When he’s not at his job at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia as a director of facility and visitor services, one can find William Tonks working on a multitude of projects within the Athens music scene.
Tonks first came to Athens in the fall of 1985 after graduating from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, with a degree in English. He attended the University of Georgia for graduate school, but eventually found himself involved in the Athens music scene.
“My brother said ‘Well, if you get an MBA and if you have an English degree, you’ll be set for whatever you want to do.’ So I figured I’d give [music] a try,” Tonks said.
Tonks has been involved in local bands spanning a number music genres: from traditional folk to children’s rock. He was part of the Americana band Redneck Greece Deluxe, which achieved moderate local success in the early 2000s, and the NRBQ tribute band Barbara Cue. Tonks founded Barbara Cue in 1997 with Todd Nance, whom he met when Nance was in the rock band Widespread Panic.
Tonks played electric guitar for “Concerto for Violin, Rock Band & String Orchestra,” which brings together classical music performed by a 40-person string orchestra, a four-piece rock band led by R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and lead violinist Robert McDuffie.
Tonks’s collaboration with bassist Mills led him to his first show overseas in Rome, Italy. Tonks performed at the Palazzo Barberini and got to see famous Italian tourist spots such as the Sistine Chapel.
Tonks’s sister gave him his very first guitar. Tonks started playing guitar at 11 years old and toggles between electric, acoustic and the dobro, a type of slide resonator guitar.
Tonks first heard samples of the dobro when he listened to Eric Clapton as a teenager and was reintroduced to the sound years after the end of his jam band Gravity Creeps.
The end of Gravity Creeps left Tonks with an extra Gibson Les Paul electric guitar he owned but wasn’t planning to use. He was inspired to sell the extra guitar and buy a dobro after he listened to the album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Volume Two” by American country rock piece The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Tonks has owned the dobro since 1989 and taught himself how to play.
Tonks said he was able to pick up a good amount of music gigs in Athens since he was the only person in town who knew how to play the dobro. Apart from these gigs, Tonks said he has made over a dozen records, 60 albums and played over 1000 shows.
After living in Athens and seeing the music scene grow and develop, Tonks said that he hopes for the emergence of another “guitar hero” in the Athens music scene in the next couple of years, especially after noticing the recent trend towards EDM and DJing.
“Sometimes [music] is just one guy with a laptop. That’s pretty incredible for a sellout show,” Tonks said.
One observation Tonks has made after listening to other people talk about the Athens music scene is how cooperative Athens has grown towards musicians. He acknowledges resources such as recording studios, production companies, and booking agencies that were not always present in Athens.
“[The Athens music scene] is not very cutthroat and not necessarily a zero sum game where you’ve gotta lose for me to win,” Tonks said.
Tonks’ most recent work is the 2019 album “Troubles,” which he made in collaboration with Tommy Jordan, the associate director of the University of Georgia's Center for Remote Sensing and Mapping Science. The two make up the folk-rock Americana group MrJordanMrTonks, which was formed 7 years ago.
“Troubles” is the second album that MrJordanMrTonks has released. The first half of the album is a collection of acoustic songs that were recorded in-studio that focus solely on the duo’s vocals and both banjo and dobro arrangements. For the second half of the album, a full band accompanies the two and was recorded live for the New South Showcase Radio Show.
MrJordanMrTonks’ music combines Jordan’s acoustic guitar and banjo playing abilities and Tonks’s electric guitar and dobro playing abilities. Before meeting Tonks in person, Jordan said he admired Tonks’ guitar skills and the variety of musical styles he was well-versed in.
“You could throw a song that [Tonks] has never heard at him and he can play it the first time with hardly any mistakes,” Jordan said.