Three decades ago, Webb Wilder turned loose “It Came From Nashville,” a ear-catching slab o’ wax that instantly made him a rock ‘n’ roll contender.
Nine albums, a handful of movies and a stint as one of the first satellite radio disc jockeys later, Wilder is still out playing his brand of rock ‘n’ roll long after many of his contemporaries have hung up their travelling shoes.
He and his band, the Beatnecks, will play the Zoo Bar Sunday. While it’s not a big anniversary tour -- they’re driving from Nashville to play Kansas City and Lincoln then heading back home -- Wilder is playing songs from “It Came From Nashville” and other unreleased material from the era.
“My agent wanted to wave the flag for that last year because the first 1,500 copies came out in 1986 on our own label,” Wilder said. “This year marks the 30th anniversary of Landslide picking it up and taking it national. That’s when we really put it into fourth gear.
“I’m really hoping we get a release to go with the 30th anniversary of “It Came From Nashville”-era stuff. That record was about half live and half studio. When we did the live stuff, we had a good night. We did a lot of songs, we did a lot of them twice and it was state-of-the-art recording. There’s a lot of stuff the world hasn’t heard. There are some titles that have never come out and some really good recordings of the studio songs live.”
John Webb McMurray, the man who became Webb Wilder, grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, was hooked on music and cowboys as a kid, got a $17.50 mail-order Sears guitar from his mom and, by the late '70s, was in a band called The Drapes.
After a short-lived move to Austin, Texas, McMurray settled in Nashville in 1982 where he starred in a friend’s short mystery/comedy, “Webb Wilder: Private Eye” that became a hit on the USA Network’s “Night Flight” -- and a rock ‘n’ roll persona was born.
“I think I kind of knew I would always do it then,” Wilder said. “By the time I donned the hat and became Webb Wilder, I’d waffled a couple of times. But by that time, I’d been through the looking glass a little and kind of knew what I’d be doing.
“It’s tough to have a life and a career. The best thing you can do is make them one and the same. I think of the old country singers who had nice homes here, but they lived on the bus in their driveway ... The irony is I thought it would be impossible. You had a better chance then than you do now.”
Living by his credo -- “Work Hard, Rock Hard, Eat Hard, Sleep Hard, Wear Glasses If You Need ‘Em,” the funny showman Wilder rode the late '80s/early '90s roots rock scare with a pair of major label outings, 1989’s “Hybrid Vigor” and 1991’s “Doo Dad” before returning to indie labels, including Landslide, which, two years ago, released “Mississippi Moderne.”
The albums are eclectic affairs -- sometimes rolling together R&B, blues, country, garage rock, rockabilly and '60s-rooted pop, sometimes more focused on a single style, like the R&B-rooted “Mississippi Moderne.” Together, however, they add up to a distinctive brand of rock ‘n’ roll.
“It’s roots music for rock fans and rock music for roots fans,” Wilder said. “That’s the Rolling Stones, right? The Faces, Badfinger, the Beatles, the Stones, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Arthur Conley and ‘Sweet Soul Music’ are never off my my mind … The Band, NRBQ, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Rockpile. All of them ... I realized at one point that all my heroes are anti-heroes and I’m aspiring to something that doesn’t exist in the music world, the middle ground.”
Now in his 60s, Wilder remains a true believer in the church of rock ‘n’ roll.
“The rock ‘n’ roll thing, the music thing, there’s a real spirituality there -- the majesty of rock and all those things," Wilder said. "It isn’t a joke. My spirituality is all tied in up it. Actually, I call it rock 'n' roll. When I got in the game, if you had long hair and were making music, drawing on all these eclectic sources -- like Van Morrison, doing his version of R&B -- it was rock 'n' roll.”
And Wilder’s never stopped working at his craft, whether it’s songwriting -- he just spent a week writing with the legendary Dan Penn -- or playing guitar.
“Some of it is inclination, but I think obsession is a lot of it,” he said. “If you look at the great songwriters, they’re obsessed with writing songs. The great guitar players are obsessed with playing guitar. I'm not putting myself in that category. But my hand hurts right now from playing guitar. I have this awful habit of slouching in this arm chair that wasn’t meant for playing guitar and sitting there and playing watching TV. I’ve always been a singer, a frontman, a clown of sorts who plays guitar.”
And he’s still a disc jockey of sorts. One of the first DJs hired by XM Radio, where he worked on the progressive country channel, Wilder now hosts an Americana countdown show on WMOT, the Nashville area’s first Americana station. His show, “The List,” can be heard at 2 p.m. Fridays and 7 a.m. Saturdays streaming at rootsradio.com.
It’s been a couple years since Wilder was in Lincoln, which usually is his farthest gig west of Nashville. He will make his first trip to the West Coast since 1995 later this year to play some shows and be interviewed at the Grammy Museum.
“Every time I go (to Lincoln), I say it’s going to be the last time,” Wilder said. “Lincoln is great. But on the way there, I have images from ‘Lonesome Dove’ with the arrows and Conestoga wagons. I really like it out there. But it’s a long ways up there.”