The Piano Man
Piano tuner Rodney Williams and his family of musicians make South Brunswick County sound beautiful.
Rodney Williams carries his well-worn tool case into a sanctuary in Shallotte. Waiting there for his delicate touch is an 8-foot Kawai grand piano. He removes a 30-year-old tuning wrench and a dozen or so relatively new mutes and gingerly begins to isolate and tune each string.
The craftsman immerses himself in this experience for the next hour or two, listening to every string once and then again in combinations. This is an inside job for Williams, the best tool is his God-given inner technology.
“Today there are all types of digital devices that we can use in this profession,” Williams says. “But in over 30 years of tuning pianos I have found no tool that holds a candle to the human ear.”
The Whiteville native comes by it naturally. His dad, Joe Williams, was a professional musician and piano tuner, and his mother, Alice, surrounded her three boys with instruments at a very young age, encouraging them to be musicians.
By age 5, Williams had picked up guitar. The next year his dad brought home an upright piano to practice tuning and repairing.
“I came home from school one afternoon, and there was a piano sitting there. I had never touched a piano or been close to a piano,” Williams recalls. “When I put my fingers on it and heard the scale, it was like a light went off. I thought, ‘Man, I know what to do with this.’ It made sense to me.”
Williams’ fate was sealed that day, and he has loved the piano ever since. He continued to round out his music skills with other instruments as well.
By age 13 he joined his first of many bands playing the saxophone.
“They were called the Lively Extremes,” he says with a laugh. “They were gigging and making music and making money, and so was I.”
In his teens he played for four or five bands and filled in when bands needed a replacement for guitar, piano, keyboards, saxophone, harmonica or singing. In his twenties he was on the road playing for a few bands – one was a local Southern gospel quartet that traveled everywhere east of the Mississippi.
Just like with the piano, fate intervened in Williams’ life once again the night he met his future wife, Daphne. He was filling in at a gig for his father, who had been scheduled to play at a dance in Shallotte. “I was not supposed to be there,” he says.
“I was not supposed to be there either,” Daphne adds. “My family had coerced me out to celebrate my sister’s birthday.”
To make up for it, her brother-in-law promised to introduce her to anyone in the room. She pointed to Rodney, and the two have been together ever since. “It was love at first sight,” they say.
In 1979 the two were married and moved to Nashville with Williams’ new band, Kitty Hawk.
“We were writing, recording and doing demos at a studio on Franklin Street, and we still had to work part-time jobs to make ends meet,” Williams says.
When their daughter Shawna was born, the couple had to make a decision.
“Nashville is tough on married musicians — you need to decide which one you will be loyal to, your family or your music. Because being a musician, you have to be ready to go on the road if anybody calls you.”
It was a turning point for the family. They moved to Calabash, where Williams went into construction and started the piano tuning and repair business on the side.
“It was the best decision we could have ever made,” Williams says.
Fate has a sense of humor, it seems. Once when Williams was building a house, one of Kitty Hawk’s songs that Williams sang on a demo for Randy Hatch in Nashville came on the radio. Ed Bruce was singing, You’re the Best Heartbreak I Ever Had. “That song was the number one country music song of 1982,” Williams says.
But fate was also very kind, and by 1985 Williams was able to focus solely on his piano business and leave construction behind.
The Williamses have a growing family: Shawna and her husband, Jay Lach, own Roof Doctors of Calabash; daughter Hannah and her husband, Sam Crane, are both ministers at Breath of Life Ministries in Sunset Beach; and their son, Taylor, remains at home.
“We also have seven grandchildren, and they all have a spark of talent,” Williams says.
Granddaughters Evynn, Sadie and Ainsley play piano, Chloe plays piano and is a vocalist, and Mazzy plays guitar and violin. The youngest of the bunch, grandsons Oliver and Koby, are leaning toward the piano as well.
The family makes music together at Breath of Life Ministries, where Rodney leads the music ministry and plays piano, Daphne plays drums, Hannah plays the keys and Shawna sings.
Williams services pianos from as far south as Georgetown to as far north as Leland. When the need arises for an onsite repair, Williams is at the ready with cases of tools and parts in his truck. Occasionally, the repair requires that he take the piano apart so he brings it home to his workshop.
“On the average, I listen to 230 strings per piano,” he explains. He listens to one string at a time then tunes them in unison, then in octaves, and then fourths and fifths. “At the end of the tuning, I test it. Then it is time for the concert. I want to hear whether it is in tune. You can catch things you may not have heard when you are tuning.”
Williams considers himself blessed. He loves his work and has time to be with his expanding family.
“Tuning pianos has been very good to us — it allowed us to raise our family here,” Williams says, adding that he has no plans to retire any time soon.
The best piano Williams has ever tuned?
“Hands down, it is the 9-foot Yamaha at Odell Williamson Auditorium.”
The most difficult to tune?
A not-to-be-named piano on the second story of a not-to-be-named higher education facility in South Carolina. “No matter how it is tuned, it immediately goes too sharp.”
The strangest piano tuning experience?
“At a nudist colony where the Pepsi delivery man and I were the only ones clothed.”
Need a piano tuned?
Contact Rodney Williams at (910) 287-3669.
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