While readying their second LP, the Jersey Shore’s only modern country duo will perform March 30 opening for up-and-coming bluegrass sensation Emi Sunshine at Pollak Theatre, West Long Branch, and March 31 at the Makin Waves 30th Anniversary Party at the Wonder Bar, Asbury Park.
Williams Honor, the Jersey Shore’s only modern country duo, are back home for a while after successfully investing in their careers in Nashville with two charting singles. They are recording a follow-up to their independent self-titled album when not playing shows, such as the upcoming Makin Waves 30th Anniversary Party on March 31 at the Wonder Bar.
The singles-charting Jersey Shore country duo Williams Honor are fueled by the memory of their music-loving fathers. But they also honor the New Jersey music scene with a fierce loyalty and pride, often playing shows for charity or helping out with the projects of many friends, such as Glen Burtnik, Tony Pallagrosi and, well, me.
Williams Honor were one of the first acts I thought of to play the Makin Waves 30th Anniversary Party on March 31 at the Wonder Bar because I have been friends with and written about Gordon Brown since the beginning of his career in a hard rock band called Gallery. In 1988, soon after the start of this column in East Coast Rocker, Gallery won a Freehold Music Center band contest, one of the prizes of which was an interview in Makin Waves. A couple years later, Brown changed direction with fellow hard rockers Peter Sherer and Rob Tanico to form the harmonic folk-pop trio Mr. Reality, whom I wrote about extensively, particularly their 1992 self-titled debut for SBK/EMI Records. The three amigos went onto other major-label success with the country rock of Samhill (Epic/Sony) and straight-up country of Highway 9 (RCA), which, like Williams Honor today, also called Nashville their dual home.
Highway 9 also paved the route for Brown to develop a successful career as a producer of and songwriter for other artists, such as Jessie James Decker, Jackson Harris and Natalie Stovall. With his All Hour production company, he also produced special events in Asbury Park, such as the Writers in the Raw songwriters-in-the-round acoustic concert series and the Wave Gathering Music Festival.
Around the same time Mr. Reality had evolved into Samhill in the late ’90s, singer-songwriter Reagan Richards left her musical home in Cranford to pound the pavement of Nashville’s Music Row. After pushing her Patsy Cline-inspired songs, she landed a record deal, worked with country’s top tunesmiths, and recorded a traditional-sounding single for DreamWorks. But it stalled in the face of a storm of Shania Twain cookie-cutter acts, as did her country career over the next decade.
Richards had worked on and off as a fashion model since the age of 4, so she totally could have rocked that cosmetic country format if she desired to dishonor the roots on which her father, William, had raised her. Instead, she moved back home in 2011, continued to write songs, and got steady work singing for Les Paul, Lisa Loeb, Glen Burtnik, Bobby Bandiera, Franke Previte, Little Steven, Jon Bon Jovi, Joan Jett, Debbie Harry, Darlene Love and more.
Most likely passing each other in the streets, cafes and clubs of Music City in the late ’90s and early millennium, Richards and Brown never met until 2011 at The Saint in Asbury, and then played together a year later at a Hurricane Sandy benefit for Restore the Shore. Realizing they made a musical dream team, Brown and Richards wrote a few songs and headed back to Music City together to write a few more with the likes of Billy Burnette (Fleetwood Mac/ Faith Hill/ George Strait/ Ray Charles), country star Cyndi Thomson and Paul Sidoti (Taylor Swift).
Once their blend of traditional and modern country coalesced with a series of private house concerts and the 2014 release of the debut single, “Mama Please,” Williams Honor made their first public appearance in January 2015 at the Light of Day Festival. The excitement on the stage of the Paramount Theatre got even more intense when they sang alongside Bruce Springsteen, something Brown had done a few times before, but a first for Richards.
With dozens of songs from which to choose, they bopped back and forth from Gordon’s Long Branch studio to sessions in Nashville. Having ridden the waves of label success and failure, Williams Honor opted to go their own way with All Hour at the helm. The results, including landing singles “No Umbrella” and “Send It to Me” on the country charts, East Coast tours with national acts, scads of Mid-Atlantic and Nashville radio play, awards and other honors, surely have made their dearly departed dads proud, much like the rest of Jersey.
In addition to being backed by our friends in Colossal Street Jam at the anniversary bash, Williams Honor also will perform March 30 opening for the young, rising Americana star Emi Sunshine at Monmouth University’s Pollak Theatre in West Long Branch. In the following chat, Brown and Richards talk about their formation, independent success, love of both the Nashville and Asbury Park music scenes, where they expect both to take them, and how their fathers and mutual influences inspired them and their well-rooted modern sound.
How did the two of you get together?
Reagan Richards: I did a show in Asbury in 2011 at The Saint. It was right after Hurricane Irene, so people were out of power and there was flooding. It started at 7:30. I had just been out of Nashville at that point. Gordon shows up at 12:30, , so he didn’t see the show, but we met because Meg (Kelly, co-owner and bartender of The Saint) introduced us. We started talking about Nashville because we both had lived there. So that was that.
Hurricanes bring us together. I just realized that. We really got together and started to talk at the Hurricane Sandy benefit.
Gordon Brown: Marc Ribler was putting together a Restore the Shore benefit. Marc is now the MD for Little Steven.
Richards: It just snowballed from there. We started to talk about all of our influences. Next thing you know, it’s an hour later, so we exchanged numbers.
Brown: Then we started writing for six months. After five to 10 songs, we had this song called ‘Send It to Me’ and a song called ‘Wasted Days,’ and we were like, ‘This is a different thing going on. This is special. We should give this a shot.’ That’s when I decided to get back into the band business because I was looking at this singer who wants to work her ass off. I was like, ‘OK, let’s do this, let’s make this happen.’
Richards: It was really an organic thing. That’s why it worked because it felt great. How many times do people get together, and it might not really work. On paper it looks good, and it might sound like it’s going to work, but it doesn’t.
I remember one day I played DJ, and it was for, like, eight hours. We realized we came from the same place as far as what we loved, the influences that we had.
Brown: But it was a slow process because you’re creating a business and want to make sure you have the right business partner and team. So we went into The Downtown (in Red Bank). It was an open mic. Reagan was not feeling great. Her stomach was killing her, but we already had promised somebody we were going to go. It was the first time we got on a stage to perform, just to see how it would feel. She absolutely killed it.
Richards: I went to the emergency room after that. He was like, ‘Really? When did it start?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, it started this morning.’ And he was like, ‘You did the show that way?’ Yeah.
Then six months later, we did two sold-out private house concerts with George and Brenda Wirth that they call Rosie’s Café and got a lot of feedback about people’s favorite songs. And then the next month was when we did Light of Day at the Paramount.
Brown: And the first time we get on a big stage, we’re singing ‘Light of Day’ and ‘Thunder Road’ with Bruce.
From where does the name Williams Honor come, and how did your dads influence that?
Richards: We knew we wanted to name our band something very special. Gordon and I had careers prior to meeting, and so this new musical union needed to be named something strong. When we met, we bonded on so much, but one thing in particular was our Dads. They both had passed away, and we have such loving memories of them, so we decided to honor them with this name.
They both were in the military and both were two very classy men who truly loved their children. Even though we used my Dad’s name, it’s named for both of them, but William just had a nice ring to it.
Brown: My Dad’s name was Bernard. He loved music and used to sit me in his lap while he played piano. Growing up in Jersey, he somehow randomly positioned us around Springsteen and down the block from John Lennon on 72nd Street, where we would spend our weekends at his apartment in NYC. We went through a lot together before he passed away. Reagan and I loved having a name that honored where we come from. Bernard’s Honor didn't have the same ring to it so we went with her Dad’s name and kept it plural. Bernie Williams might be a good name for our cover band.
Richards: Williams Honor is really the marriage of old and new country. I grew up listening to Hank and Merle and Glen Campbell and all those greats. So Williams Honor also takes on an even deeper meaning in the sense that it is also the name of one of our favorites and represents the traditional side to our music. Like our Dads who influenced us and inspired us, those great country artists, like Hank, helped mold what artists we are and kind of music we are making.
Gordon, after years playing with guys, what’s it like to be in a band with a woman?
Brown: It's not different at all. You love the same, fight the same, perform and take pride just the same. However, Reagan Richards is less hairy than my past band mates and knows how to rock a red-carpet dress.
Gordon’s story I know because I’ve written it, but Reagan, how did you come to music, particularly country, as well as the Asbury Park music scene?
Richards: My mom was a big band singer. Les Paul was one of her friends. But she had my sister and stopped. She went by Harriet Hagerty at the time, and she was out of Pittsburgh. All these big band leaders were her buddies, and she sang with them. When I was a kid, I would hear her singing and listen to the records that she loved, like Sarah Vaughan and Judy Garland.
My dad was the country music guy. He loved country music. My dad was the one who would buy all the tapes for the car. I could sing you Marty Robbins catalog. We’d be on roadtrips, I’d be singing ‘Big Iron’ and ‘Saddle Tramp,’ ‘Red River Valley,’ Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash and Hank Snow and Hank Williams, all those guys. So that’s how I got into that.
My mom then gives me a Patsy Cline record when I was 9 or 10. Patsy Cline was just an unbelievable female vocalist. I don’t care what genre you put her in. She was the first country crossover. So I got my hands on that. I was that kid who did not go out with boys in high school. I sat in my room, and I was listening to record after record after record.
I just really loved country music. I took a trip to Nashville, and they said, ‘You have to live here.’ So I was on Broadway in Nashville, and I would go anywhere I could sing.
Brown: Imagine (Asbury Park’s) Cookman Avenue with 70 clubs. Everyone’s playing for tips, the best musicians in the world. It’s the touristy area of Nashville, but you could spend a weekend there and couldn’t get into half the bars because there’s so much going on. That’s everyone’s first stop when they get to Nashville. Legendary places.
Richards: Some guy heard me. He was Don Williams’ bus driver. He said, ‘You need to meet somebody.’ It was the person who gave Billy Ray Cyrus his start. That was the end of November of ’98. In January of ’99, I moved to Nashville and got to know the players and the writers and the singers and the artists, so now I’m entrenched in country music.
I wanted to stay true to the country music that I loved, but it was at a time it had completely changed. Once Shania Twain came out and Mutt Lange was doing her stuff, country music took such a turn ... real pop-rock. I would sit in labels and go, ‘Why can’t I be the throwback person? You can have your Faith Hills and you can have your Shania Twains, but why I can’t I be the person that’s going to keep country what all the legends were wanting to do?’ What I didn’t understand – and maybe to this day, still don’t – is that once a label gets a Shania Twain or a Faith Hill, they want 50 more of them. They don’t want somebody doing something retro-sounding. I would butt heads a lot because I really wanted to do what I wanted to do.
Enter DreamWorks. They were going to let me do my thing.
Brown: DreamWorks was Scott Burchetta, head of Big Machine now, Taylor Swift.
Richards: I loved Shania Twain … but when it came to what I did, showcasing the female voice, I felt like there was room for growth in that. I felt like I could have taken it to a place that would make me stand out. So I cut a single, but it was a risk. They could have been the biggest heroes if it had taken off, but they were afraid to take a chance on something that was going to veer too much off the Top 20, what was making money. Then DreamWorks got bought by Universal, and it fizzled out, like so many artists I know who are brilliant.
So I was a demo singer and did showcases. But I would come home to visit my family, and one time, my mom introduced me to Les Paul, who did two shows on Monday nights at the Iridium. I sang ‘You Made Me Love You’ with him, and he was like, ‘Sing another one.’ I was told, ‘You are now a part of the Les Paul family.’ Through a producer for Les, I got a job singing back up for Lisa Loeb. And then my dad ended up getting diagnosed with cancer, so I moved back. I did the Les stuff, and I became a backup singer, which got me into Asbury in Glen (Burtnik) shows and Bobby (Bandiera) and later, Franke Previte and Lisa Sherman’s ‘Diva’ shows.
Then I met Gordon. You can imagine the excitement. This is country music back in my life. When we starting writing, I thought, ‘OK, we don’t have to listen to labels,’ not say we don’t want to take direction, but at the same token, I felt we can do what we want right now because we’re just doing it, and we enjoy and love it.
Brown: Country music has expanded and evolved. You have Sam Hunt and Connie Pierce, all these great new acts. Their singles are so far outside the format. That is what Williams Honor is all about because we’re bridging the old with the new. And coming from here, who better to reflect like a mirror the whole genre by two people who have been watching it from here, another musical community, and been in it and played with other artists. It means the world to us to show people what country music is, can be, and has been, and with Reagan’s history, her sense of traditional. And for me, I got into it in the early ’90s with Restless Heart, Diamond Rio and Vince Gill, the big harmony bands. Where I came from in Mr. Reality, all that stuff was a magnet to me. Vince Gill was the guy.
We joke around a lot, we’re a good gateway drug for people on both sides of the fence, for people who say, ‘I’m a pop fan’ or ‘I’m a rock fan. I never listen to country music.’ I bet you would if we played you the right song. On the other side, most country artists are the biggest rock fans. It’s unbelievable how much rock exists in the format. It’s the way of the world now.
Richards: We did a lot of co-writes. We wrote ‘Daddy’s Arms’ with Joe Gruschecky and ‘No Umbrella’ with Cyndi Thompson, who is a massive singer-songwriter with No. 1 songs, but she left the business. She walked away from it. She got married and had a family. I messaged her said, ‘I would love to write with you.’ I never thought she’d answer, but she was like, ‘Let’s do it.’ So we went down, we sat in a room on Music Row with her, and for the first hour and a half, just talked, and the song ‘No Umbrella’ comes out. We knew it was a special song.
We had a release party in Nashville and here. She came to both. We kicked it off in Nashville, the place was packed. Cyndi came, Ty Herndon came. We had all these people coming out supporting us. And then we come back here to Asbury, and we have the same thing with people being so supportive. You can’t put a price on that. That to me is just unbelievable, and that’s what gets us up every day, gets us excited to know people really like what we’re doing.
Brown: There’s a little rooting for the underdog that’s been doing this for a little while. We like to think that is part of our foundation. That is a really meaningful thing for us.
At this point in the music industry and its history, does it make more sense economically to pursue country music rather than rock or is it more of a passion?
Brown: Our favorite records are in that format. That’s what we listen to. When I know there are new singles coming out every week, I’m curious who those artists are, what they’re doing, where they come from, what there influences are. That’s just the format that we’ve gravitated to over the last 15-plus years. To us, it’s where the best songs where coming form, where artists were reaching out and touching their audience. It wasn’t necessarily so much the artist, as it was the audience. That’s key for us. It’s tough for us to watch some of these awards shows.
Richards: They’re so self-indulgent. That’s why country music reaches the people that it does because everybody sees themselves in a country song somewhere. And they’re the greatest fans in the world. They’re the most loyal fans. If you haven’t had a hit in five or 10 years in pop or rock, they don’t care about you anymore. They’re onto the next person. But people are still coming to see artists who haven’t had a hit for 10 years.
And we’ve seen that, doing Williams Honor the past couple of years, how wonderful these fans are. Sometimes we’ll just look at each other and be like, ‘This is really amazing,’ that people really get what we’re doing, like what we’re doing, and they’re good people that we like talking to. That really tells me that country music and what we’re saying and writing is resonating.
We played in Woodstock at Bethel Woods, and I see this bartender singing ‘No Umbrella.’ She said, ‘I gotta tell ya’. I heard the song and stopped the car because this is what I was going through. When you played that song, I couldn’t believe that you were the band that had that song. It just completely moved me to tears.’
Brown: That was one of the moments that we realized that radio was having an impact.
Does it surprise either of you that country music has become so popular in New Jersey, such as sold-out shows by artists at Starland Ballroom and PNC Bank Arts Center?
Brown: No because that’s how we fell in love with it, and for the last 15 to 20 years, going to Nashville. Mr. Reality with our story songs and harmonies is exactly what Lady A. is now, what Midland is now. These are acts with hit songs. So the format has evolved and people’s tastes have evolved, and there’s so much more a blurring of the lines.
The songs I was writing when I was 17 years old directly related to The Eagles and Springsteen, the DNA we have of growing up here by the beach and being from Asbury Park. We understand what a great song can do and how to tell a story.
Kip Moore loves Bruce Springsteen as much, if not more than anyone from our area. One of the first questions we get all the time is what’s it like coming from Asbury Park? It’s amazing to have that history and to grow up in those shadows. Nashville is not too different. It’s just the influence skews a little to the side. Without that history, some of the musical cities would not exist. I believe popular music – L.A., Nashville, New York – brought the greatest funnel system in America, so the roots of Nashville really are the roots of pop music. Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, all these people who would have been considered the pop-rock stars of their day, their rebellious spirit and the way they wanted to break down boundaries, racial divides, that’s what ended up being pop music in the ’60s.
How much time do you spend in Nashville? Do you have a home there?
Brown: We have places to stay.
Richards: We’re there close to six months out of the year. Then when we tour, we’re out of Nashville too. If we’re going to Kentucky, Wisconsin, Indianapolis, it’s very to just get in the car and go from there.
You’ve released a well-received album and two charting singles all on your own with the help of your fan club, the WH Army. How have they helped you remain independent?
Brown: They’re so passionate. They’ll call Sirius, inundate the phone lines. They’ll call (106.3 Country) Thunder. They’ll get online and tag everybody … post everywhere and annoy people. You need that stuff nowadays to be a band. It makes all the difference in the world. When people in the industry see you might be inspiring that kind of foundational force, it becomes obvious. Some of our favorite acts outside the genre have broken because fan bases have done that.
Richards: We love the people who support us. They’re so much fun. We do Privates, which are Williams Honor Army house shows. We’ve done them all over the country.
Brown: For whoever wants one. If they tell us who their favorite artists are, we put together a small portion based on their taste.
Why have you wanted to remain fiercely independent, and how has your previous experiences with record labels influenced that desire?
Brown: My last deal with Highway 9 was on Sony. We went down to Nashville. We came back to New York and said, ‘We want to go to country radio.’ They said, ‘You’re not going to country radio with this record.’ We’re like, ‘But that’s what we’re doing. Rascal Flatts is breaking. We’re just like them, but we’re from Jersey.’ ‘No, we’re not doing that.’ ‘OK.’ We left, and we sign with RCA Nashville because we needed to be in a home that made sense for us.
One of the coolest things about being an artist is the freedom to do what you want. Nobody signed to a label nowadays gets that 100 percent. And sometimes, that’s great because you want to sign with people who believe in what you do, make sure you’re making the right record and know how to craft what your career. For Reagan and I, based on our experiences, we have a good sense of it, we’ve surrounded ourselves with people who want to push that vision forward as best we can who we trust.
Once a trend changes, everyone changes how they feel and it goes directly to the artist they’re working with. Tomorrow, whoever can become the next biggest artist, and the people at whatever label will go, ‘Listen, we have to change direction a little bit. We see this ship is starting to sail.’
We get to have the freedom to make the music that we believe in strongly. At this point, as we’re building our business, that is one of the greatest successes you can have. Forget anyone buying a record or a T-shirt or a ticket, just making the music that you want to make, that you feel strongly about is probably one of the greatest artistic successes you could have, and we’re really enjoying that right now. But that could change in the next six months if we found the right partners who wanted to take what we’ve been doing and expanding it.
You guys have written about 30 songs for your next LP, plan to write another 20, and have started recording the album. While you’re doing that, will you release a single?
Richards: We actually toyed with releasing another single from the first record, and we both said, ‘Maybe we should do something fresh and new.’ The first record was a great thing to introduce us as Willams Honor. But in the past two and a half years, we’ve done a lot of touring, had a lot of experiences together. When we made the first record, we didn’t know each other that long. Now with all those experiences together as a band, the writing is coming from a different place. It’s really fun and interesting. I’m thinking maybe do something from the next record.
Brown: We might have a teaser single that would go out in two or three months, end of May.
In time to kick off the summer in Asbury Park. Will the album be a 2018 release?
Brown: We’d love to say yes, but when it’s right, we’ll get it out. We have a studio we like to use in Nashville, but I have had my own studio in Long Branch for a long time. I love working in a place near the beach, not working on the clock. I take tracks to Nashville and vice versa.
Tell me about the March 30 show at Pollak Theatre with young Emi Sunshine?
Richards: If people are buying a ticket to that show, they’re into that kind of music, and they’re going to understand when we pull out a Hank Williams song, and I’m yodeling. They’re going to go, ‘Oh wow, what a great pairing.’
We’re very supportive of young talent. She’s 13. So when I heard we were doing this show, I was really excited about that.
Brown: It’s our neighborhood. It’s the Jersey Shore. It’s an artist that the whole entire world doesn’t know about yet. We love being the ambassadors, a welcoming committee.
There are not a lot of country shows that we can get in our neighborhood. Starland is one of the only places that has country shows.
What do you think of the Makin Waves 30th Anniversary Party and what are you looking forward to about playing it? Will it be fun to be backed by Colossal Street Jam?
Richards: I’m so excited. I like doing things for good people, so when Gordon was talking about doing this show, I was like, ‘I’m all in. This is exciting.’ And when he started talking about having Colossal, we go back with them, so it’s really going to be a lot of fun.
Brown: We have a band that we loving playing with when we have full band shows. But because this is a benefit, and I knew those guys would be on it … I don’t think those guys ever have attempted to play country in their whole lives. Colossal is a monster band, so we’re not going to try to put our stamp on it. We’re just going to integrate.
Richards: It’s going to be such a great energy. There have been a handful times we’ve done things like this throughout the country that you put people on a stage together, and there’s just something that comes out. There’s just an energy that you can’t explain. That’s what I’m looking forward to because I think that really is going to be what happens. What we do at the anniversary show will never be duplicated. The energy that is going to happen that night is going to be simply for that night, and that’s what’s going to be really cool about it.
Bob Makin is the reporter for www.MyCentralJersey.com/entertainment and a former managing editor of The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And like Makin Waves at www.facebook.com/makinwavescolumn.