Born in West Germany, he was adopted by a couple who lived in Palo Alto, California. A self-professed poet and musician who briefly studied guitar with Robbie Basho, Ackerman grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. After attending Stanford University, Ackerman dropped out to become a carpenter. Ackerman had composed some pieces of music for a performance of Romeo and Juliet at Stanford. In 1975, without having played a “paying gig” a group of friends and informal fans got together and collected about $300 in five dollar bills to send me into a recording studio. I picked a studio out of the phone book named Mantra Studios (it was the ’70s after all!). I walked into that room and made a record I called ‘The Search for the Turtle’s Navel’ in two afternoons. (William Ackerman, liner notes for ‘Returning,’ 2005).
Initially Ackerman kept up his job as a builder but recording music took up more of his time until he was working on music full-time. Ackerman ran his Windham Hill Records for years. He did just about everything from picking cover art to producing the records. Early albums featured himself (‘It Takes a Year’) and his cousin, fellow guitarist Alex de Grassi’s ‘Turning: Turning Back’ (1978). Although in later years critics would single out Ackerman’s records (especially Childhood and Memory) and De Grassi’s first record, the album that gained Windham Hill Records notice was George Winston’s 1980 recording ‘Autumn’. This record was well reviewed in ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine and, as a result of this national exposure the record began selling in large numbers. For many years it was the best-selling album in the Windham Hill catalog.
Ackerman found that life as a record label executive was, in his own words, making him crazy. His marriage ended in divorce and he eventually moved out of the Bay Area and across the country to Windham County, Vermont. In 1992, he sold half of his stake in Windham Hill Records to BMG and stopped recording and producing. Life in Vermont away from the record business proved enjoyable and so Ackerman sold the remainder of his stake in Windham Hill Records in 1996.
Since that time he has released only a couple of albums: ‘Sound of Wind Driven Rain’ in 1998 and ‘Hearing Voices’ in 2001 (both were nominated for Grammy awards) and one album re-working some older songs - ‘Returning’ in 2004 (which won a Grammy).
In addition to discovering George Winston, Ackerman’s other great discovery was Michael Hedges. Ackerman has often told the story of how he heard Hedges performing in a Palo Alto cafe and immediately wrote a recording contract for him on a paper napkin. Hedges and Ackerman performed concerts together for several years in the early 1980s and played together on one of Ackerman’s albums. Other notable artists he produced include Liz Story and Shadowfax.
Guitar Tunings: Will Ackerman has said that none of his songs use the standard guitar tuning. He also says that only two songs share the same tuning (at least as of 2000). Ackerman’s love of non-standard tunings (coupled with the use of a capo) allows him to play melodies where many of the notes can be played without fretting them, allowing the strings to “ring free”. He shares his love of non-standard tunings with Michael Hedges and others.
Ackerman’s musical influences include Erik Satie, John Fahey, Robbie Basho and Leo Kottke. Ackerman has told an anecdote about his musical debt to Fahey. One of his early pieces of music sounded a great deal like a Fahey composition and so he visited Fahey, asked him if he thought the music was too similar, and played him the tune. Fahey said “You can have it!”. The tune in question may have been “The Rediscovery of Big Bug Creek, Arizona” (from ‘It Takes a Year’).
A low-key rumor, swirling just below the threshold of fact, has been circulating for years that Will Ackerman was the inspiration for <STRIKE> Gary Trudeau’s ‘Doonesbury’ </STRIKE> Berkeley Breathed’s ‘Bloom County’ character, Bill the Cat: Ackerman himself being a ‘cool cat’ with the name of Bill, and the generally mute literary cat prone to uttering “Ack!”
Edited by Shirelda on 29 Apr 2011, 21:26
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