July 15, 2008

The Williams Brothers: Renaissance Men of Cover Songs

By Liz Barry, The News & Advance, Lynchburg, Va.

Jul. 15--The Williams Brothers play more than 600 songs from memory. They don't practice, and they don't use set lists. They just know.

"Usually, we just feel the same song coming on and just march into it," says Jon Williams, who plays guitar, keyboard, bass pedals and sings.

Born and raised in Snowden, Kyle and Jon Williams have been making music for more than 40 years, while holding down day jobs for most of that time. The self-taught musicians have been a duo since 2004 -- three decades after a failed attempt to make in big together in Northern Virginia -- and play at venues throughout the Central Virginia.

The Williams Brothers are Renaissance men of cover songs. Their repertoire ranges from 1940s big band music to modern rock and roll. Swing. Jazz. Soul. Funk. You name it; they (probably) play it.

The brothers initially passed on the British Invasion, preferring the sounds of Memphis and Motown. Eventually, they came around to the Brits, and will even play a 15-minute Beatles medley -- crowd willing.

Tonight, a Friday, the Williams Brothers are playing at Vines Cafe, an upscale restaurant on Rivermont Avenue. When they start at 7:30, the room is about half-full with customers eating dinner and mingling at the bar.

Jon and Kyle play in a nook by the storefront window, which is just large enough to fit them and their instruments. They wear identical button-down shirts and black slacks. To the unfamiliar eye, it is difficult to tell them apart except for their hairstyles; Kyle's gray hair is spiked up and Jon's is combed smoothly to the side.

Jon sits behind the mic and keyboard. His shoeless foot slides across the bass pedals as he simultaneously plays the guitar and croons the vocals to "Lady in Red." Kyle's drum sticks dance across the drum. Between the two of them, they produce the sound of a four-piece band.

Two of their biggest fans have shown up tonight: Jerry Rosenbaum of Bedford and Betty Gunter of Madison Heights, who are sitting at a table near the front. The friends come out to see the William Brothers play whenever they can.

"Do my song," Rosenbaum calls out, after the duo finishes "Lady in Red."

The Williams Brothers comply, breaking out into a lively rendition of "Kansas City." Rosenbaum and Gunter twirl and twist on the unofficial dance floor, a patch of empty space by the stage. When the song is over, the room breaks out into applause.

The Williams Brothers may be crowd-pleasers, but they are not afraid to improvise and put their own spin on the songs. Jon takes the lead on the microphone, adapting his voice to the song. Kyle pushes the songs along with his energy, and is known to break out into drum solos.

"We rarely ever play a song the same way twice," Jon says.

Though they mesh well on stage, the brothers are opposites in certain respects.

"Jon is more calm and collected. I'm more of the rebellious one, the hell-raiser," Kyle says.

Jon and Kyle grew up influenced by their parents' records, which were mostly big band music. Their father taught Jon to play the ukulele, which was his gateway to the guitar. Kyle also learned the guitar, but found his true love with the drums.

As teenagers, Jon and Kyle landed a stint playing for a traveling carnival that stopped in Madison Heights. They were invited to tour the country with the carnival, a tempting offer at the time, but had to decline.

"Our parents didn't go for that," Jon says.

In the 1970s, the brothers lived in Northern Virginia, where they played Top 40 songs five to six nights a week in the local clubs.

Kyle worked a full-time day job, managing three dry cleaners. Jon, a graduate of Lynchburg College, was trying to make it on the music alone, but left after three years because the money wasn't good enough to support his family. He returned to Lynchburg to work for the IT department of Burroughs, which later became Unisys. Kyle stayed on in Northern Virginia.

Now the homegrown musicians are home again, and they play on their own terms.


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