Watermelon Slim Homans keeps the horror at bay

There's a reason Bill "Watermelon Slim" Homans calls his band the Workers: work is at the core of his existence, and is the source of many of his songs. Work is also how the Oklahoma-based blues singer, guitarist, and harmonica ace got his stage name. Before embarking on his current career, he made a hardscrabble living as the owner of a watermelon farm. He's also been a truck driver, a sawmill labourer, and a forklift operator, but it was as a member of the U.S. military that he devised his unique "backwards" approach to slide guitar.

"I play left-handed on a right-handed guitar, upside down," he relates, en route to a show in Kalamazoo, Michigan. "And I started that somewhere in January of 1970, in the 926 Evac hospital in Camron Bay, Vietnam. I had an old five-dollar Vietnamese balsa-wood guitar and a Zippo cigarette lighter for a slide, and I cut a piece of plastic out of a coffee-can top for my first actual plastic pick."

Armed with his unusual technique, Watermelon Slim started his musical career as soon as he was shipped back stateside–using his combat experience to inform songs with a decidedly antiwar slant. It wasn't until 2003, with the release of Big Shoes to Fill, that he went pro, but such dualities remain a factor in his writing. He's a pacifist who supports the troops, a Christian whose favourite topics include fast living and fast women, and an optimist who's obsessed with death.

"I've always said I do my music for the greater glory of God, for the veterans and soldiers of the United States military, and also for my friends in the transportation industry," he explains. "Those are the three reasons I probably play music–other than exorcising my own personal uncertainties. Some people call them demons; I don't think I want to characterize it that way. But I sing about work, and I sing about frustrated relationships, and I sing about death. Mostly my own death, because I know it's coming. Robert Johnson sang about death. When he was talking about that hellhound on his trail, that's what he was singing about. He knew he was going to die. It's like Joseph Conrad there in Heart of Darkness: 'The horror, the horror!' But I try and keep the horror–the negative connotations–out of my own brain. Sometimes it's hard to be brave, but you've got to try."

On all four of his CDs, including the recently released The Wheel Man, Slim and his band offer some of the grittiest blues songs since the golden era of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. "All four of us, all the Workers, are blessed folks for being able to do what we're doing now," he says. But he also notes that he'd just as soon pursue another of his passions: investigative journalism. A keen student of history, Slim earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon for his study of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the bungled police work that followed.

"I would step aside from my blues career in a heartbeat if I had the right amount of capital to amass a team of journalistic investigators and security consultants to surveil and bust the neo-Nazis that conspired with Tim McVeigh to bomb the federal building in Oklahoma City," he says. "I know where they are, and they're still running free."

Farmer, trucker, soldier, bluesman–Watermelon Slim has brought intelligence and intensity to all his varied careers, and should he live to become a crusader for justice, he'll likely succeed in that as well.

Watermelon Slim and the Workers play the Yale Hotel on Tuesday (July 24).