Few Zydeco musicians can claim a performance at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, home of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints and host of Super Bowls, and other well-known world renowned events. Nathan Williams Jr was blessed to perform at the “Dome” for the prestigious 2013 Bayou Classic game. Lil Nathan plays the piano accordion, diatonic triple, double, and single note accordions, and even the jazz piano, drums, and washboard. He admits that he cannot play any string instruments, but he does have the ability to mimic those sounds on a piano.
A rising star of Zydeco
Ask the average individual about zydeco music, and you may get more than a few odd glances. There aren’t a lot of people outside of the US State of Louisiana familiar with this classic musical genre inspired by the Creole and Cajun roots found throughout the bayous of Louisiana. Walk the streets of New Orleans though, and you’ll hear the upbeat and fast-paced sounds of zydeco booming out of the open doors of any number of shops.
A Family Dynasty
If the name Nathan Williams is familiar to you, that’s because Lil Nathan is the son of famed zydeco performer and band leader of that name. Lil Nathan, born Nathan Williams Jr., is the son of legendary Louisiana musician Nathan Williams, who leads Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas. From the age of five, he’s been playing the rubboard alongside his father and the members of the Zydeco Cha Chas.
Lil Nathan’s pedigree in zydeco doesn’t stop at his father. He has been inspired throughout his life by famous zydeco performers, such as Harry “Big Daddy” Hypolite, who was a blue’s guitarist. Lil Nathan’s father isn’t the only well-known musician in the family though. Nathan’s lineage includes the likes of Sid Williams, who is his paternal uncle. Paul Williams, another of his dad’s brothers, plays with the Zydeco Cha Chas alongside Lil Nathan’s father.
Born, Raised, and Educated in Cajun Country
Lil Nathan and his father’s family have been in the Lafayette, Louisiana area for decades now. His father was born and raised here, and 28-year-old Lil Nathan has been proud to call the area home throughout his life. He was born there, attended elementary and secondary school in the area, even cutting his first record at the age of 14 (2002) when he was a freshman at Lafayette’s Northside High School.
Even though he was performing from a young age and producing records in high school, Lil Nathan focused on his education as a life goal and something to supplement his musical career. He attended the University of Louisiana-Lafayette (ULL), where he graduated with a degree in music media and jazz studies. Though he still calls Lafayette home, his zydeco career as leader of Lil Nathan and the Zydeco Big Timers takes him from the streets of New Orleans across Southern Louisiana to Houston and Dallas in Texas, and throughout the Gulf Coast region of the United States.
Master of the Accordion
Lil Nathan plays the piano accordion, diatonic triple, double, and single note accordions, and even the jazz piano, drums, and washboard. He admits that he cannot play any string instruments, but he does have the ability to mimic those sounds on a piano. He is even humble enough to admit right away that he is not a self-taught musician. It was in college at ULL that he developed a keen ear for music, learning to read lead sheets, how to compose music, and figuring out different chord progressions. All of these factors helped him develop a unique and powerful sound.
Destined for Music
The life of a musician’s child can be difficult. As the son of a famous musician with his own touring career, Lil Nathan’s primary means of connecting with his father was through zydeco music. He knew from an early age that he would grow up to become a zydeco musician in his own right, because he fell in love with the music in childhood. If he wanted to see his father more, he needed to spend time at his side as he performed with Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas.
So, barely into his formative years, Lil Nathan was handed a cowboy hat and a rubboard, and given the opportunity to play. He simply learned how to play the rubboard by performing with his dad. He loved the music courtesy of these early experiences, and practiced on his own with his dad’s equipment when he could. Also, growing up in a Catholic Church and school, Lil Nathan earned the chance to play the drums during Friday masses.
The genre of zydeco is as diverse as the Creole and Cajun culture of Louisiana itself. Travel throughout the backroads and small towns of Louisiana and you’ll hear a number of different approaches to zydeco. Lil Nathan believes that, “Zydeco”, in his opinion, “is the breakdown of subgenres fused together with an accordion and rubboard in the mix”. He also thinks that certain percussions and other changes can adjust the sound of the music, but overall it remains a consistent sound that each artist can create in their own auditory image.
Lil Nathan has, to date, recorded a total of 10 albums, with nine of them released. He prefers to work on two albums at a time to limit the stress and workload while also touring with the band. His work also sees him collaborate, but generally speaking he prefers to work with other artists outside of his genre to create unique sounds. With that said, he has collaborated with zydeco greats, including his own father.
Watering the Music and Soul
His music keeps Lil Nathan on the road throughout the year. Although most of his work (he estimates 80%) come from gigs in Texas, he also visits Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida when he travels outside of Louisiana. He’s even travelled as far as Michigan and California to perform. He says that offers come in to visit other parts of the country, but he’s not shy in saying that there’s only so much space in his calendar.
Asked if it is stressful for his family life, he admits that he’s a perfectionist. He doesn’t think the travel schedule negatively impacts his family life. His musical career requires attention and care to continue growing. According to Lil Nathan, his career is “like a plant. It needs to be watered and nurtured if my music is going to evolve and grow”.
Memorable Performances and Other Achievements
Lil Nathan has had the honour of performing in places such as the Hollywood Bowl in California, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans during the 2013 Bayou Classic NCAA football game between Southern University and Grambling State University. He’s also performed at numerous New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festivals.
Outside of his work in zydeco, Lil Nathan takes time to pass on his musical knowledge for the next generation. He is adjunct Professor at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette in the traditional music program. His work is part of the Dr. Tommy Comeaux Endowed Chair in Traditional Music, and his students complete the semester with a public showcase of their zydeco ensemble skills.