Pictured Above: Williams Honor – Reagan Richards & Gordon Brown. Photo Credit: Connie Freestone.
Williams Honor: Nashville Sound, Jersey Heart and Soul
By Chuck Darrow
The adage, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” may have worked for the likes of Cicero and Julius Caesar, but Reagan Richards and Gordon Brown aren’t buying it.
Richards, who is a singer-songwriter, and Brown, who is a songwriter-producer, perform collectively as Williams Honor. And while the sound of the unit–which is on the bill at the April 29 “Battle Of the Bands” at the NAC Sports Training Center in Newtown (benefitting the Greenwood House senior healthcare complex in Ewing Township, N.J.)–is straight outta Nashville, the members’ hearts, minds and all other body parts are firmly rooted in New Jersey—more specifically the Asbury Park area. And that, they insist, is the point.
“That is exactly why you do it,” says Richards in an emphatic tone. “Going to Nashville [to forge a career in country music] is the same old thing. You could go to Nashville and be one of the thousands of people. That is why we stay in New Jersey, because isn’t it better to stand out?
“And this is what we are. It’s not a fake thing. We both truly love it here.” But isn’t being a country act in Jersey akin to being a Vladimir Putin Fan Club member in Kyiv? Historically speaking, the Garden State has hardly been a hotbed of the genre (not withstanding the late Eddie Rabbitt being raised in East Orange).
Pictured Above: Williams Honor. Photo credit: Connie Freestone.
“We take great pride in being ambassadors when we're traveling. We feel our music contains the grit of New Jersey and all of the colors of the songs from the place that, pound for pound, ounce for ounce, has been the most successful region anywhere in America as far as what it has exported into the world with music.”
“My point is, so Jersey is not welcoming? We’re gonna make them welcome us,” continues Richards, who has lent her vocal talents to a diverse group of A-Listers from legendary guitarist Les Paul to ‘70s pop-rockers Cheap Trick to rock icons Deborah Harry and Joan Jett. “Like it or not, this is what we are, this is what we do, this is what we write.”
The duo has branded their sound—which has yielded two country-chart singles, “No Umbrella” and “Send It To Me”—“Jersey Country.” According to Brown, the description speaks to traits that define the state and its inhabitants.
“We wear where we come from on our sleeve wherever we go when we’re touring,” explains Brown, whose credits include writing for, touring with and producing such acts as Jessie James Decker, Natalie Stovall (Runway June), Audra McLaughlin (NBC’s “The Voice”) and Audrey Kate Geiger (NBC’s “Rising Star”).
“We take great pride in being ambassadors when we’re traveling. We feel our music contains the grit of New Jersey and all of the colors of the songs from the place that, pound for pound, ounce for ounce, has been the most successful region anywhere in America as far as what it has exported into the world with music.”
To put it another way, the pair like to describe their sonic blueprint as the result of what would happen if Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, among others, backed the likes of Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton and Miranda Lambert.
A pre-destined pairing
Richards and Brown’s partnership took root in 2012—an occurrence Richards suggests was inevitable.
“I guess it really goes back to things happen when they’re supposed to,” she offers. “And I really think that we were supposed to connect at the time that we did.
“It was a benefit for Hurricane Sandy victims. We just started heavily talking about music, the things that we love.”
The musical connection, notes Brown, was immediate.
“When I met Reagan we were talking about artists like Joe Dee Messina and Diamond Rio and some of the artists from the Nineties that nobody would really know. She and I shared that passion for the genre.
“It is just very important when you bond with somebody musically. That’s where it started. I said, ‘You know what? This girl loves it like I do. She wants to work even harder than I do.’ And it was very organic. It wasn’t a forced or contrived thing. It was just, hey, you know, we both are songwriters. Let’s just start writing songs. Let’s write songs for commercials. Let’s write songs for other artists. And then one day it was just, why don’t we write something for ourselves?”
Not that things immediately took off for the duo. They really didn’t get serious until late 2014, when they did a few low-key dates they describe as “rehearsal shows.” But 2015 began with a bang when their first “official” gig was as part of the big closing concert at the annual, Light of Day multi-event fundraiser for Parkinson’s disease. Among those with whom they shared the stage that January evening with was none other than the Bard of Asbury Park himself, Bruce Springsteen.
Photo credit: Madalynne Flanigan
“We had done our set,” remembers Richards, “and about four acts later comes Bruce, and then here we are in the finale and we’re singing ‘Jungleland.’ And it’s like, we just came on as this new band, and now we’re sharing the stage with him.
“Gordon had actually shared the stage with Bruce before [including at the legendary 9/11 benefit concert at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, NJ in October, 2001]. So, his history with Bruce goes back way before mine.
“But my first one was as Williams Honor, and here we are, I’m on stage in Asbury Park and there’s Bruce. And I thought, this is about as ‘Jersey’ as you can get.
“It was very surreal.”
The Boss isn’t the only big-name act with whom they’ve appeared: They’ve also been on bills with the likes of Trace Adkins and Lee Brice and their fellow Garden Staters, Bon Jovi, for whom they opened at Madison Square Garden shortly after the megastar rock band’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
What’s in a name?
So, how does an act whose founders’ names are Gordon Brown and Reagan Richards wind up calling themselves? The moniker, explains Brown, “is a tribute to both of our dads. We both lost our dads way too early. And we love the idea of having a banner that we would stand under every night in honor of them.
“But my dad’s name was ‘Bernard,’ so that would be a tough sell: ‘Bernard’s Honor’ just doesn’t flow off the tongue. Reagan’s dad’s name was William. So we changed it to ‘Williams.’”
There’s another dimension to the name as well.
“So Williams Honor is really a marriage of the old and the new country, because we see where it's going and how it's evolving, and we, of want to be part of that. So it's all intertwined.”
“If you want to take it a step further, ‘Williams Honor’ really is about respecting the past, honoring the past with country music,” he says.
“My dad taught me country music. He sang Hank Williams songs in his high school talent show. My parents were both from Pittsburgh. My dad used to drive his car to the border of Pennsylvania and West Virginia so he could get the ‘Grand Ole Opry’ on the radio.
“So Williams Honor is really a marriage of the old and the new country, because we see where it’s going and how it’s evolving, and we, of want to be part of that. So it’s all intertwined.”
Williams Honor is proud of its past and appears to be looking at a bright future. But the present is of greatest importance to its principals. High on the agenda is the continued promotion of eX,” the pandemic-delayed sophomore album that was released last year (it followed their 2015 self-titled, debut effort).
“eX” says Richards, “Is a ‘breakup record.’ It’s really a concept record in the sense that you’re supposed to listen to it from point A to point B. It starts off with a song called ‘Breaking Up Songs,’ which kind of sets the stage: Here you are, you’re breaking up. Now what?
“So then each song is supposed to take you through different stages. A breakup could be the best thing that ever happened to you in your life, you know? You could have a thing where you feel empowered: I feel empowered. I’m not with that person anymore.
“And there’s a song called, ‘First Comes Love, Then Comes Damage.’ It tells it like it is–it was good and now it sucks. And that’s the reality of it. And so we go through the different stages of it.”
There is obviously no way of knowing where Williams Honor is headed, career-wise. But based on their shared definition of success, the duo has already achieved it.
“Every day you get to do this is a successful day,” reasons Brown. “And we never take that for granted.
“When you have people that care at any level, and listen to your songs or buy a ticket to come see you play, you can never take that for granted. We are very lucky.
“Have we sold a million records yet? No. But at every level, you have to enjoy the moment, and that is one thing I did not do in my earlier projects.
“I was always focused on the next, the next, what’s the next thing? And with Williams Honor, we’ve really gotten a great sense of being able to enjoy the whole ride.
“Because, you know, the music business is so insane right now. One day you’re trying to get numbers on your socials, and like the next day somebody tweets about you and you’re a freaking social star.
“So, you have to enjoy every step of the way, otherwise there’s no reason to do this anymore. You have to live in the now.”
To experience Williams Honor in person or for more about the “Battle of the Bands,” visit www.GWHbattleofthebands.org.