Wil Van Winkle has lived and performed all over the world, entertaining audiences across three continents, six countries and many cities throughout the US. These days, the Houston, Texas Native calls Nashville home, a place where he and his band, known as Wil Van Winkle & Sixpins rehearse and create their music. In fact, they have a new album coming out in March.
Their style of music is as unique as the band’s name. It’s a combination of Alternative Country, Americana and Rock. Wil says, “Our sound is different and that’s something we’ve worked hard to achieve.”
Raised in Texas, Wil was listening to live music since the age of three, when his grandfather would play violin for the family. By the age of 13, Wil had gotten his first guitar from a pawnshop and started singing, songwriting and performing.
He was influenced early on by everything from alternative music to Blues and Rock. Because of his own interest in a wide variety of music, he wanted his work to also have a broad appeal.
Once Wil had established the sound he was going for, he put a lot of effort into finding just the right band members. Van Winkle wanted a combination of musicians with good personalities, and of course they needed to have great talent. Needless to say he found those band members. There’s Allen Atkinson on bass, Butch Bella on drums and Zach Mears, who plays lead guitar. Together they make music and travel the country giving audiences on the best of what they can offer in each show. We caught with Van Winkle to gain a little more insight as to what drives him and the band.
Tell us about the name Wil Van Winkle. Do people often ask if it’s a stage name?
Yes, all the time. Even after I explain it’s my real name, some people insist it’s a stage name, so I have to get out my license to prove it. One person decided I changed my name at some point, but I have my original birth certificate. It’s on there. In fact, the only change I made was use a short version of my first name, I’m actually Wil Van Winkle the 3rd.
What was the first song you learned to play?
I got my first guitar for Christmas when I was 13, started playing it that day. A friend of my sister taught me “Smoke on the Water” by “Deep Purple”.
I drove my family crazy playing it everyday, until my mother told me I shouldn’t play until I’d had lessons, cause she was worried I’d mess up the guitar. I didn’t listen. As a joke, when I picked up mandolin, I sent a video of me playing “Smoke on the Water” to my sister.
Tell us about your time spent living outside the US, and how it informed your musical style?
The first time I lived abroad, I spent some extended vacations, 2-3 months, in Germany, played a few parties, pubs, and festivals in Solingen, Bonn, Cologne, and Bochum, even went to Poland and did a party there.
Popular US music was available to them, but usually performed by locals, the overall comments were that it was great to hear those songs without the accent. I decided I wanted to write a song in German, but never did. At that time, I was pretty bullheaded and didn’t want to change my style. In my mind I was hard rock/alternative and that was it. I wasn’t just that even then, but it was what I thought I wanted to be.
As I moved to Uzbekistan, in the central Asian region of the former USSR, I began paying more attention to regional local music. I produced and published a local band there, sadly without the resources I needed to do so effectively from such a remote region.
It was then that I began experimenting with instrumentation, while I never worked with traditional Uzbek instruments, other than a hand drum native to the area. I did add quite a bit of production value to my music. Of course, I also went from an 8 track ADAT to a 16-track hard disc recorder, so the extra room allowed me to explore as well as different location and local styles.
What’s your process for songwriting?
There’s no real “process” for me every song is different. I’m best when I have time away by myself. I then take demos to the band and they add their parts. Some songs materialize out of no-where, some are collaborative efforts, some come from having time to myself to play the guitar. As an independent artist/band, writing can sometimes take a back seat. If it seems like a while has passed, since we put anything new out, it’s usually because I have too much going on… on the non-artistic side of the music business, so folks should send me a message and let me know they’re waiting for new material.
How would describe the music of Will Van Winkle & the Sixpins?
Wil Van Winkle & the Sixpins are best described as Americana. We take elements of rock, country, and blues, sometimes, even bluegrass (which can be heard in ‘Mean Ol’ Woman’) and what comes out is what we write & play. Sometimes we lean more to the rock side, sometimes towards country. Americana is becoming a more mainstream and defined genre, but I think we still have a place there.
What are some of your most requested songs when performing live?
Original material is the most requested are Back in the Day (recorded in Berlin, Germany with the Hardcore Troubadours), “Hitchin a Ride”, “Mean Ol’ Woman”, “Little Rock”, or “All Along”.
Our most requested covers are pretty much what you’d expect for a band in our genre, we get requests for “Tennessee Whiskey” (no Chris Stapleton didn’t write it), “Pink Houses”, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”, “Folsom Prison”, and “Man in the Box”. As you can see even the requests we get vary widely in genre. We’re getting away from playing as many covers as our own music becomes more known though, so no guarantee on what we’ll play at the next gig.
What are some guiding principles for your band?
Have fun, be at least semi-professional in our performances. We try to create moments/memories for our audience, but don’t try to compromise our songwriting to cater to any particular audience. Because we’re honest & not creating ‘personas’ I think we appeal more to our listeners.
A personal note, I also have been a long time supporter of children’s cancer charities & am planning on taking part in the Great Cycle Challenge benefiting the Children’s Cancer Research Fund for the 7th or 8th year in a row & I’ve used proceeds from sales as a fund raising source for that, so we like to give back where we can as well.
Lastly, the band is an entity, as representatives of that entity, we try to treat people, friends, fans, and each other with respect as humans rather than just cogs in a larger machine and/or financiers.
What are some career highlights?
The Country Music Meeting in Berlin, Germany… I played there twice when I lived there and was playing with the Hardcore Troubadours.
Wil Van Winkle & the Sixpins were trying to play in 2022, but with over 75,000 attendees over 2 days and COVID restrictions, still much tighter in the rest of the world than the US, it was canceled.
Playing at Bo’s Extravaganza in Ringgold, Georgia in 2021 was a highlight. We were a last minute addition and had prior engagements later in the day, so we didn’t get to meet John Schneider. His wife, Alicia Allain, made it a point to tell us to “stay on their radar” so they must have seen something in our performance.
There are many other moments, having had a long career spanning three continents, which includes most of the US. I think the simplest moment that made me proud, seems kind of dumb. Most artists geek out a little the first time they hear their music on the radio. Mine has been getting at least college play for years. What really got me was the first time I saw a Wil Van Winkle & the Sixpins sticker on a car, I did not know. I might have broke a couple of laws trying to catch up with the driver, didn’t know the guy and I think he was a little freaked out when I waved at him.
Be sure to also keep up with Wil & the Sixpins at https://www.wilvanwinkle.band
Photo Credits: Zach Whitmore Photography