For over thirty years, Wisconsin native Willy Porter has brought his blend of folk, pop and guitar driven indie rock to appreciative audiences all across the world. He has opened in support of some of the biggest names in the music industry, released 11 full-length albums and penned one of our favorite road songs, Jesus on the Grill. He is also a racer. Willy restored one of his father’s Tiga SC78 Sports 2000 race cars and regularly participates in vintage races throughout the Midwest. We got a chance to spend time with him and talk all things music and automotive.
Have you always been fascinated by cars and racing or did you come to it later in life?
Yea, I grew up around cars. Really, my father was a big fan and he grew up tinkering on cars in his youth, and then he got into sports car racing on a shoestring budget when I was very young. That just brought me into the fold, completely. That’s really how it started.
Do you remember your first recollection of being around cars?
Yes, one of my dad’s best friends had a C-Type Jaguar that he had gotten and restored by himself. That car really was the first car that I ever saw and thought that is poetry in motion right there. The C-Type Jaguar is just an exceptional piece of engineering, just the sound of it. I’ll never forget it.
Do you remember the car you learned to drive on a racetrack?
I had a Volkswagen Rabbit that I did some solo 2 events in. That’s what I learned to heel-and-toe in. You know, kind of how to drive the line, the basics of motorsports and high-performance driving.
How did your car racing career come about?
Basically, my father campaigned sports cars in the SCCA until around 1988 or so when he got out of it. He held on to the cars he had campaigned, the 2 Sports 2000 cars made by Tiga, a British venture. When he passed away one of the cars went to my brother Tom, and the other went to me and we restored them back. You know, rubbing nickels together and doing what we could. We still campaign them now. So that’s really how we got into it. By participating on a crew for so many years, it really was a natural thing to do it.
Tell me how you got interested in music?
Again, my parents were such music fans and consumers. My dad loved all music; classical, jazz, rock and roll. I had an older brother and older sister, several years older than me, they had Neil Young records and Pink Floyd and all that. I got this wonderful cross section of music from Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops to Frank Zappa. Just a cross section of what music can be and I’m so grateful for that.
Why do you think your music strikes a chord with so many fans?
I think it’s luck, certainly. But also, you know, I really mean it. Stuff that I sing about and write about, the music I play, I stand behind all of it. It’s not anything I do to engender popularity. I think that comes across in some way that I can’t really measure but I like to believe that I’m trying to be authentic in what I do. I’m grateful that people take the time to listen for that and to the music itself.
Who were your musical idols growing up?
Certainly, Leo Kottke was a big one for me. In high school and stuff, Joe Walsh and the James Gang, Jeff Beck, Joni Mitchell. Those artists were probably my biggest heroes. Certainly, Neil Young. Then Pink Floyd and Yes. A lot of what they call progressive music; Jethro Tull and stuff. Then Jazz like Weather Report, Miles Davis. The list goes on and on.
You’ve obviously toured all over the country. Is there a location or venue you always make sure to hit when you tour or one that stands out?
Certainly, the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee is probably my favorite room that I’ve played; nationally or internationally. It is in my hometown so that weights it very heavily for me but it’s also an extraordinary space. There’s something really magical about it. I’m one of those people that loves the room they’re in on that night. I tend to find something I like wherever I go. Generally, you can have a good night anywhere.
If I were to open your garage door at home, anything exiting or unexpected?
You’d be looking at the family truckster. You know, I’m a father with two kids: one in college and one soon to be in college. I can tell you the cars in the driveway are both paid for, does that help [Laughing]? But there’s nothing exotic, we’ve got daily drivers. I think the garage right now is actually set up for martial arts and work out space. So, there isn’t even a car in there right now. Sorry, there’s nothing exotic.
Any particular destinations you love driving to or roads you like to drive on?
You know, in Wisconsin I love going up and driving the original road circuit at Elkhart Lake. That’s a really cool, old circuit. The race car is stored up there at Wolf Motorsports and I go up there to work on it. When I’m done, if I have time, I’ll take my street car for a slow lap and think about what it must have been like to really try to put a car on the edge on that circuit back in the 1950s. So, I love that. I also enjoy just going out in the country, putting the windows down. I’m one of those guys that, I’ve driven so much for my job that I drive really carefully everywhere I go now. The track is one thing, but the road is a place to honor the law.
What do you like to do away from music? Hobbies?
I just recently got into coin collecting. I’m really enjoying that. I’ve also been on again, off again into martial arts. That’s really it. Just trying to write more music and trying to play the guitar in different ways, keep exploring that. You know, it’s a pretty full life, and I’m grateful.
Any final thoughts?
I guess the one thing is motorsports are so fascinating to me because of the combination of the human element and the mechanical. And I love that sort of merging of these two systems. What really brings me a lot of joy is I probably love working on this old car more than driving it, if I’m truthful about it. That’s what keeps it all going for me.
Thank you, Willy, for giving us a glimpse into your life, on and off the track. We’re sure we’ll cross paths at some point down the line in Milwaukee or at Road America. Now, about that new album…
If you’d like to see Willy perform live during the pandemic, head over to his Facebook Page at 7:00 PM Central Time on Saturday nights for a “Live from the Bunker” mini concert.