Thanks to YouTube, I am sitting in a kitchen watching guitarist and vocalist Watermelon Slim perform a rendition of the blues standard, “Smoke Stack Lightning.” Appearing solitary in a black suit and white button down, he plays a right-handed guitar with his left, picking toward himself instead of away. With a steel slide, his warbling, stentorian voice provides the backdrop for an aching rendition of Howlin’ Wolf’s popular song of betrayal.
Musical orientations aside, Watermelon Slim (Bill Homans) has a sound and message that resonates. Far from a household name, he certainly deserves to be one after nine studio albums (since 1973) and many great contributions as an anti-war activist. It was after a combat injury at the tail end of the 19-year-long conflict in Southeast Asia that he first turned to music.
“I started playing guitar in January of 1970 in Vietnam,” recalls Homans. “I was ill and they sent me to an army hospital there and I ran across a nasty old looking guitar, and bought it from the Vietnamese fellow who had it, and started playing there at the hospital.”
Three years later, Homans released his debut, Merry Airbrakes, followed by 30 years without any new releases, during which he earned two degrees, a Masters, joined MENSA (a society for those in top 2% of intelligence) and raised a family. He practiced painting and bowling, and started speaking against military invasions through societies like Vietnam Veterans Against the War. A vast knowledge of history resulted in his thesis, titled North American Fascism: Transmission of the Virus.
“It was a study of ultra right-wing figures in the United States and Canada,” said Homans. The 67-page document is available online; it’s a fascinating “independent study in the Oklahoma City bombing,” which refers to fascism, Nazism and the Christian Identity movements that “inform the ultra-Right.” His music is also politically motivated, but is equally infused with life experiences from behind the wheels of a truck, as a watermelon farmer, funeral officiator and rabble-rousing criminal; not to mention women, intoxicants, children, and the many legends with whom he’s played. Despite his rich life, it all comes back to those early fateful lessons.
“Wars and the people that make them have given me worse blues than any bottle or any woman would ever do, and I’ve certainly had enough experience with bottles and women to tell you that confidently,” he says. Picking music back up in 2003, a tinge of hurt is still audible, but he’s released 10 CDs/DVDs in his authentic, workingman style that ranges from electric bluegrass-infused country to melancholic blues, often backed by his band, The Workers.
Those albums have been up for 17 Blues Music Award nominations and won two, as well as an Independent Music Award and induction into the Oklahoma Blues Hall of Fame. Despite such success, the last few years have weighed heavily on Homans. He is parting ways with his current booking agent, being audited for the third time since 2004 by the Internal Revenue Service and is finding that record sales no longer meet his needs. To top that, he’s now struggling with several life-threatening health conditions in a nation where healthcare comes at a heavy cost.
“I’ve lived a very, very full life,” he says, acknowledging all the joys he’s experienced. As our conversation comes to a close, Homans repeats this mantra of appreciation again, knowing as a musician he has enjoyed many things that others can only dream of and from which he’s created renowned lyrics and music.
”If that sounds depressed or depressive, I hope not,” Homans reflects, “I’ve had a great life.”
Experience the legend in person at the EPCOR Centre for Performing Arts on October 11 and 12.
By Sarah Kitteringham
Photo: Shevaun Williams