Posted March 2, 2020 by Jeff in Tunes

Big Sam’s Big Musical Bundle

Big Sam's Funky Nation
Big Sam's Funky Nation

Trombonist Sammie “Big Sam” Williams played in the Stooges Brass Band and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band before launching Big Sam’s Funky Nation. Williams, who also played on Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint’s album The River in Reverse had a recurring role in the HBO series Treme. When we called him at his home in New Orleans, it was Mardi Gras and he said he was “turning up and having a good time.”

Talk about what it was like to grow up in New Orleans. 

Growing up in New Orleans was great. I didn’t know what I was getting into at the time. After growing up and becoming an adult I realized how special our culture is. I’ve traveled all over the world and there’s other place like my city. The music and food is so different. When people tell me they’ve never been to New Orleans and they want to visit, I tell them, “Come down. You might end up moving down here.” People come here and fall in love. It’s a trap.

What drew you to the trombone?

I was always a big kid. When I was in middle school, they told me I was too big to play with the smaller kids and too small to play with the bigger kids. I needed something else to do. I decided to join a marching band. They had auditions. I asked the director, “What do you need somebody on?” He said, “The trombone.” I said, “What is that?” He gave me a horn to take home, so I could figure it out. That was before I learned theory and all that. I took it home and figured out how to get a sound of it. I took a liking to it immediately and having playing it ever since. 

How did the Stooges Brass Band come together?

My trumpet player and I were all in high school together at John F. Kennedy. We recruited a few other guys from school and that’s how the band formed. From the Stooges, I also started playing with The Soul Rebels and started doing some bebop gigs around the city too. 

How’d you wind up joining the Dirty Dozen Brass Band?

I started playing with them shortly after high school. I toured with them for four years. We played with everybody — Modest Mouse, Dave Matthews and James Brown. It was pretty insane. Around 2002, I started doing my own thing. I left Dirty Dozen to do my own thing in 2004, but Allen Toussaint, another New Orleans legend, called and wanted me to do something with him and Elvis Costello. I started touring with his band. I went out with those guys and went on a tour of the sates and did a tour overseas. We were out for about two years. Around 2008 or 2009, I realized I needed to work on Funky Nation and that’s when I started pursuing my band full time.

Having previously played in brass bands, what made you want to do something so eclectic?

Brass bands, especially in New Orleans, is the norm. I wanted to do something different than what I saw in my city, but I wanted to incorporate that brass band feel for the stage. I wanted to take it bigger and combine all of my influences into one musical bundle. I wanted to incorporate funk and some of my favorite influences like Morris Day and George Clinton and the Gap Band.  

Your new album is called Songs in the Key of Funk, Vol. One. Where’d you go to record and what was that experience like?

We recorded here at the Parlor Recording Studio. It’s this cat Matt Grondin. It’s a cool spot. It’s one of the newer studios in New Orleans. He’s not from here, but he built this state-of-the-art studio because we don’t have any down here. It was cool to chill there and get these songs out.

I love the range on the album. “Apple Pie” is such a contrast to the other tracks. 

That comes from playing for years. I’ve been playing for almost two decades. So much of my stuff is full speed ahead. It’s super fast and high energy. Maybe seven or eight years ago a friend of mine told me that he respected me so much, but he said that we maybe we should throw a downplay into the middle of the show. I said I would think about it. He said that it would give the band some time to breathe. I told him I would think about it. I decided to tone it down for a minute and people loved it. It’s a great song. 

I love the guitar solo in “I Like the Music.” 

I did that song a little while ago. That guitarist is straight from Japan. There’s a couple of Japanese cats here in New Orleans and they’re off the chain. They moved here a couple of decades ago and embraced the culture. 

Will there be a Vol. 2?

Yes. I’m working
on the songs. It’s a matter of getting it out now. We have enough in the
catalog to release another one. We just need to get it out. 


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].