Spoke In A Wheel: Zachary Williams of The Lone Bellow Hits the Road with Dirty Camaro

by Kevin Johnston

Yes, there really is a dirty camaro. For the characters in the song which bears its name, and the subsequently titled album, it’s a symbol of tough times, but also a symbol of escape and of knowing where you come from.

Zachary Williams, whose powerful voice drove him out from the Brooklyn Bar4 open-mic world and onto the international stage, is best known as the belting leader of The Lone Bellow. His new solo record Dirty Camaro is indeed an escape from that band’s gravity; one that’s weird, head-turning, soulful and fresh.

“For better or for worse, The Lone Bellow created this pretty heavy burden of art,” Williams tells BandWagon. “We always worked with these big producers and we like slave over the songs,” he says. His departure from that weighty work is palpable. From the swanky suits in the “Game For Guessing” video to the playful theatrics in the title track’s video, he’s clearly here to let loose and tell the truth. “I just wanted to be like: ‘This is mine, and I want to have fun,’” he says. “And that’s what we did.”

The record screams with Williams’ famously passionate vocals but it swings with a new band who “burns rubber,” in his words, and the freedom of man set free to talk about what he wants. As it turns out, that topic is ultimately family. The lyric “You can be mad but you can’t be mean” from “Game For Guessing” comes from a lover’s spat with his wife and life-long partner, while the narrative of “Dirty Camaro” is a piece of family lore.

“It’s a story about one of my aunts in the 80’s who had to get away from an abusive situation,” Williams says. “It got very southern gothic in real life, where my uncles took care of the bad guy. Like – ‘Don’t don’t mess with that uncle, because he did that to that guy that messed with his sister.’”

Zachary Williams (of the Lone Bellow) plays The Aggie Theater in Fort Collins on Sunday, February 20 during solo Dirty Camaro tour. Cover and above photo by Eric Ryan Anderson.

Williams has been on the move a long time and has come far, but he hasn’t forgotten who he is or the vehicles which have transported him.

A native of Acworth, Georgia, Williams found the spark which transformed his musical life when he moved to New York City in 2006. In pursuit of a career as a singer/songwriter, he started playing small gigs and open mics in places like Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Bar4, which formerly hosted a now legendary weekley open mic series in Park Slope, became one of Williams’ first late-night musical haunts. There, he sang alongside artists like Theo Katzman, Greg Holden, Wakey! Wakey!, Misty Boyce (Lord Huron), Hannah Winkler (Ingrid Michaelson), BandWagon’s own Kevin Johnston (Bright Silence) and folk-rock vocal duo Lucius.

Lucius, who were baristas at a coffee shop down the block from Bar4 and a few friends from around the way called The Gregory Brothers opened the show.

No school like the old school – Zachary Williams is a constant connector and grounded in humble roots. Photo by Eric Ryan Anderson

“Gosh – they were magic,” Williams says of the Bar4 open mic nights. “It was so inspiring to me. I was like, ‘dude, our little late-night Tuesday community is swinging for the fences here,’” he says, inferring the blossoming early successes of his peers. A neighborhood circle of friends led to formation of The Lone Bellow and subsequently their first official show at the Bowery Ballroom, arguably the moment that magic took off.

“They had really just started doing Autotune the News,” Williams said of the Gregory Brothers. “And they had just released ‘Double Rainbow All the Way’ and ‘Hide Your Kids, Hide Your Wife.’ Nobody knew that they were the Autotune the News guys,” Williams said of the duo, who are arguably responsible for some of the internet’s first ever viral videos. 

“They went into that song – and I thought that the ceiling of the Bowery Ballroom was going to split open. It was amazing,” Williams recalls. “And then Lucius played, and then we played. It was the most epic, slap in the face, surprise New York moment. Record labels were just like: ‘who are all these people? The whole crowd is completely losing their mind.’”

That was in 2012. Since then, the Lone Bellow has toured the world, Williams moved away from New York, and a global pandemic struck. But the small pockets of New York City have remained a crucial part of his identity. His old NYC friend, actor Marc Menchaca (Ozark, The Outsider), had witnessed Willams’ career grow almost directly alongside the growth of Williams’ other New York haunt, Rockwood Music Hall, for years. Now, Menchaca has written Willaims’ official bio and stars alongside Lena Headey (Game Of Thrones, 300) in the official “Dirty Camaro” music video.

Regarding the solo effort, Williams says “I’ve wanted to do it for a long time – really, right after Jim James from My Morning Jacket released his solo record.” He says James had “graciously come out to a couple of my shows,” and the two connected.

“Of course, I was a gigantic fan, but managed to play it as cool as I possibly could,” he says. “We sat down for coffee one day and I was like, ‘Man, what’s it like for your band? Did that piss them off? Did that make them feel not secure in their work?’”

Williams says James told him that art should just be free flowing, and anybody in My Morning Jacket can do any side project they want. “I wasn’t of that mindset,” Williams says. “I had been of a mindset of: ‘OK, guys – our best and our first always goes to the Lone Bellow.’”

But James convinced him that breaking away from the structure of his old band – even for just one record – would ultimately benefit him as an artist, opening his mind to being more free and more creative in the long run. Plus, he simply had the itch.

“I just really wanted to do it,” Williams says, “I wanted to experience working with other people, so I told the band and Brian (Elmquist, The Lone Bellow’s co-founder). He was all about it. He’s always been incredibly encouraging.”

Zachary Williams stands alone – photo by Eric Ryan Anderson

Three years later, Williams was still on the hunt. One day he was talking with Robert Ellis, with whom he had often been on tour, when Ellis suggested his Fort Worth studio as the spot to make the record.

“He said, ‘Dude, just give me one chance,’” Williams says. “‘Come out to Texas for two days. You can sleep in my van, in my driveway. I just took over Niles City Sound with Josh Block (Leon Bridges, White Denim), we got a whole thing going. Come on.’ And I mean, his level of musicianship is like nothing like I’ve ever experienced before,” Williams says. “He is a freaking savant.”

What began as a two day trial session resulted in the full length record. The album is rich with expert pedal steel guitar, orchestral strings, saxophone and a Texas-band backbone that really cooks. “They have this I-don’t-give-a-shit feeling about how they attack their music,” Williams says of the musicians on Camaro. “It was like, ‘Hey, see you at five and we’re going to make each other stay up until the sun comes up.’”

Digging in the dirt. Zachary Williams center stage at Nile City sound during the Dirty Camaro sessions. Photo by Noah Torralba

But Williams is as excited to be out hitting the road as he was to be free in the studio. He’s thrilled to play in Colorado again.

“Dude – I can’t wait,” Williams says. “I’m going out with a band called Early James (Dan Auerbach’s latest project) that has been touring with the Lone Bellow. We’ve become really good friends – they’re all, like, Alabama boys. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s very muddy southern style playing.”

The return to Colorado sparks memories not unlike the kind of down-to-earth neighborhood connectedness which made The Lone Bellow take off in the first place. And those kinds of connections, it seems, are Williams’ way of life.

In the fall of 2017, Williams and Elmquist ventured out into a Northwest Denver neighborhood on a Monday night. The Lone Bellow were to appear at Red Rocks Amphitheater the next evening, opening for Needtobreathe. Just like the old NYC days, they found themselves at a hole-in-the-wall open mic.

“There was this old man that didn’t know how to play the guitar,” WIlliams recalls, “He looked really frail and a 20-something year old kid was playing guitar for him. He was singing these beautiful old country songs and there’s this whole community of young hipsters that all know his name, cheering him on at this open mic. It was a moment.”

The man’s name was Tim Truitt. “He had this insane story,” Williams continues. “He was a tractor trailer driver, and he crashed one when he was really young. Hurt himself real bad. He’s a three-time cancer survivor and he’s like, ‘Yeah, I come here because, you know, it’s just good for my soul,’” Williams says. And then the idea struck.

Williams says he flat-out asked Truit to join them on stage the next night. “‘Well, do you want to come and sing with us?’ I asked. ‘Why don’t we sing a John Prine song together at Red Rocks tomorrow night? Have you ever done Red Rocks?’

“He came, and we did – it and it was just . . . It was just one of those moments where you’re like, ‘I’m just a spoke in a wheel – this is a way bigger beauty than anything,’” WIlliams says. “And the audience just roared.”

105.5 The Colorado Sound presents Zachary Williams live at the Aggie Theater with Nathaniel Riley on Sunday, February 20. Click here for tickets and hear songs from Dirty Camaro on 105.5 The Colorado Sound.