Jim Willingham is entrenched in Athens music. Since 1994, he has been involved with the local scene to one degree or another, first as a member of genre-bending country-surf-punk group Harry Carey and later as the leader of long-running psych-folk act Ham1, among other projects.
But it was a transformative 2013 incident that brought him new and unexpected life. Willingham, an elementary school teacher by day, was leading a class trip to Tybee Island when several of his students were caught in a dangerous riptide. Along with three other chaperones, Willingham dove in, pulled the children to safety and administered life-saving CPR. (All the kids were OK, though several required brief hospitalization.) The event set in motion a long-awaited breakthrough.
"I had gone through a divorce about nine months before that," Willingham says now. "I was kind of chugging along, having a lot of trouble. After that happened, I felt like somebody had plugged me into the wall… I felt like everything made more sense. There was hope, and my life was getting better. I had done something good for the world instead of failing over and over." Simply put, he says, "I felt like I could move on."
The ensuing "renewed sense of purpose," as Willingham put it in an interview with Flagpole's Gordon Lamb at the time, also led to a creative resurgence. Luminosity exudes from Wester Easter, the new album from Old Smokey, Willingham's current project, from the opening romp, "Dead Man's Pose," which is all second-line rhythm and joyously ascending woodwinds, to the playful and immediate "Drifter."
There are various nods to past lives; Willingham notes that the lachrymose "Every Day I'm Building a Fool" is an ode to his former self. But they are more than offset by the record's determination, which can be felt with each listen if not exactly explained in writing.
The album's sound, too, is a charming, yet shapeshifting thing. It is certainly not of this age, speckled with sounds from an imagined past, but not easily pegged with any of the typical music-writing terminology. For Old Smokey, guitar takes a back seat—instead, Jacob Morris' cello, Jason Trahan's lap steel, John Fernandes' clarinet and violin and Rob Lomax's persistent percussion provide an unorthodox but invigorating backbone to Willingham's open-tuned banjo explorations.
Hints of Ham1's folky, cinematic swirl abound, showing up most prominently in the record's handful of instrumental tracks, which seem to score some half-conjured spaghetti western. If you listen with your eyes closed, you can almost see the beautiful, barren landscapes.
In fact, Willingham says the music on Wester Easter sprang from a conscious decision to write more cinematically, the result, at least superficially, of a brief dalliance with the film industry. Willingham acted in the 2011 film Septien, and Ham1 was featured on the soundtrack to a movie from director Onur Tukel, whom Willingham met on the former film's set.
In addition, he says, an affinity for the work of stop-motion animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen inspired Wester Easter's stoned-cinematic vibe. "Rob and I went to see Jason and the Golden Fleece, and it sounded like Jacob and John were playing on the soundtrack," he laughs.
Gypsy Farm, the rural studio run by The HUMMS' Zeke Sayer, who recorded Wester Easter (the album was mastered by Joel Hatstat), no doubt also had an effect on the ghostly and anachronistic vibe. The studio headquarters are a run-down but reconfigured Lavonia theater that once hosted concerts from the top country musicians of yesteryear, including Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and George Jones.
"You feel like country ghosts are walking up and down the aisles with beehive haircuts and powder blue suits and stuff," Willingham says with a laugh.
Wester Easter feels similarly mysterious, aged and heroic. Unlike the group's debut 7-inch, which Willingham says they rushed to complete, Old Smokey took its time on its debut full-length, approaching it in a more collaborative fashion and allowing its compositions the necessary breathing room. The record is blessed with an almost childlike sense of wonder, not surprising given Willingham's passion for teaching and his stated personal renaissance.
"I felt like, in the narrative [of my life], there was all of the sudden an uptick," he says regarding his unexpected ocean rescue mission last spring. Wester Easter, a wide-eyed album and an advance in Willingham's musical journey, takes that newfound sense of clarity and celebrates it for the rare diamond that it is.
WHO: Old Smokey, Don Chambers, Lavender Holyfield, Secret Europeans
WHERE: Caledonia Lounge
WHEN: Saturday, Apr. 26, 9:30 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $5 (21+), $7 (18–20)