Woody Williams won’t share his age.
You won’t get past the second syllable in the four-word question that normally would lead to that answer.
Like an antsy conductor who flicks the railroad switch at the last minute, he’ll divert the “How” from the sentence, derailing the “ – old are you?”
“That’s the one thing my manager said don’t give up,” said Williams. “So I don’t tell anybody. Keep ’em guessing.”
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Williams, known as the “Funky Geezer” to many in Charlotte’s NoDa arts district – and now beyond, thanks to an appearance on “America’s Most Talented” – knows the mystery surrounding his age is his bread and butter.
He makes his living performing a unique brand of comedy and song that calls for an elderly, sometimes feeble, look to contrast with his often-saucy lyrics.
Age estimates, which range from 50 to 95, often are recalculated after his shows, usually through subtraction.
Many in his audiences wonder whether he’s just prematurely aged. With a frail, lanky body and snow-colored hair peeking from beneath his cap, he looks the part; but could an 80-year-old man really twirl his walker in the air or leap over it like a runner crossing a hurdle?
It’s hard to tell.
Sitting in NoDa’s trendy Smelly Cat Coffeehouse surrounded by latte-sipping millennials with MacBooks, he says he feels right at home, and you’d be convinced he’s not a day older than 60. Then he cups his hand to his ear to catch what you’ve said, or winces when moving his aching shoulder. Then you’re sure he’s closer to 75.
Williams grew up in the Newell community, not far from NoDa. His mother was an artist who stayed at home. His father drove a truck to put food on the dinner table.
When it was his time to leave the nest, Williams joined the Army and quickly was assigned the duty of painting signs. It kept him stateside, except for a year spent painting signs in Germany.
“I was a war hero with a brush,” he said.
After his service, Williams – like many who served in the military during the Vietnam War era – wanted solitude. So he escaped to the mountains, where he wrote more than 500 songs while staying on a 2,700-acre farm.
For years, through his stints in the banking and graphics industries, tapes of those songs remained in an old cardboard box. Those are the songs he performs today, though many, like the one about Viagra, often are tweaked to be made more relevant.
“Now I get to do what I want to do,” he said. “Before, I was making money for other people. Now I get to have my say-so.”
That “say-so” won’t include his age, although he’ll drop a few hints. He’s old enough to still rely on a road map to get him from point A to point B; old enough to remember when teenagers built their own cars, like mixed breeds, from parts they found in junkyards.
And if you press him, he’ll even tell you, with a twinkling wink, that he’s long in the tooth enough to remember that the Neighborhood Theatre once was called the Astor Theater, a porno house filled with poorly acted adult films and “dirty old men.”
Then, aging in an instant, with a shaky voice and a pointed, wagging finger, he adds, “I’m so old, I’d have to cut off my leg to look at the rings.”