As 2020 unfolded, no one could have predicted the economic devastation the Covid-19 pandemic would have on the global economy. The pandemic has had one of the most destructive impacts on all aspects of show business, especially live performance. Suddenly, the large agencies in New York, Nashville, London and Los Angeles were reduced to small teams with thousands of agents, publicists, road crews and site staff unemployed. The financial impact in the first six months alone exceeds $ 10 billion in lost revenue.
As a new year dawns, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel was showing a promising glow and the second half of 2021 sees the concert industry receding, with managers in particular navigating a new and challenging landscape. The freedom to work from a home office has given major players in the industry a new flexibility that was not found in previous business models and is embraced by a number of executives as the future of management.
For industry veteran tour manager JW (John) Williams, this new world order in entertainment, and touring in particular, presents a new set of options. That’s why, in the spring of this year, JW Williams Productions invested in Nashville and moved to Madison.
Williams cut his teeth in the industry working for many decades with ZZ Top. He started out as a guitar technician for the band and over the course of a 30 year history he eventually became both their trusted tour director and ultimately vice president of the management company. All of this took place through Texas-based Lone Wolf Management, where JW also led the launch of country music star Clint Black in 1989 with the release of his debut album “Killin ‘Time”. Most recently, he worked with country superstar Trace Adkins and is currently the tour director for Michael McDonald.
Williams’ formative years in his native Tyler, Texas were filled with music. Her earliest memories included performances by her mother’s church choir, which were her introduction to denominational music, from gospel to traditional hymns. His father preferred Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys and the Light Crust Doughboys at a time when pop crooners dominated radio. Rhythm and blues balanced the musical upbringing of a young JW when his beloved nanny exposed him to a wide range of blues artists, many of whom were from Mississippi. “Our babysitter, Cora, very gently changed the station to a local R&B station,” Williams recalls, “where I first heard Ray Charles, Little Richard and Etta James. It was a very happy time in as a kid from east Texas.
While he may not have realized it at the time, those early years set him on a path that would define his role as a major player in the rock and country music industry. “My first real job at the business was as a college promoter,” Williams said, “where I met local musician Jay Boy Adams. Adams was led by Bill Ham, the force behind ZZ Top.
The lawsuits for a psychology degree quickly fizzled out when Bill Ham offered Williams a job at his Lone Wolf Management in Houston. Working at Lone Wolf alongside the legendary Bill Ham was the equivalent of a master’s degree in the music industry. It was here that JW would guide the touring careers of various Lone Wolf bands, including Stevie Ray Vaughn’s band The Nightcrawlers. He would also help launch the company’s new country star, Clint Black. Things moved quickly for Williams during this time and Ham eventually handed him responsibility for ZZ Top.
Tour management requires the ability to think on your feet when the unexpected presents itself. One of those occasions came when ZZ Top was scheduled to perform at the Fargo Fairgrounds in North Dakota. The venue, an equestrian arena, had aggravated ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill’s asthma. Towards the end of their set, it was clear that Hill was in trouble and paramedics took him to the hospital. “We were all concerned about Dusty,” Williams recalls. “The last thing people thought about was ending the show. But Billy Gibbons grabbed me and said ‘Take the bass, you’re going to finish this with me.’ The crowd seemed to love that we ended the show.
The craziest part of the story was that Dusty had been strapped to the stretcher and placed in the ambulance with the interior light on and the back door open. Due to the rain and standing water, the mosquito population was out of control and the ambulance quickly filled with its angry and hungry multitudes and attacked Dusty mercilessly. Literally strapped in with an oxygen mask, he was at the mercy of the swarm as they made their way with him. He was not a happy camper that night.
With three decades of Lone Wolf Management and ZZ Top behind him, Williams was eager to expand his horizons. The new millennium saw the launch of a new, multi-million dollar performing arts center for Austin’s Riverbend Church, which he completed and opened in 2003.
Establishing a performing arts center has been a welcome addition to Williams’ portfolio and has given him an additional skill set he hopes to apply in central Mississippi.
Eventually Nashville came calling where he ended up working with Marty Stuart of Mississippi, as well as country stars Jennifer Hanson and Mark Nesler. It was in Nashville during a Hanson video shoot that Williams met Debra Wingo, a hairstylist and makeup artist (Nicole Kidman, Trisha Yearwood, Niki Taylor). They married in 2005.
In 2008, Wingo was working with longtime client Trace Adkins on a TV set. Adkins had recently left his management company and Wingo suggested he should speak with Williams. They were already friends, so the new relationship was perfect. Williams shared Adkins’ admiration for the USO, which the country music star fully supported and had visited troops on several occasions behind enemy lines in the Middle East. “I’m a father of the military with a son, a 16-year-old career soldier with six combat deployments,” says Williams. “Getting involved with the USO was obvious. I have always had such respect for the organization.
Currently, Williams is the tour director of singer Michael McDonald. While McDonald’s is on tour as part of the Doobie Brothers 50th Anniversary Tour, Williams took advantage of McDonald’s solo touring hiatus to move his business to Madison.
All indicators indicated that a move to Mississippi in the spring of 2021 made the most sense. In the early 1980s, Williams and Gibbons from ZZ Top met Sid Graves, the creator of the Delta Blues Museum. This relationship has led the Williams, Gibbons, Graves team to create a number of fundraising situations at the local and national levels. The Hard Rock Cafe was interested in helping the project. Their Muddywood World Tour merchandise raised over $ 1 million for the museum.