Tim Wilson Plays Country For Laughs On Hillbilly Homeboy

Comedian's third disc of songs and stand-up got a hand from The Band's Levon Helm.

NASHVILLE — Comedy is no laughing matter for country comedian Tim Wilson, who works hard at it. The most recent result is his new album, Hillbilly Homeboy, his third collection of songs and stand-up comedy.

Wilson doesn't take his music lightly: He ventured to legendary recording center Muscle Shoals, Ala., to record the tracks for the new album, and managed to enlist equally legendary artist Levon Helm from The Band to play drums, harmonica and mandolin.

"I thought, well, I've got to get me a drummer, and I want a kind of back-porch-y sound and a sound that's a little less produced," Wilson said. "I've always been a big fan of The Band, and I had had a childhood dream that one of these days I was gonna play with Levon Helm."

A native of Georgia, Wilson was nursing a failing music career when one day a decade ago, acting on impulse, he walked into a comedy club that was having an open-mic night and told a few jokes. He was hooked, and his stand-up career was born.

He began recording for an Atlanta label and co-wrote "The Redneck Twelve Days of Christmas" with Jeff Foxworthy, who had a hit with it. After scoring a radio hit with the song "Garth Brooks Ruined My Life," Wilson got a record deal with Brooks' label, Capitol Nashville, in 1996.

Now, Wilson's records and live shows are an almost even split between music and stand-up.

"I've done three albums now on Capitol," Wilson said, "and I kind of like my stand-up better on my second one. Stand-up is hard. It sometimes takes three to six months to get a bit right. So, on this one, I was concentrating more on the songs."

John Rocker Good Comedy Fodder

In his music and comedy, he seeks to remain topical, as on the new track "The Ballad of John Rocker" (RealAudio excerpt), about the controversial Atlanta Braves pitcher. "That was just me and [co-writer] Danny [Simpson] sitting in the truck and hearing about the John Rocker thing on the radio. Went and did the thing, and I was afraid the John Rocker story was going to burn out in a week or so. And it charted country, which surprised me. Then I thought it would go away. Danny said, 'Rocker will keep on talking.' So, it's kind of taken on a life of its own. I just tell people, 'It's a stupid man singing about a stupid man.' "

Wilson, who grew up watching Porter Wagoner's TV show and the show's resident comedian, Speck Rhodes, obviously cares about country music, as evidenced by the song "Back When Country Was Ugly."

"I got a little bit mean-spirited in that one," he said. "There's a ton of great country singers that I grew up listening to who can't get played on the radio anymore. You know, everybody picks on rock 'n' roll, but at least rock 'n' roll has respect for their elders. You can hear Led Zeppelin on the radio anytime, but it's hard to find a Gene Watson song on the radio. So that's just kinda my little protest song."

Tracking Down Levon

In trying to track down Helm for work on his album, Wilson had to jump through some hoops. But the effort was worthwhile. "As a shot in the dark, I called the chamber of commerce in Arkansas. They gave me the number of some guy who puts on some kind of blues festival down there in Helena. He gave me the number of some guy in an antique store. He gave me the number of some guy in Woodstock [N.Y.].

"So, I called the guy in Woodstock and basically told him what I wanted to do. He called up Levon, and Levon called me and he said, 'Yeah, man, let's hit it!' Him and his road guy, Butch, got in the car and drove 18 hours down to Muscle Shoals and played with us for four days.

"I knew he would be that type of person," Wilson added. "Now, if I had tried to call Eric Clapton, I think he would have told me to go soak my head."