Many big American cities boast specific musical traditions — Dixieland in New Orleans; blues in Chicago; Motown in Detroit; grunge in Seattle; underground hip-hop in the Twin Cities; and country in Nashville. Then there are New York and Los Angeles, with a bit of everything (classical, jazz, punk, rap).
Will Risbourg knows that setting, not timing, can be everything. Risbourg moved from Santa Fe to Hollywood to attend Musicians Institute, a contemporary-music college, after graduating from Desert Academy in 2010. Now, with a full-length album of original roots rock under his belt and a steady backing band composed of three other former Musicians Institute students, Risbourg has his eyes on Nashville. On the way there, he is passing through his hometown for performances at Cowgirl BBQ on Tuesday, Oct. 8, and Joe West’s Psychedelic Folk and Bluegrass Festival in Madrid on Oct. 12.
“There’s not a lot of good music in L.A. There’s a lot of musicians but not really a lot of talent,” Risbourg said. “And the roots scene here is tough. It’s really difficult to get people to come to shows, because it’s hard to find people who are into our kind of music. But usually when we play, we can convert a few.”
Being an L.A. musician is a challenge — as if writing music, rehearsing, putting together band materials, booking shows, promoting them, and playing them were not enough. “Most of the venues require you to sell tickets beforehand. It’s been an interesting road to try to find a fan base. We’re thinking it’s time to relocate.” Risbourg’s debut album, The Traveler, speaks directly to this willingness to move. The band’s name — Will and the Won’ts — hints at confliction. It is made up of Risbourg on guitar, Gui Bodi on bass, Andrew Bilotti on drums, and Matt Salmons on keyboard/harmonica/lap steel. All members sing, with Risbourg in charge of lead vocals. They play an energetic style of roots rock that reveals influences ranging from folk to classic and indie rock. The songs on The Traveler are all solidly built and their parts solidly played, but it is Risbourg’s voice that demands the most attention, evoking Bob Dylan as much as Dylan’s predecessors.
“I listen to a lot of older folk music and blues — stuff by people like Lead Belly,” Risbourg said. Born in 1888, Lead Belly was a storied pioneer of blues and folk music. Apart from furthering these genres, his persona was instrumental in shaping that portion of the roots music aura characterized by calamity and despair. It is disputed why exactly his name evolved from Huddie Ledbetter to Lead Belly, with some theories attributing it to his having survived stabbings and a shotgun blast to the stomach, and others to his ability to consume even the harshest moonshine. Rumors aside, it’s a fact that Lead Belly spent seven years in prison for murdering a relative, and then received an almost unprecedented pardon from the governor of Texas, whom he petitioned with song.
The darker tone of Lead Belly’s music is apparent on several pieces on The Traveler. A prominent example is “In the Presence of Wolves,” which Risbourg singled out as probably the band’s most popular song. On the other hand, more rocking songs reflect the songwriter’s contemporary influences, including some of Ryan Adam’s work and “everything Jack White does.” Videos of Will and the Won’ts in performance bring to mind White’s stage energy. The band hopes to exhibit this dynamism to full effect at an upcoming showcase hosted by the American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers. ASCAP primarily serves to collect royalties and protect the copyrights of its members. However, it also showcases unsigned bands at different festivals and venues across the country, including Nashville. “The whole tour was built around Nashville. We’re headlining this ASCAP showcase, and because we’re doing that, we decided to tack on every- one’s hometown.”
While in Santa Fe, Risbourg plans to reconnect with some of his old musical partners and mentors, including Joe West. “I used to play with Joe at the Bob Dylan brunch that he did every Sunday at the Cowgirl. I’m a big fan of his music, so I just got in touch with him and asked if anything was going to be going on while I was going to be in Santa Fe. He invited me out to Madrid, which was really nice of him, because I think he had already finalized the lineup.”
West’s festival is a noon-to-midnight affair that includes many notable (mostly local) folk and roots acts, like Broomdust Caravan, Pa Coal and the Clinkers, and of course, Joe West and the Santa Fe Revue. Risbourg said that since picking up the guitar at age 10, he’s been mostly self-taught, but “a lot of my style was formed playing with some of those guys. It’s definitely going to be a trip down memory lane.”
He also looks forward to showing off his favorite Southwest sights to his bandmates, none of whom have been to the area before. “We’re hoping to catch the Balloon Fiesta,” he said. Those who can’t catch Will and the Won’ts at the Cowgirl or the festival are advised to look to the sky: “Who knows, maybe we’ll hook up our PA and go for a ride.” ◀
Will and the Won’ts play the Cowgirl BBQ (319 Guadalupe St.; www.cowgirlsantafe.com) at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 8; there is no cover. Joe West’s Psychedelic Folk and Bluegrass Festival starts at noon Saturday, Oct. 12, at the Madrid Train Yard next to the Mine Shaft Tavern (2846 N.M. 14, Madrid; 505-473-0743). Tickets are $15 at the event or $10 advance by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.