If Mike Williams ever gets tired of being a musician, he could probably make a living as a comedian. Once I showed up late for a fiddle lesson with him and arrived without my fiddle, which I had left at home on the kitchen table.
“You forgot your fiddle for a fiddle lesson?” he asked, clearly annoyed.
“Well,” I said. “I was in a hurry to get out of town.”
“Why?” he asked. “Were the cops after you?”
I laughed. He loaned me a fiddle for the lesson and—not that I ever amounted to much of a player—what licks I have I owe to Williams.
I think a lot of Montanans who play music because of Williams would say the same thing: he’s a great teacher.
A Self-Taught Musician
In 1975, Williams moved to Helena, where he has been playing in bands and giving lessons ever since. He’s almost entirely self-taught, though he started playing drums in high school, a choice of instrument that served him well when he was in the Navy in the 1950s.
“I was stationed in Guam, where I played evenings with a jazz outfit at a club called The Coral Club. You had to be 21 to be in the bar, and I was only 19, but I had acquired a phony I.D., so I could sit in with the jazz group on drums with a set of brushes.”
After his stint in the Navy, Williams went to Florida State University, to earn a BA and MA in philosophy, and then went to Athens, Ga., to get a PhD at the University of Georgia.
“I had a guitar at the time, but it was a log, really. An Italian make called an Eko, which was impossible to play,” he said. “My roommate wanted to play guitar, so he offered to trade me a fiddle for it. I didn’t realize at the time that it was a three-quarter size fiddle, a kid’s instrument. But I figured I had played a little mandolin, so I would be able to play the violin as well.”
Southern Appalachian Fiddle Music
Eventually, he acquired a violin of the correct scale and commenced learning the southern Appalachian fiddle music he still loves and plays, often for square and contra dances around the state.
While in Florida, he played in a weekly jam at a Sinclair Station in a little town outside the city.
“The guy owned a filling station, but after hours he’d have a jam session in one of the garage bays,” said Williams. The session even attracted on occasion the star fiddler from Florida, Vassar Clements, who at the time had a day job driving a red-side panel van for Gordon’s Potato Chips.
While in Athens, Williams attended classes in Old Peabody Hall, reading Plato and Kant by day, but spending his afternoons and evenings practicing his fiddle on the back porch under a huge magnolia tree.
“I must have been pretty terrible starting out,” he said. “We had a neighbor who called the cops on me. I’m just sitting there sawing on the fiddle when I see two policemen suddenly climbing up the stairs toward me. ‘We’ve had a noise complaint,’ the one says. I told them it was just me practicing my fiddle, and the cop says, ‘well, now. I like that old fiddle music. Why don’t you play us a tune?’”
Williams scratched out a tune, after which the officer smiled at his partner, then at Williams and said, “Well, son. I’ll tell you what: you keep on practicing, but maybe you’d better do it inside.”
Pursuing His Activism
Williams had some trouble finishing school because he soon got involved in Students for a Democratic Society on campus. He also participated in civil rights demonstrations and women’s marches.
“Jeannette Rankin [the famous congresswoman from Montana] had moved to Bogart, a little town next to Athens, where she had started a kind of community center on these issues, called The Rankin House.
“A lot of students were involved there. I started neglecting my classes, because these issues were important. It was a pretty tense time there in the late 1960s. And I was learning more and having more fun being involved in that way.”
As a result, he completed his coursework, but never finished his dissertation.
Landing in Helena
In the early 1970s, Williams headed west, where, after a stint in Colorado, he landed in Helena, Mont.
He started playing with local musicians, joining a group called the Parlor Pickers, one of Helena’s longest-running musical ensembles. He also began repairing instruments in a small shed he built in his back yard, which evolved into Crow Peak Music, where he also started teaching lessons to all ages and all skill levels.
He even developed his own system of tablature, so people averse to learning music could still make progress.
“I did eventually learn to read music myself,” he said. “One woman asked if I could teach her son to read music, so he could not only play fiddle, but maybe get into the orchestra at the middle school. But to do that, he’d have to learn to read music. So, I said, ‘Sure, I can do that.’”
Williams had to learn himself, so he sat at the piano with some sheet music and figured it out.
In the 1980s, Williams was a regular at the Montana Old Time Fiddler’s Contests (in Polson mostly, but also in Lincoln), where he won his division a few times and later served as a judge.
An Extensive Repertoire
His repertoire is immense—he can play hundreds of fiddle tunes and can sing near as many old country standards, including bluegrass and Carter Family material.
Accomplished at playing jazz, he was a member for a few years of Helena’s hot jazz ensemble, Cottonwood Club.
He’s also known to whip out a polka or a schottische at a square dance on occasion.
And he always brings a sense of humor to jam sessions and even to his song lists. One summer at a fiddle contest in Lincoln, meat bees were swarming everywhere and actually causing some difficulty for the performers.
I had offered to back him up in the contest on guitar as he fiddled, but I needed to run through his tune choices before we took the stage.
“Good idea,” he said. “Let me tell you the tunes I plan to play.” He picked Bumblebee in a Jug, The Flight of the Bumblebee, and the Bee’s Wing Hornpipe for his performance. The judges laughed when he announced his set list, and they may have even awarded him some bonus points for making the most of a bad situation.
The Staggering Ox
I caught up with Williams one recent night at The Staggering Ox jam session in Helena, hosted by local band The String Beings, of which Williams is a leading member. “I play in several bands pretty regularly,” he told me while on a break.
“I play in the WMDs with my son Kyle, Barb Piccolo, and Steve Laster on banjo. Then there’s the Nitecrawlers, also with Barb. That’s a bluegrass outfit. And the Tuesday night jam here. And I’m in an Irish band … We call ourselves The Rakes of Mallow.”
Over the course of his musical career in Montana, Williams has become something of a legend, well loved for his wit and good humor, his patient teaching style, and his impressive musical talent on fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and guitar.
A lot of accomplished musicians tend to avoid beginners, but not Williams: he’s well known for encouraging everyone to join a jam session, even rank beginners, perhaps because he knows that’s how you learn, and it doesn’t have to be Carnegie Hall to be fun.
Music brings people together, and Williams has introduced more people in Montana to the joys of folk and old-time music than almost anyone I know.
He turns 80 this year, but you’d never know it. He still reminds me of a kid having fun, no matter who he’s playing with, or what kind of music it is. He’ll show you the notes, then lead the tune, and when it’s over, he’ll have you in stitches with his off-the-cuff commentary on everything from the questionable morals of banjo players to the optimal strategy for navigating the winter ice in Helena.