Mason Williams

Mason Douglas Williams (born August 24, 1938) is an American classical guitarist, composer, writer, comedian, and poet, best known for his 1968 instrumental "Classical Gas" and for his work as a comedy writer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, and Saturday Night Live.

Mason Williams
Williams in 1969
Background information
Birth nameMason Douglas Williams
Born (1938-08-24) August 24, 1938
Abilene, Texas, U.S.
GenresEasy listening, classical, bluegrass, folk
Occupation(s)Musician, composer, songwriter, writer, poet, photographer
Instruments12-string guitar, banjo, classical guitar
Years active1958–present
LabelsAmerican Gramaphone, Everest, Flying Fish, Olympic, Real Music, Skookum, Vanguard, Vee-Jay, Warner Bros., WEA

Early life

Williams was born in Abilene, Texas, the son of Jackson Eugene (a tile setter) and Kathlyn (née Nations) Williams.[1]

Williams grew up dividing his time between living with his father in Oklahoma and his mother in Oakridge, Oregon.[2] He graduated from Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma[3] in 1956. It was in Oklahoma that he began his lifelong friendship with artist Edward Ruscha.[4]

He attended Oklahoma City University (1957–60) and North Texas State University for one semester, and served in the United States Navy from 1961 to 1963.[1]



In 1968, Williams won three Grammy Awards for his guitar instrumental "Classical Gas".[5] Together with Nancy Ames, he wrote "Cinderella Rockefella", a 1968 number one hit for Esther and Abi Ofarim in the United Kingdom.[6]

In 1970, Williams made a television appearance on a variety show, Just Friends, which reunited regulars of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. To create a visual element for his performance, he used a special playable classical plexiglass guitar built for him by Billy Cheatwood and a prop designer for ABC. For the performance, Williams filled the guitar with water and added a couple of goldfish. He then used the plexiglass guitar to finger-sync his hit version of "Classical Gas".[7]

Williams has recorded more than a dozen albums, five on the Warner Bros. label (The Mason Williams Phonograph Record, The Mason Williams Ear Show, Music, Handmade, and Sharepickers). The LP cover for the 1968 Music was painted by pop artist Edward Ruscha. The credit reads "Sorry, Cover by Edward Ruscha.[8]

"Classical Gas" was released as a single from The Mason Williams Phonograph Record in 1968. "Classical Gas" won three Grammys that year for "Best Instrumental (theme) Composition", "Best Instrumental (theme) Performance", and "Best Instrumental Orchestra Arrangement", Mike Post, arranger. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc.[9] He also wrote songs for The Kingston Trio. For both Handmade and Sharepickers, Mason received two more Grammy nominations for "Best Album Cover Design".

In 1987, Williams teamed with Mannheim Steamroller to release a new album on the American Gramaphone label. The album, titled Classical Gas, included a remake of the 1968 song. Another cut from this album, "Country Idyll", was a 1988 nominee for a Grammy in the country music category for "Best Instrumental Performance by a Soloist, Group or Orchestra". The album went gold in 1991.[10] Williams' plexiglass guitar appears on the cover of this album.

Williams released an acoustic instrumental album of Christmas and holiday music, A Gift of Song, on the Real Music label, featuring arrangements of traditional carols and original compositions. In 1992, the Vanguard label released Music 1968–1971, a compilation of cuts from his five Warner Bros. albums recorded in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Williams relates when compiling the album that he went to Warner Bros. and asked "Where's that painting that Ed [Ruscha] did for that old [Music] cover?" and was told it had been thrown away; a probable loss of 3–5 million dollars.[11]

In conjunction with the release of this album, Williams added a "Holiday Concert Program" to his repertoire, featuring music from the album as well as other traditional music of the season. In 1994, he played six sold-out concerts with the Oregon Symphony in Portland, Oregon. In the 1990s he also performed with the Eugene Symphony with friend Ken Kesey.[3]

Williams then concentrated on a variety of programs for his concert appearances. His "Concert For Bluegrass Band And Orchestra", also titled "Symphonic Bluegrass", has been performed with over 40 symphony orchestras, including the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Kansas City Symphony, Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, Oklahoma City Philharmonic, Louisville Orchestra, and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.[12]

In 1984, Williams released an album, Of Time & Rivers Flowing, on his own Skookum label, containing 14 of the approximately 35 songs performed in the concert. In 1993, the title cut from the album was used as the soundtrack for a ninety-second public service announcement (PSA) created by The American Rivers Council on the home video release of Robert Redford's film A River Runs Through It. The PSA was also on the 1995 home video release of The River Wild.

In 1995, Williams was invited to play for Oregon governor John Kitzhaber's inauguration and in 1996, Williams received an honorary Doctorate of Music from his alma mater, Oklahoma City University.

In 1998, BMI, the performance rights organization that tracks air play performances on radio and television, presented Williams with a Special Citation of Achievement in recognition of the great national and international popularity of "Classical Gas". By 2008, the song logged over six million broadcast performances, to become the all-time number-one instrumental composition for air play in BMI's repertoire.[13]

In 1999, Williams played again for the governor of Oregon's second inauguration. In February, Williams' "Bus" art piece was included in the Norton Simon Museum exhibition "Radical Past", in Pasadena, California. In the spring he played his Of Time and Rivers Flowing concert with the Oregon Children's Choral Festival, a two-day event involving 3,000 elementary school children singing water and rivers songs with Williams and his band. Williams received the Distinguished Service Award from the University of Oregon in honor of his Contribution to Oregon's arts.

In the fall of 1999, he and the Bluegrass Band played for Byron Berline's Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival in Guthrie, Oklahoma with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic.

Williams' music has been featured in several movies including The Story of Us, Cheaper by the Dozen, The Dish, The Heidi Chronicles, and Heartbreakers. His compositions also have been played on the television series The Sopranos.[14]

In 2003, Williams released an EP, Music for the Epicurean Harkener, and again was nominated for a Grammy in 2004 for best instrumental album. In 2005, he collaborated with UK guitarist Zoe McCulloch on the album Electrical Gas.

In June 2006, Williams performed at his 50th high school reunion at Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma City. He performed as Mason Williams and Friends, the friends including Art Maddox, Mark Schneider, Thom Bergeron, Don Latarski, and Dennis Caffey, at concerts in Eugene and Springfield, Oregon and at the opening gala at the Richard E. Wildish Community Theater in Springfield.[3] He also made special guest appearances in September with many other guitarists at Primal Twang in San Diego, California, and with Craig Einhorn and the Umpqua Symphony Orchestra in Roseburg, Oregon.

In January 2007, he was reunited with longtime friend[15] and artist Edward Ruscha, performing at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.[16] In October 2007, he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.[17] and co-headlined a concert with Everclear and Paul Revere and the Raiders.[18]


Like many writer-performers, Williams was also a stand-up comedian. He set most of his comic ideas to music and sang or recited the jokes in lyric form with guitar accompaniment. In 1964, Vee-Jay Records released Them Poems, a record album on which Williams entertains a live audience with "them poems about them people", covering such varied topics as "Them Moose Goosers", "Them Sand Pickers", and "Them Surf Serfs". A typical "them poem" is "Them Banjo Pickers", which begins: "Them banjo pickers! Mighty funny ways. Same damn song for three or four days!" Several other "them" poems, along with many ditties, song lyrics, odd and amusing photographs from around the country, and assorted bits of visual and verbal silliness are collected in The Mason Williams Reading Matter (Doubleday, 1969), and the Them Poems record album was reissued (also in 1969, on the heels of the success of "Classical Gas") as The Mason Williams Listening Matter.[19]

Williams has written more than 175 hours of music and comedy for network television programming and was a prime creative force for CBS' controversial Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.[20] His experience in folk music gave him the background for many of Tom and Dick Smothers' comedy routines and with co-writer Nancy Ames, also composed the show's musical theme.[21]

It was on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour that he created and perpetuated the 1968 "Pat Paulsen for President" campaign, an elaborate political satire.[20] Williams also helped launch the career of entertainer Steve Martin. Martin was hired by Williams as a writer on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, for which his contributions were initially paid out of Williams' own pocket.[22] In 1968, he won an Emmy Award for his work as a comedy writer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.[23]

Other television personalities he has written for include Andy Williams, Glen Campbell, Dinah Shore, Roger Miller, and Petula Clark.[24] In 1980, Williams briefly served as head writer for NBC's Saturday Night Live, but left after clashing with producer Jean Doumanian.[25] In 1988, Williams received his third Emmy nomination as a comedy writer for his work on The Smothers Brothers 20th Reunion Special on CBS.[23]

In February 2000, Williams participated in the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado. The sixth annual festival honored The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and its contribution to television. Williams performed a concert with Tom and Dick Smothers, and again on a late night show with performers that included Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, Andrea Martin, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and Marc Shaiman.[26]


After becoming involved in protests against a Willamette River hydroelectric power project, Williams eventually collected over 400 songs about rivers, which he crafted into his program Of Time and Rivers Flowing.[27] It encompasses classical, folk, minstrel, gospel, jazz, country, pop, and contemporary rock. Williams has performed the program for benefits, conferences, and in concert.

Personal life

Williams married Sheila Ann Massey on April 22, 1961; they had one daughter, Kathryn Michelle, before divorcing. He remarried, to Katherine Elizabeth Kahn, in February 1994; the couple divorced after ten years.[28] He has lived in Eugene, Oregon, with his Canadian-born wife, Karen, an attorney.[3][29]


July 14, 1960 Little Billy Blue Shoes/Run Come See
August 1960 Folk Music as Heard at The Gourd
April 1961 Songs of the Blue and Grey ; recorded by The Wayfarers Trio
April 30, 1962 Away All Boats
1963 The Big Hootenanny
March 12, 1963 I Am an American
August 26, 1963 More Hootenany
Unknown[30] Feudin' Banjos
1963 The Twelve-String Story Vol. I
1963 The Twelve-String Story Vol. II
October 1963 The Banjo Story
October 29, 1963 Folk Baroque; with Paul Sykes (singer), Oklahoma City Symphony members, and OCU Chorus.
2 April 1964 5-String Banjo Greats
1964 Them Poems
December 24, 1965 Introducing Jayne Heather
April 1965 Tour de Farce (The Smothers Brothers)
April 22, 1966 Love Are Wine/The Exciting Accident
1966 The Smothers Brothers Play It Straight
1968 Classical Gas/Baroque-a-Nova
February 1968 The Mason Williams Phonograph Record
August 10, 1968 Classical Gas/Long Time Blues
November 1968 The Mason Williams Ear Show
1968 Saturday Night at the World/One-Minute Commercial
March 13, 1969 Music
March 1969 Greensleeves/$13 Stella
1969 Jennifer
March 1969 The Mason Williams Listening Matter (Them Poems)
March 10, 1970 Handmade
1970 José's Piece
1 January 1971 Improved
October 1971 Sharepickers
1971 Train Ride in G/Here I Am Again
November 1978 Fresh Fish
December 1984 Of Time and Rivers Flowing
October 22, 1987 Classical Gas — Mason Williams and Mannheim Steamroller
July 13, 1992 Music 1968–1971
September 18, 1992 A Gift of Song
1994 Rock Instrumental Classics, Vol. 2: The Sixties
September 1995 Fiddle and a Song
Unknown 1968 Billboard Top Pop Hits (Rhino) (features "Classical Gas")
December 20, 1995 1995 Sony Disc Manufacturing Holiday Choir
9 April 1996 Cascadia (1996 Oregon Governor's Arts Awards)
May 17, 1996 Of Time and Rivers Flowing (re-released)
December 25, 2003 EP 2003: Music for the Epicurean Harkener (EP)
September 27, 2005 Electrical Gas — Mason Williams and Zoe McCulloch
September 30, 2006 Classical Gas – Mason Williams, Craig Einhorn
December 1, 2006 Classical Gas – Mason Williams at the Wildish Theater
April, 2008 40th anniversary of Classical Gas – Classical Gas with Mason Williams and the original Dan McLaughlin "Classical Gas Video" as it appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968.
December 5, 2009 O Christmas Three (EP)


  • Williams, Mason (1964). Bicyclists Dismount. Hollywood, Calif.: Davon Music Corp.
  • Williams, Mason; Willis, Robert (1966). Tosadnessday. Los Angeles, Calif.: Tasmania Press. ASIN B000J0VPDW.
  • Williams, Mason (1966). The Night I Lost My Baby: A Las Vegas Vignette. Los Angeles, Calif. ASIN B00IFF9PSK.
  • Williams, Mason; Ruscha, Edward; Blackwell, Patrick (1967). Royal Road Test. New York: G. Wittenborn. ASIN B000OZQULY.
  • Williams, Mason (1967). Boneless Roast. Los Angeles. ASIN B00H20YI5E.
  • Williams, Mason; Kragen, Jinx (1968). Pat Paulsen For President. Calif: Kragen/Fritz. ASIN B0007ET48I.
  • Williams, Mason; Willis, Robert (1969). Roadsign Business. Los Angeles, Calif.: M. Williams.
  • Williams, Mason (1969). The Mason Williams Reading Matter. Garden City, New York: Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-01266-9.
  • Ruscha, Edward; Williams, Mason (1969). Crackers. Hollywood, Calif.: Heavy Industries. ASIN B0006EDMFK.
  • Williams, Mason (1970). The Mason Williams F.C.C. Rapport. New York: Liveright. ISBN 978-0-87140-022-2.
  • Williams, Mason (1970). Flavors. Garden City, New York: Doubleday. ASIN B0006CKFOS.
  • Williams, Mason (2000). Them Poems. Madison, Wisconsin: Parallel Press. ISBN 1-893311-11-2.
  • Williams, Mason; Gardiner, James R. (1997). Santa's Scenic Trip Home. Flotsam & Jetsam.


  1. "Contemporary Authors Online: Mason Williams". Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale. 2002. Retrieved April 20, 2009.
  2. Williams, Mason (2003). Classical gas: The music of Mason Williams. Miami, Fla.: Warner Bros. p. 162. ISBN 978-0-7579-9863-8.
  3. Keefer, Bob (November 30, 2006). "Wildish Theater opening: Bring on Mason Williams". Eugene, Oregon: The Register-Guardian. Retrieved July 15, 2010.
  4. Twardy, Chuck (September 24, 1989). "Contemporary Art Exhibit Brings Together Boyhood Pals". Orlando Sentinel.
  5. "1968 Grammy Award Winners". Archived from the original on February 5, 2011. Retrieved September 1, 2010.
  6. Rice, Jo (1982). The Guinness book of 500 number one hits (2 ed.). Enfield, Middlesex, United Kingdom: Guinness Superlatives. p. 114. ISBN 978-0-85112-250-2.
  7. ""Sixth Guitar – Glass guitar built by Billy Cheatwood" : Mason Williams Biography Featuring the Guitars of Mason Williams." (PDF). 2005. pp. 8–9. Retrieved October 7, 2011.
  8. "Long Playing." Karin Nelson. New York Times. New York, Sep 19, 2010. p. ST.3. Retrieved October 12, 2011.
  9. Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. p. 251. ISBN 0-214-20512-6.
  10. "Mason Williams Biography. Pg. 7" (PDF). Retrieved May 3, 2009.
  11. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on August 21, 2012. Retrieved June 9, 2014.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  12. "Bluegrass gives symphony needed lift: Williams brings group to Colorado" George Kane. Colorado Springs Gazette–Telegraph. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Feb 9, 1990. p.D7. Retrieved 5/11/2009
  13. "Classical Gas Website". Retrieved May 3, 2009.
  14. Williams, Mason.(2003). Classical gas : The music of Mason Williams. Miami, Fla. : Warner Bros., p. 167. ISBN 978-0-7579-9863-8.
  15. Bluhm, Erik. Along for the Ride: Ed Ruscha and Mason Williams. ArtUS, May/June 2006, issue 13, pp. 10–13.
  16. "Modern Art in Los Angeles: Okies Go West. An Evening With Jerry McMillan, Ed Ruscha and Mason Williams (panel discussion and performance)". The Getty. The J. Paul Getty Trust. Retrieved August 27, 2010.
  17. "Honorees". Oregon Music Hall of Fame web site. Archived from the original on September 24, 2009. Retrieved August 27, 2010.
  18. "Safeco Insurance Presents The 1st Annual Oregon Music Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony & Celebration" (PDF) (Press release). Oregon Music Hall of Fame. August 17, 2007. Archived from the original (PDF) on November 27, 2010. Retrieved August 27, 2010.
  19. Williams, Mason (2000). Them Poems. Parallel Press. pp. Introduction, 9–11. ISBN 1-893311-11-2.
  20. Blye, Allan. "In Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Documentary film by Maureen Muldaur".
  21. "The brothers' theme (Musical score, 1968)". []. April 15, 2015. Retrieved August 24, 2015.
  22. Martin, Steve. "Aspen Comedy Festival 2000 Smothers Brothers Reunion" hosted by Bill Maher. On DVD of Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: Season 3. Time Life (1968).
  23. "Mason Williams – Television Academy". Retrieved December 1, 2017.
  24. "Mason Williams Television Comedy Writing". Retrieved October 7, 2011.
  25. "Williams' TV, folk music career not always easy picking." Mikel Toombs. The San Diego Union. San Diego, Calif.: Aug 14, 1990. p. C-1. Retrieved March 17, 2010.
  26. Harden, Mark (February 6, 2000). "Funny folks find way to Aspen". The Denver Post.
  27. Williams, Mason (May 1996). "Of Time and Rivers Flowing Concert History". Retrieved October 28, 2006.
  28. Bianculli, David (2009). Dangerously funny: the uncensored story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 349. ISBN 978-1-4391-0116-2.
  29. Salmon, Ben (February 1, 2008). "Looking Back". The Bulletin. Bend, OR.
  30. The release date of Feudin' Banjos is unknown. Its chronological position in the list is estimated from context. The Everest 7105 album was issued in 1973
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