He is more watermelon than slim. Oh, William Homans III is trim enough -- 155 pounds or so, stretched uniformly and unremarkably over an average man's length -- but his thinness is not defining.
Homans (a.k.a. Watermelon Slim) is fruitish, though, in a fruity-peculiar kind of way. The bluesman under the lights at Toronto's Silver Dollar Room is a sight: a character, from the bottom of his vintage white-leather shoes to the top of his Bermuda hat. His outfit (lightweight short-sleeved shirt and slacks) was ill-chosen for a spring Canadian tour, and the colour is more salmon than melon-pink.
Based in Oklahoma, his blood thinned by the state's oppressive heat, perhaps he's chilly. But, after one short instrumental number, Slim announces to the crowd: "We are warmed up."
His band the Workers, with Toronto's Maureen Brown sitting in on drums, play a variety of styles, taking Howlin' Wolf's Smokestack Lightning out of Chicago and into Southern rock territory. A western swing rhythm is applied to the Delta blues Kokomo, which Slim introduces by way of "Here's Fred McDowell, how about that, c'mon?" The "c'mon" is the lingo of an old truck driver -- Slim's previous long-time occupation.
The band is more than serviceable, but eyes are on the frontman. He stands behind a makeshift table that consists of a piece of plywood resting across a keyboard stand. On the contraption sit harmonicas, various bits of miscellanea and a slide guitar, which he plays by rubbing a small, 80-year-old glass bottle of silver polish across the open-tuned strings. Just as often, he steps away from the instrument, singing and cupping his hands around a microphone and mouth-harp.
With his pockmarked face, Slim, 57, could pass for Tom Waits's older brother. His missing teeth do not mar his harp playing, but his coarse baritone is jaw-grindingly delivered. "I couldn't catch a cold, I couldn't pitch a fit," he sings on the romping Hard Times. "I'm waist deep in alligators, sometimes I'm neck deep in bullshit."
He's in trouble a few songs later, standing unsteadily at the front of the stage, reaching perilously to the far side of his table. As he leans on the board, he almost causes the whole thing (and himself) to topple over. "I wouldn't advise you try that," he suggests, composure regained.
Truth be told, Slim's done plenty of things that the rest of us should probably avoid. Is Hard Times a blues cliché? Well, it is and it isn't.
"Everything I've said and sing about in these records is true," Slim says a few hours before the Silver Dollar gig, citing Check Writing Woman from his new, acclaimed Watermelon Slim & The Workers album. "It's all true."
Sitting upstairs in the blues and jazz room at the sprawling Sam the Record Man store in downtown Toronto, Slim speaks at length on his life and times. He has just finished an in-store solo performance on the main floor, but the interview afterwards is not a public event. He is no soft talker, though, even raising his right hand in preacher fashion at times. So, as customers browse, they hear the history of an oddball.
"If I kick off right now, I have no regrets," says the songwriter, who suffered a heart attack in 2002. "I've lived fuller than any three other people. I've got a great education, I fought in a war, and I've fought against a war. I've been a husband and a father. I've had more pedal-to-the-metal sex than anybody there ever was. I've been a philanthropist and I've been a criminal.
"I've done a lot of stuff."
True enough -- the skinny on Slim is actually obese.
Son of legendary Boston civil rights lawyer William P. Homans Jr. (who "championed the downtrodden, the oppressed and the out-and-out villainous," according to a 1997 New York Times obituary), the young Slim dropped out of college to enlist in the Army during the Vietnam War.
Illness landed him in an army hospital, where he taught himself to play slide blues using a $5 balsa-wood guitar and a Zippo lighter as the slide. The man who returned to Boston was a hash-smoking, blues-learning renegade -- one extremely active in his opposition to nuclear power and the war. "I caught myself saying the word 'gook' while I was in Vietnam, and something clicked inside of me," he recalls.
Although he released an album (the obscure, protest-tinged Merry Airbrakes), Slim turned to a life of crime to pay the bills, associating himself with organized-crime figures. "I knew who people were and what they did," he allows. "Not to put too fine a point on it, but I was a felon."
Suspecting he was under surveillance (he is a devoted conspiracy theorist), Slim fled west to Oklahoma, where he farmed watermelons, drove trucks and enjoyed academic success. (He holds a master's degree in history from Oklahoma State University.)
He played blues on weekends, with a few longer tours from time to time, but it wasn't until the summer of 2004 that he devoted his full attention to music. His album of acoustic country blues ( Up Close & Personal) earned Slim a W.C. Handy nomination in 2005, and this year's roadhouse-style Watermelon Slim & The Workers (released on the Toronto-based Northern Blues label) has him heading in great directions.
According to Slim, one of his fans is none other than Jerry Wexler, the storied Atlantic Records producer who coined the phrase "rhythm and blues." As well, there's a rumour afoot that the Rolling Stones might take Slim and his band on the road.
Good times come, but this is no case of overnight success.
"The first time I fell on my face as a musician was in 1987, when I went to Europe after playing around the West Coast. I had myself bounced off some railroad tracks by somebody who ripped me off. I came back bruised and broken, but mendable."
And now? "We're ready for the big rooms," he says, referring to the Stones possibility. "I've been ready for the big rooms for a long, long time."