Visitors to Van Wilks' home in deep South Austin, Texas, are arrested by the sign "Welcome to Guitarland." In a state teeming with A-list guitarists, that sign packs quite a statement. And Wilks' claim to that heavyweight list is more than justified. None less than another distinguished Texan, ZZTop's acclaimed guitarist Billy Gibbons, tipped his hat to Wilks' electrifying talent. In Texas, where Wilks is reputed as a player of uncommon depth, he has been voted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame. He also took home two Austin Music Awards at SXSW 2009 and was voted Best Electric Guitarist and Best Acoustic Guitarist, a rare double win, in The Austin Chronicle's annual Music Poll.
Van Wilks has performed with Willie Nelson on the Geezinslaw Brothers' The Eclectic Horseman and with Eric Johnson on the Texas Christmas Collection. "I don't have any choice, playing guitar is a natural extension of my soul," muses Wilks ahead of his first-ever concert in India.
Van Wilks Band is one of the headliners at the Puravankara Indigo N Blues Festival at Palace Grounds in Bangalore May 18. The festival also features the Bobby Whitlock and CoCo Carmel Band (don't miss our exclusive interview with Bobby Whitlock), who will perform on May 19, along with local artists such as Blackstratblues, Overdrive Trio and Adil and Vasundhara among others.
Excerpts from an exclusive interview for Yahoo! India:
You are most recognizable for your association with ZZ Top. Tell us more about your relationship with those Texas stalwarts.
Texas music is very "incestuous!" We feed off each other for musical ideas and inspiration. We shared the same management company for a few years and because of that relationship we toured together. Billy (Gibbons, frontman of ZZ Top) and I have a mutual respect for travel, music history and assimilating musical styles from other parts of the world into our respective ventures.
The legendary Billy Gibbons commended you as one of the most important Texas guitar players. To the uninitiated, what's unique about Texas guitar and how is it central to your music?
Coming from Billy that's quite a compliment! Texas is overflowing with great guitar players and I am honored to be singled out by one of the best. There must be something in the Texas water that nurtures and grows guitar players. From T-Bone Walker, Mance Lipscomb, Leadbelly and countless others, Texas has always introduced legendary players to the world. There is no reason. It's just a stone-cold fact and I am lucky to have Texas blood running through me!
You've also worked closely with another Texas guitar heavyweight, Eric Johnson, who is very popular among guitar aficionados. Tell us more about that association.
Eric Johnson is another old friend and a Texas guitarist that has broken all the molds and transcended the "Texas Stereotype" -- EJ is one of a kind. He has retained a Blues-based sensibility and taken it to a place only he knows the way to. He played on my "Koko's Hideaway" CD on the instrumental "Vanatized" along with Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon of "Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble." Another cut with Eric that I'm very proud of is "What Child is This" on the Texas Music Christmas Collection.
Tell us a bit about growing up in Texas, your early musical influences, and the relationships that shaped your musical prowess and career.
I grew up in Lubbock in West Texas. We always say there was nothing to do so we holed up in our room and played guitar nonstop! My influences are the same as most who grew up in the 1960's: The Beatles kicked it off for us young teens and then the holy trinity of Hendrix, Clapton and Beck kicked in. After that, we went backwards and discovered the roots. A wonderful and never-ending learning experience!
You have also performed with Willie Nelson. Who are the other musicians and bands, both past and present, which you admire?
Willie is THE true Texas icon and the finest example of someone who stuck to his guns and did it his way without compromise. I had the honor of playing the guitar parts to a very fun bluegrass version of "Stairway to Heaven" by an Austin outfit called the Geezinslaw Brothers. Willie sings a verse or two. I also played on legendary Texas guitarist Bugs Henderson's CD on the song "Honky Tonk", featuring Willie, Jimmy Vaughan, Johnny Winter and others.
Your first album, released in 1980, was called Bombay Tears. We're curious about the name…
My father was in Bombay (now Mumbai) in World War II and the city has always held a magical mystery for me. Coming from Texas it is difficult to imagine what it's like there. So the title is pure imagery. I am looking forward to finally visiting Bombay. I have a beautiful ivory statue of Saraswati that my father brought back to Texas after the war. I recently discovered from my Indian friends that she is the goddess of music, arts and knowledge. Maybe she's been guiding me all these years.
'Koko's Hideaway' is one of your most commended albums. Tell us more about what went into making the album. What are your personal favorite tracks on it?
It's difficult to single out specific songs from an album. Songs are like your children. How can one play favorites? But I do like "Without a Word", "Koko's Hideaway" and "Our Little Secret."
Please introduce us to your band and personnel.
On our first trip to India Dave Ray will be on bass and vocals and Nico Leophant will be behind the drums.
Are you looking forward to playing in India? What have you heard of Indian contemporary music?
Of course, we are looking forward to playing our Texas Blues-Rock in India. I am amazed to learn of the popularity of American Blues and I am so pleased to know that there is such a vibrant western music scene in all the major cities.
I bought my first Ravi Shankar album in 1969 and saw him in concert with George Harrison. And, as I've said before: Indian music remains a beautiful mystery to me. I may not understand the language of the music but I love to listen and absorb the feeling.
This is a great opportunity for audiences in India to experience so intimately music and musicians we rarely get to hear up close. What should we expect from Van Wilks Band?
We plan on pulling out "all the stops" and look forward to playing for a new audience and new friends! Look out Bangalore! Texas Blues-Rock is coming soon!
Catch Van Wilks Band in concert at Puravankara Indigo N Blues Festival in Palace Grounds, Bangalore, on May 18-19.
Watch an exclusive performance video of Van Wilks Band in concert:
ALSO SEE: Don't miss our exclusive interview with Bobby Whitlock, who played keyboards with Derek and the Dominos (with Eric Clapton) on Layla, one of the most influential blues-rock ballads of all time.