Oxford musician Will Griffith grew up in the small town of Boyle, in Bolivar County, Mississippi, a few miles from Cleveland. He was the youngest of four boys. The brother nearest his age was ten years his senior.
According to Griffith, this meant he was alone all the time when he was younger, which he believes contributed a lot to his creativity. “I just had a big imagination. I didn’t have any friends that grew up nearby,” he said. They’d spend the night on the weekends sometimes, but for the most part I was alone playing in the orchard, or playing in the field.” His grandad, uncle and cousins had soybeans and cotton, so Griffith spent a lot of time in their fields. “So I just had a big imagination, just because I had to for company.”
He said his father enjoyed what is now called ‘classic rock,’ and his mother swayed towards any music she could dance to, particularly classic R&B. “My brothers listened to everything from Public Enemy to Madonna, to Bon Jovi.” He credits them too for introducing him to late-80s/early-90s L.A.-rock phenoms, Guns & Roses, and time-tested hard rock forefathers, Black Sabbath.
“And my grandma got me turned onto Hank Williams,” Griffith added. “It’s kind of a big melding there, from everyone in my family. I still listen to a bit of everything.”
Another element of growing up in the Delta that he said added to his early interest in music, was the proximity he had to some of the great local bluesmen, who were still regularly performing live shows. These included Willie Foster, Cadillac John Nolden, T-Model Ford, and R.L. Burnside – a north Mississippi legend that Griffith was able to enjoy live and meet a couple of times.
Po’ Monkey’s juke joint in Merigold, MS, also made an impression on the young musician. He was able to play there, and enjoy the pleasure of its unique atmosphere until the untimely passing of operator Willie “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry in 2016.
“I got to see a lot of wonderful blues guys. I don’t play the blues – never did, but I really enjoyed the gritty bar scenes, even when I was probably too young to be in there,” he said.
Even though Griffith leans more toward other styles of music, including country, punk rock, and heavy metal, he said his time spent at what’s considered by some to be the last real juke joint, still influenced him – and what he took in from the atmosphere made its mark on his music. “Somewhere in between all that I came out as The Great Dying, I guess.”
On the road to a career in music
A handful of labor jobs early on were fuel for the fire, along Griffith’s path towards a career in music. Besides working with his cousin Joe on his farm, he recalled one particular summer working for the Bolivar County Road Services. “We laid asphalt for an entire summer on a very long strip of highway, in the middle of rice fields and soybean fields,” he said. “That was a hard job for a fifteen year old.”
Although he was mainly flagging the road, he also rode in the spreader, which laid the asphalt. “It’s June and July in the Mississippi Delta and it’s already hot, especially when you’re on something that’s making asphalt,” he exclaimed. “It was the hottest thing you could imagine.”
Among other manual labor was bagging groceries in Memphis, and working in an auto garage, but when Griffith began with the restaurant industry, he took right to it, and has been involved with it now for about twenty years. He said that he still does it because he loves it, and that he realized early on that he didn’t want to work out in the Mississippi sun for the rest of his life, since he only graduated high school by the skin of his teeth.
“Working in a restaurant pays my bills, and, you know – I do well at it. I’m good at it. But it also gives me the opportunity to play music the other half of the time,” he said. Even now, while The Great Dying plans out month-long tours, Griffith maintains employment at Proud Larry’s in Oxford. “I owe a lot to Scott and Lisa Caradine of Proud Larry’s. They welcomed me into their restaurant, into their family, and their world here in Oxford. I’d do anything for them.”
He credits bartending for the past seven years for the balance he strikes with his musical pursuits. “I can work a lot while I’m home, and then people cover me when I’m on the road,” said Griffith. Not only does he regularly get to see live music working at Proud Larry’s, but feels: “there’s no better place in the State, in my mind, that you can work as a fan of live music. It’s a mecca.”
He admits he may have lingered in the Delta longer than he might have hoped, in order to tend to some family matters – and he also had the chance to experience Nashville for a few years – but feels fortunate to have finally landed in Oxford. Although he met “some wonderful people in Nashville,” Griffith said he wasn’t playing enough music. He joked: “So I moved to Music City to not play a lot of music, or as much as I had been.”
Griffith regarded Oxford as the obvious place to settle, since he’d always visited and adored it, and he had no plans of returning to the Delta. “I haven’t stopped since I’ve been here,” he said. “Things have just been on the up…there’s so many amazing musicians in this town, and artists of all mediums. I just love it here and I’m gonna stay.”
Winter tour and new album release
Similar to The Great Dying’s 2018 album “Bloody Noses & Roses,” the upcoming album will also be released by Dial Back Sound, a production company and label located in Water Valley, MS. Both Griffin and guitarist and accompanist Craig Pratt, who have now performed about a couple hundred shows together, are excited about the release. “It’s something special,” said Pratt. “We were all in such strange places during the process of recording it, but listening to the finished product, it moves me now in different ways than anything I’ve been a part of.”
According to Pratt, the album was recorded during a span of five or six sessions, between late-2019 and early-2021, “which almost feels like 10 years, with 2020 being right in the middle of it,” he joked.
Pratt, a Georgia native, said he loves playing his bandmate and best friend’s songs, because everything he writes has “such a cinematic feel to it, which makes it easy to explore different sounds.” Also, that “it’s hard not to get visualutions listening to his lyrics, painting such a pretty picture.”
The musical pair are so close in fact, that Griffith became ordained as a minister recently in order to marry Pratt and his now wife. “That was a very big honor, and it was just very sweet,” he said.
Matt Patton (Drive-By Truckers, Dexateens) and Bronson Tew, who engineered and recorded the debut release, were also on board for the follow-up (expected to come out in March), although the two producers at Dial Back Sound are too steeped in projects and obligations to regularly tour with The Great Dying. “If I had it my way, Matt and Bronson would be with us on the road all the time, but it’s just not possible at the moment,” said Griffith.
Among the winter dates that both Griffith and Pratt look forward to most are the Drive-By Truckers homecoming celebration at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, GA, and a show in Brooklyn, NY with Wiley Gaby, of the band Goldenchild.
Griffith said they most certainly intend to hold an album release event locally at Proud Larry’s, and in his hometown of Cleveland. Also, since surrogate members of the group, Patton and Tew, hail from Alabama, they will likely connect with their extended musical family there.