- John English
Longtime DFW musician Wayne Willingham connects with audience through lyrics and sound
"I don’t remember a time in my life where I wasn’t enthralled by music,” Wayne Willingham said. “I was probably singing in the sandbox.”
The Benbrook resident has worked in a variety of jobs, including computer programmer, music store owner and founding member of the start up company Digital Alchemy.
But of all of the professions Willingham has enjoyed in his 68 years, singer/songwriter is by far his favorite.
Willingham recalls watching Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the late 1950s and the impact that it had on his young life.
“I grew up in Detroit,” Willingham said. “So we got radio and TV from Canada, and I heard a lot of great music of all kinds. Whenever I saw someone making music live, and especially guitar, I was riveted. Mom rented an organ from a local music store when I was about eight. That was okay, but I made no secret that I wanted to play guitar.”
And play guitar he has, for more than 60 years, along with the keyboard, banjo and bass, and for a period of 26 years, Willingham made his living exclusively as an entertainer, including studio/session work, playing on General Motors commercials and so forth.
“Full-time musicians always need side hustles,” Willingham said. “I taught guitar in my twenties, and well enough to have a few students in professional ranks and with performing arts degrees. The older I get, the more gratifying that is.”
Willingham said he tries “to paint a picture with lyrics,” prefers to mix in cover songs with his own music while performing live, and counts among his influences Peter, Paul & Mary, John Denver, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Gordon Lightfoot, The Beatles, Stephen Stills, (CSN&Y), Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and The Eagles.
The singer/songwriter moved to Benbrook in 2000 because he fell in love with the area and said it is the longest place he has lived his entire life.
Willingham has worked booking other artists and managing entertainment for DFW restaurants and clubs for ten years, but added that his first love and primary focus is as a solo performer.
“There is nothing that connects the head to the heart as completely as music,” Willingham said. “There’s a quote, ‘when you’re happy you enjoy the music, but when you’re sad you understand the lyrics.’ That is so true. The same song can affect you differently depending on your own state of mind. My experience is that music – hearing or playing – puts me in a better place. If my performance or my song can affect people, I think I’ve done my job.”
One person Willingham’s music has definitely affected is Jerry Goodson, a fan and personal friend, who met Wayne in December of 1994 right after joining the Army Reserves.
“I was only a couple of weeks from turning 18,” Goodson said. “But since I was issued my military ID card, I was told I could get into Billy Bob’s Texas for free. I went that Friday night, and that’s when I met Wayne. I was sitting in the Texas Room looking at the empty stage when music started coming out of the speakers.
“Wayne emerged from the back of the bar playing an instrumental piece on his guitar, and it took me a moment to realize it was his playing I was hearing through the speakers. After he played his first set, I went to the table where he was sitting and just started talking to him about his guitars, one of which he let me play on a little.”
Goodson said from the moment he first heard Willingham perform, he was hooked.
“What really appealed to me was Wayne’s playing skill,” Goodson said. “The man is an outstanding picker, not strummer, who can play the most complex pieces and can carry a tune to go with it. The drunks may not have appreciated the complexity in how Wayne played. It was more about what Wayne played. Having grown up around music, and playing music myself, I certainly recognized Wayne was not just the typical dude who could play a lick from ‘Smoke on the Water’ at a party. Wayne could put on the whole show.”
As far as shows are concerned, Willingham said he has one major objective for his performances.
“I’ve learned that people take away from a song what they choose, not necessarily what the artist intends,” Willingham said. “If it’s positive for them in their own way, I’m happy. I’ve had people tell me how much my music has meant to them, how they were moved, and that’s a good feeling. I was taught a long time ago to sing like you mean it. So I try to write, sing and play with that in mind.”
Visit www.waynewillingham.com to hear Wayne Willingham’s music or catch a livestream performance.