Song Premiere: Listen to Swamp Dogg’s “Ugly Man’s Wife”

The irrepressible singer, songwriter, and Virginia native shares the bluegrass-infused track from his forthcoming album Blackgrass: From West Virginia to 125th St

A black and white photo of a man with a banjo

Photo: David McMurry

Swamp Dogg.

It’s 3 p.m. in Los Angeles, and Jerry Williams, Jr., aka Swamp Dogg, is in bed. “Can you call me back in a few hours?” he asks. “I was up until 6 a.m.” What, pray tell, was the 81-year-old Virginia native doing until sunrise? “Rehearsing,” he says. “I gotta figure out how to incorporate this bluegrass shit into my show.”

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The bluegrass in question is the material from his upcoming album, Blackgrass: From West Virginia to 125th St, a rollicking, sometimes bawdy collection of songs that features an all-star backing band, including Noam Pikelny of the Punch Brothers, Sierra Hull, Jerry Douglas, and Chris Scruggs (Earl Scruggs’ grandson). Margo Price and Jenny Lewis contribute guest vocals, while guitarist Vernon Reid of Living Colour (who delivers a scorching solo on the anthemic “Rise Up”), Justin Vernon, and the Cactus Blossoms all lend a hand. 

Today, Garden & Gun is premiering the album highlight “Ugly Man’s Wife,” a nimble banjo track in which Swamp Dogg offers some sage but cheeky relationship advice. “When I was living in New York, I used to see all these ugly men wearing diamond rings and nice watches,” he tells G&G. “And they always had beautiful women hanging around. Figured I’d write a song about it.”

Williams says he wrote the song in the 1980s, part of a decades-long oeuvre that began in the 1950s before he settled in New York in the late ’60s and became the first Black A&R man at Atlantic Records. One of the artists signed to the label was the legendary John Prine, whose self-titled debut came out on Atlantic in 1971. That album contains one of Prine’s best-known songs, “Sam Stone,” a track Williams covered shortly after he adopted his Swamp Dogg moniker. He still plays it in every show, and in a full-circle twist, Blackgrass will be released on Oh Boy Records, which Prine founded and his wife, Fiona, now manages. “John Prine was a hero of mine,” Williams says. “He sang on my record [2020’s Sorry You Couldn’t Make It], and that was some of his last recordings. We planned on going to his place in Ireland for ten days to hang out together.”

Williams’ music has encompassed a wide swath of genres—psychedelic soul, R&B, funk, and gritty rock and roll. But with Blackgrass, he wanted to pay tribute to the African-American roots of bluegrass and his own roots-music beginnings, growing up listening to Flatt and Scruggs and George Jones. Along with the album’s stellar instrumentation, his songwriting is rich in detail with vivid characters, a hallmark of the best in bluegrass. So, did he ever try his hand at the banjo? “Hell no, I can’t play banjo,” he says with a laugh. “It’s always been a great instrument, but I’m a storyteller. That’s what I love to do.” 

Blackgrass: From West Virginia to 125th St is out May 31 and available for pre-order here.