Music News

Travelin' Man

"I'm waist-deep in alligators," Bill "Watermelon Slim" Homans sings on his latest album, Watermelon Slim & the Workers, "and sometimes I'm neck-deep in bullshit."

The Oklahoma-based blues singer, slide guitarist, and harmonica player has definitely seen his share of... well, trouble and contention in his day. But that's because he hasn't been shy about going out and looking for it and stirring up some shit where he's felt the need. A Vietnam veteran and vocal protester of both the Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan wars through Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Slim has also found himself up to his eyeballs in good fortune over the past couple of years. A conversation with Slim, however, is a no-holds-barred affair. Surprisingly, he says that the reception he gets from audiences for his views is mostly positive.

"I don't get any flack about being anti-war at this point," Slim tells New Times. "The only hostility once in a while that still exists — 'cause it still reverberates through society — is more often than not from fellow veterans of the Vietnam War that thought we should have won. The fellas that say, 'Well, if the politicians hadn't tied our hands, we could have blown the shit out of them and won the war.' Of course, I then have to ask, 'What would winning the war mean?' — 'Well, we would have stopped communism.' Yeah, and we would have also turned the place into a freaking oil refinery."

After his 1973 debut album, Merry Airbrakes — the only war protest album ever recorded by a Vietnam veteran on active duty (according to Slim's publicist) — Slim spent about 30 years away from recording music. Sure, he spent that time playing and writing music, but he also wore a number of other hats, including watermelon farmer, grad student, college teacher, and truck driver.

In 2002, after a near-fatal heart attack that prompted him to realign his priorities, Slim reemerged with Big Shoes to Fill. He hasn't wasted much time since. A proud blue-collar worker who sings a lot about his labor experiences on record, Slim finally quit driving big rigs and his various other jobs to concentrate on music full-time. The Wheel Man, Slim's fourth album in this recent stretch of work, is due this spring. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find modern blues recordings that rival the seething energy and grit of Slim's recent catalog.

While Slim and his band certainly bring plenty of their own energy to the stage, Slim says he'll read a crowd's temperament on a given night to gauge how much he'll delve into politics. Slim's gruff, marble-mouthed demeanor recalls a literate, Southern version of Tom Waits and reflects the complex layering of experience in his colorful (and well-documented) history outside of music. One of the most striking of Slim's many detours is his recent master's thesis in which he investigated "un-followed and suppressed leads" in the Oklahoma City bombing case. So what did he discover?

"That the neo-Nazis that conspired with Timothy McVeigh are still running free in eastern Oklahoma," he answers. "They're armed to the teeth with tons of explosives and heavy weapons, and they're waiting for another excuse to attack the government — right this minute."

And how much apprehension did Slim feel delving into the terrifying netherworld of racially motivated militia violence?

"Didn't any of it scare me!" he answers. "I fought the Nazis in 1972 as part of VVAW. I was one of the people that took on the Nazis who were being paid by the Committee to Re-Elect the President to harass the antiwar movement."

Slim follows this bit of information with a fascinating tangent:

"We went down to Miami and protested the war and made statements about the conspiracy indictments which we were undergoing at the time. Members of our organization were in jail on federal charges of conspiring to disrupt the Republican National Convention with slingshots, crossbows, and automatic weapons — it was all bullshit."

And this leads to John Kerry. At that time, the former presidential candidate was an ally of VVAW. His rift with the organization, which Slim sees as a betrayal motivated by Kerry's congressional aspirations, is still a heated bone of contention for Slim, and he does not pull punches talking about it.

"Kerry is a ball-less wonder," he says angrily, offering some rather animated suggestions on what Kerry's campaign strategy should have been, including how to handle "those damn people who were putting purple band-aids on themselves at the Republican National Convention. If he'd heard about that and dropped whatever he was doing, gone to the convention hall, and ripped some purple band-aids off some smug Republican faces and turned over a few tables — just like Jesus — John Kerry would be president today."

Although Slim may not have the world's ear on political matters, he's got plenty eager to hear his new music. Excited about The Wheel Man representing his "return to rhythm 'n' blues," Slim describes the already-finished album as "quite eclectic within the blues genre: I also have some very traditional acoustic songs on there. On Up Close & Personal, I had a truck holler, so on this one, I got a sawmill holler where I'm singing about cutting boards and running into the stacks."

As it turns out, Slim has also worked in a sawmill. "I've got about nine and three-quarters fingers," he quips. "I got a little too close to the main saw one time."

Although one could certainly consider him a late-starter, Slim sees his career differently. "At this point," he muses, "I've made a discography. I've 'made my bones' in this business — to use an old Mafia term." Slim has life experience with organized crime too, but you can hear all about it on The Wheel Man. "If I was told 'Well, your hand just isn't going to work anymore,' I'd still be going out on top. As far as I'm concerned, I'm on top right now."

And there are always other genres to cover. Though he acknowledges being a "limited musician" and says "if I can't play it on the harp or the guitar, then I probably can't play it," apparently he doesn't see any reason to abide by those limitations. He would like to give "full orchestral arrangements" to a handful of his songs.

But it is one genre in particular Slim gets most animated discussing.

"I will," he says emphatically, "at some point in the next couple of years record the next great shit-kicking, country 'n' Western truck-stop album. And I will do it in memory of the greatest exponent of truck-driving music in American musical history, the late Dave Dudley."

A trucker for most of his life (he says that most people don't realize the depth of the "aloneness" that comes with the job), Slim's many trucking references in his songs make this future direction seem like a matter of course.

To give us a bit of a taste, though, he starts to sing over the phone in his beaten-up gravelly baritone: "Well, I rolled out of Pittsburgh/Rollin' down that eastern seaboard."

That's what being a Wheel Man's all about — and no goddamned war's gonna keep him from truckin'.

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Saby Reyes-Kulkarni