Williams (The Mimic’s Own Voice, 2011) hits the road with bluesmen Brother Ben and Silent Sam.
"[S]moking dynamite and drinking TNT," Brother Ben makes magic moaning the blues and slide-fingering a beat-up guitar. Ben, the last "True Delta Bluesman," works with sideman Silent Sam Stamps, who wrings a blues harp till it cries like his hero, Sonny Boy Williamson. Brother Ben is Wilton Mabry, his real identity employed as the name of the pair’s parsimonious manager. Silent Sam is Peter Owens, a Big Ten cum laude graduate, middle-class boy captured by the blues wailing on Detroit radio direct from the Delta. In the year 2000, working to keep the Brother Ben legend alive with a 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham and thrift store two-for-a-dollar polyester flares and iridescent shirts, the duo leave Los Angeles and wander coast to coast playing roots music. Brother Ben’s fans bring him pints of Old Crow, but Ben prefers steamed vegetables, green tea, brown rice and his Volvo. For talkative, curious Peter, Silent Sam’s also an act, all shuffle and jive, yas suh, while worrying "[t]hat the act doesn’t ruin how much the music means to me." While this is a road-trip story, it’s also a more profound experience—a sometimes-sardonic, sophisticated take on race in America, on fame, on mostly white artistic wannabes and acolytes co-opting black experience. There’s the Canadian investor replicating a Delta juke joint in Las Vegas; and Audrey and April, attempting to bed every circuit-riding blues musician; and the poseur rappers, N2K Posse, sampling Brother Ben for their hook. With allusions to cultural touchstones from Elvis to Robert Johnson, from Cosby to Oscar Wilde, Williams’ metaphorical tale addresses the dualities African-Americans navigate in the American cultural maze while also dealing with the truths we all tell ourselves and the truths we let others see.
Part elegy, part master-student story, part road-trip Americana, Williams riffs on the dichotomy between appearance and reality.