Willie Wells Extends His Dad’s Bluegrass Legacy — But He Does It His Way Friday at Bill's Music Shop & Pickin' Parlor

South Carolina’s bluegrass scene lost an icon when Bill Wells passed in November 2011. But nearly five years later, his son Willie Wells is carrying on the tradition, both with Bill’s Music Shop & Pickin’ Parlour, the Midlands’ quintessential home for top-quality pickin’, and the current version of his father’s old band The Blue Ridge Mountain Grass. In both cases, the junior Wells has made his own mark by making changes without changing too much. 

For the group’s new album, Gravel in my Shoe, its second as Willie Wells and the Blue Ridge Mountain Grass, the focus shifts to original compositions from several band members, building on their solid background in traditional bluegrass. 

What: Willie Wells and the Blue Ridge Mountain Grass (CD Release Party)

Where: Bill’s Music Shop & Pickin’ Parlour, 710 Meeting St. 

When: Friday, Sept. 23, 7:30 p.m. 

Pice: $5 donation 

More: 803-796-6577, billsmusicshop.com 

Willie Wells and the Blue Ridge Mountain Grass also play Saturday’s Fall Festival and Pickin Party at the South Carolina State Museum, which will also feature barbecue, craft beer, art displays and more. Festivities run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and are included with museum admission, which starts at $8.95 for adults. Visit scmuseum.org for more info. 

“My dad was diehard traditional-music-only,” Willie Wells offers. “I like it, and my roots are there, but I enjoy all types of bluegrass music. Now that I have the band, this is the direction I want to take — focusing on original music or our own versions of some of the older country and bluegrass songs, pushing and driving traditional music into a more progressive approach.” 

With the seasoned players in The Blue Ridge Mountain Grass, progressive is a relative term. These are not “newgrass” numbers, nor do they incorporate rock ‘n’ roll energy like Old Crow Medicine Show. But the original songwriting does set the band apart from being just another revivalist traditional act trotting out the standards. 

“Hear That Mandolin Ring” pays tribute to the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe; the title cut and the biblically sourced “Walk a Mile” shows a little John Hartford influence. Those are three of the four cuts written by mandolin and guitar player Patrick Russell, who also contributed the rousing, gospel quartet-flavored closer “The Guiding Light.” 

Fiddler Don Ashley’s “One Good Reason” and banjo player David Prosser’s “I Don’t Dream Anymore” hearken to a more traditional style. Add longtime dobro player Larry Klein and bassist Tommy Thomas, and the current lineup of the Blue Ridge Mountain Grass stands as a versatile, veteran crew. 

“I’ve never worked with a group of guys that not only get along well personally but musically as well,” Wells says. “Every one of them is a great musician and can play three or more instruments.” 

Produced by Wells and IIIrd Tyme Out bassist and now solo artist Edgar Loudermilk at Columbia’s own Jam Room recording studio, the album’s crisp sound allows the individual picking to stand out without taking over the songs. Prosser’s banjo is especially notable on several tunes, including the instrumental “Grandfather’s Clock,” which also features some nifty turns from the rest of the band.

With the store as with his music, he’s running things his own way — and he admits that transition wasn’t the easiest to make. 

“I spent the last four months here with my dad before he passed, and we talked about the store,” Willie remembers. The senior Wells opened the West Columbia staple (originally located in Cayce) in 1985. “He asked if I was going to keep it going and I promised him I would, and he was glad to know that. But I also told him that I would have to do some different things, and he just replied, ‘Well, I figured you would.’” 

Some of those changes have been the Saturday night classic country and dance nights, line dancing and shag lessons, beach music nights, a series of blues nights for a while, songwriters nights, and even a big band he brought in once a month, an experiment that Wells says will return soon. The room itself was expanded to accommodate more events, with the stage moved back 15 feet and a wooden dance floor added. 

The front room instrument business has also evolved, he says, with more instructors and lessons along with a booming repair shop. 

“We were doing maybe 12 lessons a month when I took over; now we have over 200,” Wells says. “I could see a lot that I wanted to accomplish. In five years now, I’ve done about half of it.” 

“I’m always looking for what’s going to appeal to people and how can I get more younger people here,” he adds. “We’re losing our older crowd, so now it’s about what does it take to get new people in here.” 

One thing about the Pickin’ Parlor will never change, however. 

“I have people come in sometimes and tell me I could pack the place all the time if I sold alcohol, but we’re not going to go there,” Wells declares. “I know many more who appreciate the fact they can come here and not worry about obnoxious drunks. We want a family-friendly atmosphere for people to come out and enjoy — for a long time to come.”

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