Though Watermelon Slim is now a resident of Clarksdale, Mississippi — one of America’s greatest historic blues hubs and former home to pioneering bluesman John Lee Hooker — the musician, activist, Vietnam War veteran, self-avowed socialist and general man of intrigue called Oklahoma home for many years.
The 68-year-old blues crooner and guitarist returns to the Sooner State this month for three shows in five days. Slim, whose birth name is Bill Homans, begins his Oklahoma homecoming Aug. 18 at Blackbird on Pearl in Tulsa, but his Oklahoma City appearance is 7 p.m. Aug. 20 at VZD’s Restaurant & Bar, 4200 N. Western Ave. He also plays Aug. 22 at Stillwater’s Willies Saloon.
Homans was born in Boston but raised in the hills of western North Carolina. He earned the name Watermelon Slim after moving to Oklahoma’s McCurtain County and learning to farm the official state vegetable.
Slim relocated to Oklahoma for many reasons — chiefly for its combination of warm climate and affordable living.
“You could go live in Alaska or some darn [cold] place and it could be cheaper, I don’t know,” he said in a recent interview with Oklahoma Gazette. “But I do know that southeast Oklahoma is just like northwest Mississippi. It’s a place where someone who can’t afford to live somewhere else can not only afford to live, but maybe thrive.”
Slim went on to attend Oklahoma State University (OSU), where he earned a master’s degree in history. He moved to Mississippi in 2010. His extended jaunt through Oklahoma will be the first time he has spent more than two consecutive days in the state since the move.
The Oklahoma “homecoming” reminds Slim of the last time he attended the official homecoming festivities at OSU in 2006 — a day he remembers vividly because he was hit by a car while walking across the street. The distracted driver did not see Slim until it was too late, sending him flying across the road.
“That’s the moment I became a senior citizen,” he said.
Slim broke his wrist in the accident but did not see a doctor until after he performed a gig he had scheduled for later that evening.
He is a man who has lived an eventful life in many different places doing many different things, but Oklahoma will always hold a special place in his heart.
“If I have any roots, that’s where it is,” he said. “I’ll be coming back and it’ll be, in some ways, like a homecoming.”
Slim will never claim to be the best blues musician, but he might certainly be the most interesting.
The late bloomer is almost entirely self-taught. He learned guitar — which he plays in a distinct upside down, left-handed sling style — while serving in Vietnam. He released his first album in 1973, but his first big musical break came in 2002 with his critically acclaimed release Big Shoes to Fill.
His latest album, Golden Boy, was recorded in March 2016 with a local collective of musicians from Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada. The record was released internationally in April.
“I’m not even a musician next to these people,” he said. “Talented doesn’t even describe it.”
Unlike some past albums in which Slim paid studio musicians to work around him, the blues crooner engrained himself into the existing group of musicians and adapted to their sound. The resulting project is not another typical blues album, but what he calls an unprecedented combination of Americana, “Canadiana” and First Nations music.
“The business people that work with me, I think they would have preferred that I’d done something else,” he said. “I’m Watermelon Slim; I’m expected to do a certain thing, and you’re going to hear a lot more of that thing [in Oklahoma], where I’ve always been doing that kind of thing.”
A full, detailed account of Slim’s life adventures and exploits is the kind of thing that is best contained within a biography of multiple volumes, not a one-page news story. His past protesting the public and commercial use of the Agent Orange herbicide and other harmful chemicals and careers as a forklift operator, saw miller, newspaper reporter, restaurateur and 190-shooting bowler (and “small-time hustler”) are good places to begin one’s individual research.
Slim said he believes his colorful past — more than his pure talent — is the main reason most people have any interest in his music.
“I have lived a full life,” he said. “I don’t think anyone would have been interested in me if I hadn’t done all the things that I’ve done.”
Slim said he might never be known as the nation’s best or most gifted blues performer, but it is not his goal to be the best either. What he cares most about now is the opportunity to express himself and his beliefs through music.
“It’s so difficult to concentrate on music when I’m watching my country go to hell in a handbasket,” he said.
His advice to young musicians who want to live a similarly full life is to always consider the meaning of what they are about to do before they do it. The most important thing to keep in mind, however, is that life is not about getting what one wants, but finding contentment in what one has.
“Don’t be under any misconception that you’re not going to have your dick knocked in the dirt, because you are,” he said. “You are going to find out the blues is the frustration of knowing you haven’t got what you want and knowing you’re not going to get what you want. Chances are 98 percent you’re not ever going to achieve what you want to achieve, whether that’s in music or just getting by, raising your children.”
Watermelon Slim with special guest Dirty Red
7 p.m. Aug. 20
VZD’s Restaurant & Bar
4200 N. Western Ave.
Print headline: Patch work, Blues musician and real-life ‘most interesting man’ Watermelon Slim makes an extended return to Oklahoma.