He’s been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn, and a king, but for feted bluesman and UO honors history graduate Bill “Watermelon Slim” Homans, music has only been part of his extended graduate course otherwise known as “life.”
Ooh-ooh-this old traveling life
goes on and on and on and on . . .
— “This Old Traveling Life” from No Paid Holidays
It’s one boiler of a midsummer’s day in Oklahoma City, and William P. Homans III ’87—AKA slide guitarist and blues singer Watermelon Slim—is feeling every bit of his sixty years of age. He’s sitting in the departure lounge of the Will Rogers World Airport, awaiting the next flight to Winnipeg, where he’s scheduled to play a series of solo dates before joining his band in Europe for a full-blown tour of Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
“I’m feeling about as bad as I’ve ever been going out on tour right now,” Slim says wearily. “I’ve got some serious arthritis that’s keeping me from being right on top of things. But I’m playing and singing as good as ever!”
The oldest, hoariest cliché in popular music holds that to play the blues, one must live them, too. The genre’s history is littered with hard-luck legends and icons as famous for their bare-knuckled lifestyles as for their considerable artistic contributions: Robert Johnson (mysterious death at age twenty-seven after supposedly “selling his soul to the Devil” in exchange for his guitar-playing prowess), Son House and Bukka White (both served time at Mississippi’s infamous “Parchman Farm” state penitentiary for shooting different men in self-defense), Lightnin’ Hopkins (brief prison stint, worked for poverty wages around the South as an itinerant farmhand), and Willie Dixon (semipro boxer) all lived the lives they sang about so powerfully, pairing the sacred and the profane in equal measure to create a musical form dedicated to rendering the day-to-day existence of working-class people struggling just to get by.
Despite his genteel family roots, college degrees, and membership in Mensa, Homans can relate to the notion that a life spent getting up off the canvas after getting knocked down is a life well-suited to channeling the blues. “I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I subscribe to that [idea],” he affirms. “Every time I’ve tried to improve myself, I’ve come up short, and always ended up going back to driving truck after I’d failed at something. You could call me a man who envisioned himself as a white-collar worker, but it never stuck.”
Bill Homans is, above all else, a student of life: he’s lived a little bit of everywhere, done a little bit of everything, collected his life lessons a little bit at a time, wherever he could find them. He’s that rarity in today’s society: a War and Peace guy in a 140-character world. But for all his accomplishments—and there have been many, both before and after leaving Eugene with his history and journalism degrees back in 1987—he remains a humble student and intrepid traveler at heart.
“To have to sweat and bleed for a living, well, that means a bunch to me. Say, they’re calling my flight now,” Slim says in his characteristically gummy, toothless fashion. “Gotta go. Kirk out.”
If you want me to play
I’ll still pick up my axe,
but I’m doing my best
when I’m making tracks.
—“The Wheel Man” from The Wheel Man
Getting to the University of Oregon was just one of the many unlikely events in Bill Homans’ life.
He was born in Boston to a family whose Brahmin roots can be traced back to the late 1600s (he is related to former Massachusetts governor Endicott “Chub” Peabody and former Massachusetts state senator Henry Parkman Jr.). Slim’s late father, William P. Homans Jr., was a Kennedy family friend as well as a politician and civil rights lawyer whose strong sense of social justice led to his involvement in cases such as the defense of the Boston Strangler, the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial, and the first test of Roe v. Wade. Homans’ parents divorced when he was young, and Slim ended up moving (along with his mother and brother Peter, now a renowned classical composer) to Asheville, North Carolina, where a family maid first exposed the young man to the blues by singing bits of John Lee Hooker’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” as she bustled around the house.
Homans eventually landed at Vermont’s Middlebury College but dropped out in 1968 to enlist—like his father before him—for military service. His combat experience in Vietnam would change his life in ways that he couldn’t have possibly anticipated. “I was such a poor [soldier] they didn’t even give me a good conduct medal over there,” he remembers. “I was honorably discharged. The only good thing that came of it was that I ended up learning to play the guitar.”
While recuperating from illness in a military hospital in Cam Ranh Bay, Slim came into the possession of a cheap balsa-wood guitar, which he learned to play upside-down and left-handed using his trusty Zippo cigarette lighter as a slide. He returned to the States disenchanted with U.S. foreign policy, became active in Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and began what can only be described as a sporadic musical career. His 1973 recorded debut, Merry Airbrakes, has become a rare and expensive cult item, its lyrics on songs such as “Draft Board Blues” and “Happy Song for Hanoi” reflecting Slim’s increasingly militant antiwar stance. Throughout the rest of the 1970s, established artists such as Country Joe McDonald released cover versions of his early work as Slim built up his playing chops gigging wherever he could, garnering a reputation that resulted in him sitting in with touring stars such as John Lee Hooker and Bonnie Raitt. All the while, Homans supplemented these efforts with a series of “just getting by” McJobs: watermelon farmer (hence the nickname), forklift operator, garbage man, sawmiller (a job that cost him part of a finger), firewood salesman, collection agent, funeral official, political investigator, petty criminal, and truck driver, a role he would return to time and again over the course of three decades. By the mid-’80s, it was becoming clear to Slim that his talents should be put to better use.
“I was married to my first wife and living in Oklahoma. She felt I should be doing something more challenging than being a bus driver and janitor,” Slim says with a laugh. “So I drove into Eugene in a 1965 Dodge Polara, having blown my engine in Elko, Nevada; it’s lucky I even got there! I was a bowler at that time with some half-serious aspirations to professionalism; but I was also a hustler. I got to Oregon and found they had a bowling alley in the bottom floor of the student union, and knew right away I was meant to be there. I became the oldest intercollegiate athlete at the UO; captain of the bowling team for three years. It cost me ten dollars per term for unlimited practice; I bowled fifty, sixty, seventy games per week, and even threw a 299 in that alley. We went to Oregon State for a dual match one time; when it came time for us to bowl, they turned all the lights off. I complained that this was unfair competition, and the OSU coach told me, ‘If you don’t like it, you can put your ball in your bag and go home.’ Those damned Beavers were unsportsmanlike,” he chuckles. “I’ve always had a big grudge against them.”
Well, I’m a bad, bad sinner,
and I don’t know if I’ll ever
get turned around.
—“Bad Sinner” from Watermelon Slim and the Workers
It’s been more than two decades since he left Eugene behind, but Bill Homans made a big impression on those he met during the three years he lived and studied there.
“He was an unusual student; he literally stood out,” recalls William Rockett, emeritus English professor. “His presence was like that of an 800-pound gorilla. I made the mistake one day in class of asking, ‘What did you think of The Merchant of Venice?’ Up shot Bill’s hand: ‘It’s an uninteresting, superficial comic opera,’ he says. Here I am loaded up with a response that’s very heavy and literal, puts Shylock at the dramatic center of the play, and that’s his reaction. Homans’ way of relating in class to Shakespeare was real, spontaneous. Here was someone with a great diversity and richness of life experience; his interests were varied. There was no affectation in anything he said or did.”
“He was an unusual combination,” suggests history professor Daniel Pope. “He had quite an upper-crust background, which he was very proud of, particularly his father. But on the other hand, if you saw him, you’d say, ‘Gosh, there’s another wasted Vietnam vet.’ But he was one of a kind in many ways.” Pope saw that individuality in the honors thesis for which he was Homan’s adviser. “He wrote about Vietnam Vets Against the War, and although he had a left-wing political orientation, it wasn’t conventionally so. He didn’t neatly fit in with the resistance movement here in Eugene. He was an iconoclast, a real rebel.”
Homans took full advantage of what the UO and its environs had to offer: athletic competition, multiple degrees, and pursuing his musical calling with more fervor than ever before in what Pope calls Eugene’s “renegade music scene” of that time. “I was trying to be taken seriously as a musician,” Slim says, “playing the blues with people like Henry ‘The Sunflower’ Vestine from Canned Heat. He and I were roommates while I was there. We lived down on Willamette, played around town quite a bit at places like Taylor’s and Good Times. That experience”—along with exposure to Northwest pros such as Robert Cray and Curtis Salgado, with whom Slim is still in touch today—“certainly advanced my musical education.”
Twin degrees and guitar in hand, Homans left Eugene and tried to establish himself on the European blues circuit. But without any label backing or promotion, he returned to the United States literally a broken man (he had been severely hurt in Amsterdam, both in a fight and a motorcycle-bicycle accident, with Homan and his bicycle getting the worst of that encounter). After bouncing between various locales and jobs for nearly a decade, Homans enrolled at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater as a master’s candidate in history, graduating after submitting a lengthy thesis about the suppression of evidence in Timothy McVeigh’s Murrah Federal Building bombing case titled “North American Fascism: Transmission of the Virus.” It was far from clear, at this point, that perhaps the greatest chapter in Homans’ life remained to be written.
It’s never too hard to be humble
when you’ve got the slowest
damn truck on the hill.
It’s never too hard to be humble,
but I’m doing the best that I can.
— “It’s Never to Hard to be Humble” from Escape from the Chicken Coop
After three decades of pursuing the ephemeral dream of playing music for a living, a full-blown career (with all the attendant critical plaudits) has opened up to Homans in the 2000s. And one gets the sense that he’s as surprised by this turn of events as anyone else.
“Part of the reason I didn’t go anywhere between the ’70s and current century is that technically I just wasn’t a good enough guitar player,” he explains. “So when there was no more recording contract [after Merry Airbrakes], I went off to work at this job, that job, another job, and it took me twenty-seven years to record anything more. I could write songs and play harp, but I’m something of a late bloomer on guitar. I had to become a master of my own style to have people want to listen to me play.”
But Homans did develop his own rugged, searing style, and starting in 2001 with the self-released Fried Okra Jones, began to pump out a stream of Delta blues records that captured the imagination of the public and critics alike: 2002’s Big Shoes to Fill (dedicated to his father), 2004’s Up Close & Personal, 2006’s Watermelon Slim & the Workers, 2007’s The Wheel Man, and 2008’s No Paid Holidays, the latter two of which attained premium Billboard chart positions and garnered a truckload of award nominations (seventeen in all) that resulted in Slim’s election to the Oklahoma Blues Hall of Fame and several Blues Music Awards honors (essentially, the genre’s equivalent of a Grammy Award). His latest release, Escape from the Chicken Coop, is a straightforward country record—produced in Nashville with a group of blue-chip session artists—and represents his finest artistic accomplishment to date. Slim’s development hasn’t gone unnoticed by the genre’s many aficionados.
“On first impression, Slim comes across as disheveled and eccentric, but I have come to realize just how honest and humble he truly is,” offers Greg Johnson, president of the Cascade Blues Association, a Portland-based group that promotes blues in the Northwest. “His suit may be oversized, his teeth may be missing, and his face looks worn, but for every line in Bill’s face, there’s a story to be told. His intelligence is baffling, and he is as complete a showman as there is, his music utterly authentic.”
“Watermelon Slim is one Delta mack daddy,” writes Paste Magazine senior contributing editor Andy Whitman. “This is no dilettante dabbling in some ancient, petrified musical genre. He wrote most of his originals while behind the wheel of his big rig. He’s the real deal.”
“I’ve been doing this a long time and have seen lots of players over the years who have their licks together but nothing to say,” says Slim’s longtime friend and fellow bluesman Lloyd Jones. “Every guy I run into wants to be the next Little Walter or Stevie Ray Vaughan: it’s all the same song, played the same way. But not Slim. With him, it comes down to storytelling: the life he’s lived is all there in his music. He’s real, and strong: it’s workin’ man’s music. When you hear this cat play, you believe him—immediately.”
Characteristically, Slim takes all the latter-day honors and accolades in stride. He’s delighted (and somewhat amused) by the success he’s finally achieved, after more than three decades of dogged pursuit. Still, he knows that he’s never far from the working-class road he’s been traveling his entire life. Success hasn’t changed him much. “I’ve had the Hollywood ending to a life that really had nothing to do with Hollywood at all,” he laughs. He’s treating this latest turn in his life as another big graduate course, which remains to be completed. Not even the heart attack he suffered a few years ago has stopped his relentless quest to see, learn, and do as much as he can fit in before the final bell rings. “Whatever happens to me now, I’m just playing with government money. Touring and traveling’s the tough part—the music itself is easy. My philosophy is ‘You may be able to play your guitar just fine. But what else have you done with your life?’ That resonates for me.”
By day, Corey duBrowa ’88 serves as the Portland-based president of the PR firm Waggener Edstrom Worldwide. He’s also the University of Oregon Alumni Association’s board president and a mediocre (but enthusiastic) guitarist who knows just enough about the blues to leave it to the experts. Like Bill Homans.