Watermelon Slim On Life, The Blues & Everything

You won’t meet many artists like slide blues guitarist/singer Watermelon Slim. For one thing, how many musicians do you know that are also former Mensa members?

The story of Watermelon Slim, aka Bill Homans, doesn’t read like your typical artist bio.  Instead of spending years as a young man perfecting his craft, Slim enlisted in the military and served in Vietnam.  After scoring extremely high on an I.Q. test, Homans became a member of Mensa, the largest and oldest high I.Q. society in the world. He joined Vietnam Veterans Against War after he was discharged from the service.  He also worked many jobs while continuing his his education and earned several college degrees. 

In 2006 Watermelon Slim & The Workers released a self-titled album that ended up gathering six Blues Music Awards nominations.  2007’s The Wheel Man also led to six noms and resulted in Slim taking home the Album Of The Year and Band Of The Year awards.  In 2009 Slim racked up four nominations, including one for Album Of The Year for 2008’s No Paid Holidays. He was also nominated for the prestigious B.B. King Entertainer Of The Year award.

A conversation with Watermelon Slim is like a ride in one of those trucks he used to drive for a living where the driver talks about anything and everything, including world affairs, human events and politics while you ride shotgun, not wanting to interrupt the fabulous storyteller behind the wheel.  You may not know where you’re going when Watermelon Slim is in that driver’s seat, but you know you’re making good time.

What’s the story behind the title of your new album, Bull Goose Rooster?

The “Bull Goose” part is simply a reference to Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.”   The main character, Randle Patrick McMurphy – a rowdy but sane man trapped in an asylum is the Bull Goose – He’s the No. 1.

This rooster was the dominate rooster over an entire parking lot in Key West, Fla.  I roll my own smokes and was busy doing that and the rooster came up to me thinking I must have had some food in the bag.  He and I looked at each other, just checked each other out for 15 minutes.  He wasn’t scared of anything. … He was a very dominate bird, a beautiful bird.

I said to myself right then that Bull Goose Rooster was going to be the name of my next album.

Have you named other albums from moments in your life?

Big Shoes To Fill [2003] refers to the gigantic shoes of my father that I could never fill because of all the things he did, anywhere from diving into the North Atlantic to save a Nazi pilot to defending the first test case of homicide by abortion after Roe V. Wade. 

The Wheel Man [2007] is a reference to, well, I’ll drive almost anything.  I was invited but declined to be a wheel man.

Everything I title is liable to have some sort of autobiographical reference.

You’ve also been honored for your music with nominations and awards.

The blues is a way of life, but it hasn’t been a lifestyle.  You can have a lifestyle from jumping out of helicopters or whatever.  You gotta live this. I’m a man who at this point hopes to make it to Medicare next year.  I have no benefits because of some of the living I’ve done, falling off of things and breaking myself in various ways.  I feel pretty good, generally.  It’s not a life someone who wants security at the end would have chosen. 

I’m not in debt. … I’ve been employed for the last 12 years in a row, which has been remarkable for me. That’s never happened to me before.  The first three and a half years truck driving and ever since then, music.

I’m self-employed.  It should be no secret that although there may be limited opportunities for me and the Workers in the future, I’m primarily going to stick to solo performances and collaborations with other musicians I’ve always wanted to play with but never got a chance when I was working with the agency.

That’s the other big thing.  After eight and a half years, Intrepid Artists and Watermelon Slim have opted to part company.  I’m going to be booking myself and recording myself independently after October and the release of Bull Goose Rooster. Hopefully, I’m going to work with everybody.

A collaboration with Ry Cooder would be the culmination of my musical career, no less than that. I would be un’uomo fatto, a “Made Man.”  I am as sure as a phenomenologist can be about anything that such a recording would be one of the major albums of this very-late-in-time music-buying public. It would be a meeting of world musicians. And my brother would like to be around to chart the strings or whatnot,

 I’ve got other things I want to do in music [but] the business climate right now doesn’t look good for recording unless you want to seriously commit to a program of electronic dialogues as far as your media campaign goes.  And I don’t know if I’m really willing or ready to completely go into the 21st century.  I’m a 20th century man, I like to put something in people’s hands.

What about publishing?  Royalties or placing your songs in movies?

Nobody has asked me to do anything like that.  The one possibility of branching out into art related to music that I can think of is the possibility or even probability of working with my brother.  His name is Peter Homans and he’s a world famous classical composer, played Carnegie Hall and stuff.  … In his field he’s much bigger than me.

What was your first instrument?

My very first instrument, you’ll be surprised, was not the harmonica but a set of bongos.  I remain a hand drummer to this day.  It’s one thing my rotator cup shoulder doesn’t hurt from.  I can play congas and bongos and that kind of thing without any particular kind of pain.

I got a set of bongos with an instructional record and everything.  I thought beatniks were kind of cool This was about 1958.  Then the next year I got my first harmonica.  11 years later in Vietnam I started playing slide guitar. … I got an old $5 Vietnamese guitar and started playing it with a Zippo cigarette lighter as a slide.  In 1971 or ’72 I picked up a Jew’s harp and played that until I didn’t have any top teeth to hold it in.  I’ve tootled with a flute.  In 1975 I started playing the African thumb piano which I still play.

Since using the Zippo for a slide, what other objects have you used for slides?

My No. 1 slide currently, and has been for quite some time is a spark plug socket.  I have one from Sears and one from Korea.  Besides that I’ve used every manner of things in the world.  I’ve got airline liquor bottles, the best are from Glenfiddich, Courvoisier and Bushmills. … I’ve used ceramic frogs, I’ve used all manner of medicine bottles, spice bottles and [things] from other people’s kitchens.  When they say, “Oh, play some guitar,” [I’ll say] “I haven’t got any slide with me but I’ll look in your kitchen or medicine cabinet and I’ll bet I’ll find something.” I jury rig everything.

Have you ever built your own guitar?

No.  I’m not much of a craftsman type.  One thing I’ve never been really good at is making my fingers work independently of each other. … I’ve never gone and actually learned how to play left-handed guitar, with my fingers fretting and all that stuff.  There never has been anyone to teach me.  But, frankly, I’m better off holding on to the slide.

With songs like “Foreign Policy Blues” and “Prison Walls” – is commenting on controversial issues a part of being a bluesman?

I put myself through quite a lot of training to do so.  I actually paid for two writer’s degrees, a degree in history and journalism in 1986 from the University of Oregon.  Then again, when I had to find some way to support my family I went back to graduate school and did a history degree.  So I spent [thousands of dollars] putting myself through this stuff.  My training basically makes me, not to put a finer point on it, one of the most literate people that anyone is liable to meet.  Much less to be an old bluesman who lost all of his teeth [while] driving a truck.

I do have to comment.  I’ve had to comment ever since I was part of Vietnam Veterans Against The War. I’m someone who hasn’t just been able to say, “OK, I’ll just go ahead and buy as much as I can because it’s good for the economy and all.”  I’ve never been able to do that and I’ve made do when, a lot of times, my brother and everybody else [wouldn’t].

As a journalist I have to talk about stuff that I see happening, immediately.  To give you an example, the song “The Bloody Burmese Blues” on my record No Paid Holidays was written in a hotel room in Sydney.  I was reading the Sydney Herald and I saw a quote from a couple of British tourists in Rangoon that said, “We’re in this lovely hotel looking down on a war zone.”

So I wrote the song, in Sharpie, directly underneath that headline on newsprint.  It ends in the verse, “I can’t sit around and let it happen.  If not us, who?  If not now, when?”

Your biography says you are a former Mensa member.  What’s the story behind that?

I applied and paid the dues for a month, maybe two.  I haven’t been a member of Mensa since ’75 or ’76.

In 1969 I was in basic training and took the AFQT, the Air Force Qualifying Test … and scored 142 on the I.Q. test.  That score qualified me to be a part of Mensa.  So I joined years later.  28 years after I had taken that IQ test I took a IQ test at Oklahoma State when I went to graduate school.  My IQ by the time I got to Oklahoma State was 114. I had lost a point every year for 28 years. 

From your viewpoint, what are some of the most important issues today?

The main issue, globally, is overpopulation.  All of the economic parameters are trumped by the fact there is no concerted plan and barely any plans on the part of any of the fastest reproducing countries for even the slightest curb on growth.  The world will run out of resources way before the insane predictions of 10, 11 million people living on this planet by the end of the century.  That’s insane.  We can’t support six and a half or seven million under current expenditures of resources … we can’t do that.

America is just one of the biggest sinners, that’s all, but the fact is there is very little consciousness, no mass consciousness of “Hey, folks, we’re going to lose this whole thing.”

I’ve been a researcher in the nuclear fuel cycle, especially on the waste side of it.  I’ve been a waste driver.  I’ve been down in the trenches of how America wastes things. Built 400 foot landfills with deposits of trash.  As far as I can tell, for the sake of accounts receivable, we are overproducing documents but under-producing things that are actually needed … to exponential levels.

I start thinking about it, about absolutes, histrionics and extremes, but you can’t get any more extreme than the American way of waste.

Packaging and presentation – that means boxes, paper, plastic and advertising – all make up more than 10 percent of the gross national product.  Cut that in half and you balance your budget in four or five years.

Then you have the problem of the Democrats and the Republicans have become nothing more than Republicrats and all moved way to the right. … The pendulum has swung to the right, the bottom done busted … and it keeps on going to the right [laughs].  I’m not amazed.  That’s part of being a political junkie ever since I came back from Vietnam.  I’m a news junkie in a world in which information is handled in ways I can’t even think about.  I’m not a 21st century citizen.  I love to read. It’s a paradox.  I’m a little obsolete.

What’s next for Watermelon Slim?

Whatever it is, it’s probably going to happen with my brother.  [There will be] a live Watermelon Slim solo CD, I can be pretty well be sure it’s not going to be a Workers CD.  We’re not going back to this trio for the foreseeable future.  As great as this record is, it was meant to … back the reunion tour. Hopefully enough people will have heard Bull Goose Rooster that it will make a difference when it comes to buy or vote or any of that stuff, if it should get a nomination or anything like that.

One more thing about nominations and awards.  Back before that the reward for a bluesman was a pocketful of change and dollar bills, a place to sleep out of the cold and rain. And, if he was lucky, maybe someone to sleep with. And the best thing of all is a secure knowledge that tomorrow he is going to have the same thing.

Upcoming dates for Watermelon Slim:

Aug. 24 – Liberty, Utah, Ogden Roots & Blues Festival Grounds (Ogden Roots & Blues Festival)
Aug. 29 – Tulsa, Okla., The Shrine
Aug. 30 – Rentiesville, Okla., Down Home Blues Club (Dusk Til Dawn Blues Festival)
Aug. 31 – Medicine Park, Okla., Downtown Medicine Park (Mayor’s Blues Ball)
Sept. 1 – Rentiesville, Okla., Down Home Blues Club (Dusk Til Dawn Blues Festival)
Sept. 26 – Savannah, Ga., Various Venues (Savannah Jazz Festival)           
Oct. 4 – Narooma, Australia, Smyth Oval (Great Southern Blues & Rockabilly Festival)
Oct. 5 – Narooma, Australia, Smyth Oval (Great Southern Blues & Rockabilly Festival)
Oct. 6 – Narooma, Australia, Smyth Oval (Great Southern Blues & Rockabilly Festival)

Please visit WatermelonSlim.com for more information.