Murallas (Hearts and High Walls), which he’ll celebrate Thursday, March 28 with a show at the Ironwood.
“I was a little trepidatious about it because I’m not Mexican,” Williams says of the record, while sitting in Inglewood pub Swans. “I have a deep connection to that community, but I have no Mexican DNA.”
Actually, minutes later Williams rightfully contradicts himself, noting that it is in his DNA — via osmosis.
How could it not be? The artist grew up in southern California, born in San Pedro, and raised in Los Angeles alongside children of migrant workers, alongside their parents, and from an early age was immersed in the stories, music, language and culture of the Mexican and Central American people who were drawn to the United States to start a better life.
No, he doesn’t own it, can’t lay any formal claim to it, but it was very much a part of his formative years and something that has stayed with him from his youth, is something he’s comfortable celebrating — especially now.
“Kids don’t tend to have the same,” he says, and pauses. “Maybe they do now because their media is so saturated with racism, but kids then didn’t seem to have quite the depth of ingrained sense of the other that you see now.”
Which brings us to Hearts and High Walls. It’s an extension of his long love of the music of East and South Bay L.A., where those lines were blurred so casually as if to be disregarded — Mexican, American, it wasn’t even a thought.
And the 10-track offering, which features his band and guests from across the continent, is something that doesn’t really allow for that conversation to even be a starter, so steeped in his understanding and sheer joy of what he grew up with, the songs he heard, the music he would later want to make part of his repertoire.
It’s an absolute joy, itself, with magnificently and, yes, lovingly performed covers and originals taking the listener south of the American border and back north into the border states, showing that there are no actual walls when it comes to music.
“I think the love comes through pretty strong,” he admits. “I really like going back and reinvestigating that funky old stuff that maybe sold a couple thousand copies in the neighbourhood when it was made,” he says, likening it to the approach that Big Sandy took with his solo debut Dedicated to You.
“That influence, the love of that music, it does comes through, it translates off the album and it’s always translated well live.”
Hearts and High Walls has always been something the guitarist has wanted to tackle, finally pushed by his wife after performing with musician Jossy Gallegos at a guitar festival in Mexico a few years back, their love of traditional Mexican canciones (songs), and their voices mingling together a bond.
Gallegos eventually came to Williams’ adopted home to record a trio of tunes that would be the starting point for the superb Spanish and English collection of old and new, including a stunning cover of Sabor a Mi featuring Gallegos’ gorgeous vocals, an almost profound take on the Woody Guthrie/Martin Huffman tune Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee), a version of the Los Lobos song A Matter of Time served up as a stunning duet with Shaye Zadravec and originals such as Tijuana Mama and album highlight A Two-Car Family.
The latter, Williams admits, is “decades old” and tells of a Mexican couple living in one car, driving another, attempting to make a life for themselves in the U.S., working jobs that most Americans wouldn’t do while dealing with the everyday indignities and hurdles that racism and classism deliver.
Interestingly, the song was inspired by an immigration bust at a Kensington C-Train station that he witnessed. It was at a time, he says, when they were targeting Southeast Asians who were in this country overstaying their visas, and the parallels to what he saw when he was growing up were impossible to ignore.
“It took me right back to growing up going to schools where classmates would be missing for four or five days because they were illegal and their family would be shipped back to Mexico and they would come back when they could,” he says.
“The song kind of wrote itself after that.”
Sadly, that song, like much of the rest of the album — and even its title — have gained a new relevancy over the past two years, with the conversation about immigration getting louder, darker and more pronounced.
Williams has been incredibly outspoken about it, refusing to set foot in his homeland because of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. In fact, he admits that he even changed the guitar strings he uses from an American-based company to one in the U.K. because he’s unwilling to support a country and an economy that would choose otherism over compassion and humanity.
“I’ve turned down festivals and tour offers,” he says of his self-imposed exile. “I won’t. That country has moved to the place I felt it moving when I moved to Canada in 1970. It’s just become much more obvious, celebrated.
“I think about it every time an interesting offer comes up. There are places I miss playing a lot.”
He removes his ball cap to show the logo on it.
“The Hambone Gallery, the Hopeless Case Bar in Clarksdale. And it really kind of hurts to tell people when they say, ‘When are coming back down?’ ”
He laughs. “Not for at least two years.”
And if it’s six?
He laughs again. “At which point I probably won’t be able to remember how to play the guitar anyway, so it’s a moot point.”
Tim Williams releases his new album Corazones y Murallas (Hearts and High Walls) Thursday, March 28 at the Ironwood. For reservations call 403-269-558.
Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for theYYSCENE.com. Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.