“Mary Oliver, a poet I’m fond of, talks about writing for twenty years before she ever was published as a choice,” says Wes Doggett, a.k.a. Willem Maker, by way of explaining the circuitous route that led to his recent solo debut.
“It was an inward thing for me, like a journey. I wanted to make a real record and do whatever it takes to do that, no matter how long it takes. I would only work on it when I felt like working on it — when I felt like spontaneity could come out.”
He pauses and laughs. “So it’s three years of spontaneity, if that’s possible!”
The end result is Stars Fell On, a poetic garage-rock-and-blues record that articulates and captures his unique writing style and musical vision. Doggett’s raw voice and guitar tone crackle over the pounding drums and thumping bass lines while distorted slide guitar meanders through the foreground. Doggett recorded everything but the drums and mixed it all in his home studio. His songs paint pastoral portraits of rebirth and renewal in the isolation of rural life with a style that suggests influences from Charlie Patton to Crazy Horse.
Born and raised in west Georgia, Doggett began playing bass with his older brother Sloane on guitar and Walt Entrekin on drums. The trio went through a variety of incarnations, the most successful of which was Ithica Gin. It was the early ’90s, and following the rise of Uncle Tupelo, Sloane sent Jay Farrar a package of their recordings. Later, at a gig in Mississippi, they met with Farrar, and in October of ’94 he came to Athens to produce a single for the band.
“Jay came, we recorded two songs in one day, mixed ‘em and took him back to the airport,” Wes recalls. “He was putting together Son Volt — Trace was rolling around in his head — so he was a busy guy.”
The result of those sessions was a write-up in this magazine (ND #5) and an offer to come play with Ryan Adams. But they were stopped short by illness.
The rental house where Wes and his family lived was built on slag from the local copper refinery. “They had used it as fill around the house,” he explains. “Even the patio bricks were from the kiln.” From living in the basement of the house, Doggett received severe lead and mercury poisoning.
“Right at the time everything was so vibrant musically, I was falling apart,” he says. With hospitalizations on and off for a period of years, the family was in need of a change. They found it on Turkey Heaven Mountain just over the Georgia border in Ranburne, Alabama.
“It wasn’t until about 2000 that I felt like I was back on planet earth,” he says. “When I was coming out here, it just felt like such a healthy place.”
Stars Fell On, with songs about transformation and living a life outside the lines, became one more step in the process of healing. “Outside The Limits”, a standout track that begins only with Doggett’s distorted guitar and voice, soon ascends into neatly aligned riffs, controlled feedback, staccato snare and cymbal crashes. While the sound of this track, and others such as “Don’t Be Long”, with its angular guitar and heavy backbeat, certainly encourages comparisons to the garage-rock of the White Stripes or the Black Keys, the lyrics dispense with the familiar riffing on the blues form. Willem Maker presents garage-rock with a self-referential modernist poet as lyricist.
Now, as Doggett prepares to go on the road as Willem Maker, his only concern is how to leave Turkey Heaven and get back out in the world. “Once I get out there, I really enjoy it,” he says of touring, as he gazes back over the lush mountainside. “But it’s an intense thing for me. It’s just getting over that hump and getting back out there that’s hard.”