This time, Holly Williams means business. And she hopes more than her relatively small but loyal circle of friends and fans will finally listen to her … or at least her music. That especially means those residing in and around Nashville, the country music capital and the place she’s called home since she was a little girl.
The striking and statuesque blonde with the powerful pipes and a wonderful way with words is back on the scene with the June 16 release of Here With Me (Mercury Nashville). Williams wrote or co-wrote eight of the 11 songs and also plays acoustic guitar and piano on the album, a sparkling collection of country-fried rock tunes and heartfelt, reflective glimpses into her life.
It’s been five years since the release of The Ones We Never Knew, Williams’ exquisite but extremely overlooked debut album, and so much has happened since then. Perhaps making a conscious effort to distance herself from her firmly rooted family tree and prove she could bloom on her own, Williams convinced her then-record label (Universal South) to market her as something besides a country singer with a pedigree.
The result was a startling album of stark, intimate – and often moving – self-exploration, an impressive body of work that nevertheless provided little evidence that she’s the daughter of Hank Williams Jr. and the granddaughter of Hank Williams Sr. The country music kingdom, which opened its doors to the legend and his rowdy party-hearty son (also known as Bocephus), didn’t take too kindly to a possible heir refusing to step up to the throne.
Her independence stated, Williams established a modest but devoted following, and planned to build on that semi-success once she returned from a European tour.
Then her life changed dramatically. She and her older sister Hilary were almost killed in a one-car crash on March 15, 2006, outside Tunica, Mississippi. While Williams quickly healed, her sister’s injuries were far more serious. The recovery is ongoing, and only now a certain normalcy has emerged.
Holly is making a comeback with her music, too, and perhaps the country community will give her a second chance. While not necessarily needing to make amends, her outlook has changed and her family ties have tightened. Yet, she remains highly outspoken, refreshingly honest, whip-smart and gregarious, nothing like the cool, calm and collected soul that comes across on her first album.
In excerpts from an extended interview conducted recently over the phone, she speaks frankly about family, religion and the state of country music today, offering candid insights of artists from Hank Sr. and Hank Jr. to Taylor Swift and Cat Stevens.
Get to know Holly in-depth (told mostly in her words) during Part I of this two-part story that continues June 10 with a closer look at the new album. Y’all just might get to like her, really like her.
OK, so she admits it. Country is in her blood but don’t discount her because other music pumps through her veins, too. Can you blame her for resisting the temptation to join the good ol’ boys club?
“At the time (before her first release), now there’s more singer-songwriters in the genre, and at the time it was a lot of Shania Twain and Faith Hill … very pop-oriented, and I really felt like, my influences are Neil Young and Bob Dylan more than standard country singers; I was always attracted to the off-the-beaten-path songwriters, and so part of me was going, ‘I feel uncomfortable trying to say I was influenced by male country singers when I really wasn’t,’ even though I respect them. Keith Urban, for example, put me on tour; he’s unbelievably talented and a great songwriter. I love listening to his music. And the Merle Haggards and the Willie Nelsons and all those I loved.
“So much of me just saying I want to tour with artists outside (the genre); I feel like my fan base is the type that likes us in the theater and listens and not necessarily like the country fan base so many times is seen as only liking the singles and not really the album-type listeners. So I think it was both me and the label at the time.
“But now I really think there are plenty of country audiences who want the other side of it. They can appreciate their Taylor Swift pop stuff and a Keith Urban guitar as much as they can just me and an acoustic kind of show. That’s the goal there, and I think there’s room for that now.”
Since her career began in the Nineties, the world of country music has grown and evolved enough that maybe there’s a place where Holly can comfortably reside. But is bigger better?
“Even now there is so much competition. Jewel came here and Darius Rucker came here. I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the other singer-songwriter kind of females came here.” (Recently, it was reported that Ghost Whisperer star Jennifer Love Hewitt was planning to record country music.)
“The genre has opened up, I really believe. We have the Taylor Swift side and the Toby Keith side, which are wildly different. And then the Keith Urban kind of Coldplay-esque show and the live thing. So it’s really nice that I feel like no matter who you are, you can find something in country music that you love today. Whether you are a beer-drinking redneck or a Gucci/New York/Madison Avenue woman, there really is something for everyone, finally. I feel like we really didn’t have that in the Nineties, that it was all the country-bumpkin, sequins-and-cowboy boots kind of lifestyle. So I hope that it’s opened up enough and I hope there’s a place for me in there.”
Speaking of competition, Holly recognizes the impact of the Miley Cyrus-Taylor Swift phenomenon.
“In the beginning, I wasn’t a huge fan of Taylor’s. I didn’t really not like her but it didn’t just really thrill me. I always thought it was great that she wrote her own songs and have a lot of respect for her after that. But I have to admit "Love Story" has kind of won me over. I’m obsessed with the song and I sing it in karaoke sometimes. I think that her and Miley, even though it’s not what I would necessarily maybe listen to, I think that they’ve had a great – well, especially Taylor, I don’t know much about Miley, I know more about Taylor’s – work ethic. She is always on her MySpace pages and updating and talking to fans and doing 20-hour autograph sessions and I really think that she’s paid her dues.
“I don’t know as much about Miley Cyrus’ music, but I do think that they have been able to bring in younger audiences to country. And open up the genre a little more. I think we needed that. So many of the country listeners were the 35-plus group and there really was no one to represent the younger ones.
And, you know, young girls, I’m 28 but when I was 18, I would have loved to hear those songs that Taylor’s writing about … the boyfriends and the tears and all those things you go through when you’re a teenager. And I think that she probably has a very bright career ahead of her and that there will be a place for her. But I think a lot of people had a hard time with it in the beginning. They feel like, ‘Oh, this isn’t real country, this is pop.’ And, obviously, it is produced pretty pop and all that. But I do think she’s kind of helped the country music genre, just to be one more different character in a bunch of superstars.”
But family matters most, and a live-changing accident brought her closer to her loved ones … and God.
“I grew up with a mom (Becky, Hank Jr.’s third wife) who had us in church every Sunday, a family of faith. She was one of the normal ones. She wasn’t the judgmental type that so many religions suffer from that kind of mind-set – ‘I’m better than you’ – and all those things. She raised us in a way that never brought that kind of heaviness on us. The wreck, it was a miracle that I lived. About a mile before the wreck, my sister told me to put my seat belt on. They especially didn’t think she’d live; and they said, ‘If she does live, she’ll lose both her legs.’ There were just so many things that happened, that I can only chalk it up to the Lord above and my mom praying.”
The knee-slapping “Mama” (written as a thank-you to her mother) and the solemn “Without Jesus Here With Me” (referencing the car wreck and her family) from Here With Me are extremely different takes musically, but both are personal and powerful expressions of experiences from Holly’s recent past. Let’s see how “Mama” and Holly’s sister, Hilary, are doing.
“(The song ‘Mama’ is) one of my favorite songs to play live. It’s so simple, it’s three chords. … I wrote it very simply in about 10 minutes. It was one of those that just came out of nowhere; she’s been singing it live with me and doing backups a lot. … She’s an amazing classically trained vocalist and pianist. It’s been really neat for our relationship, too, where we’ve kind of shared that together.
“She lives about two miles away and I go spend the night at her house a couple times a week and I’m like freakishly close to her and sleep in her bed sometimes. We’re very, very close. At my clothing store (the upscale H. Audrey, with clientele Holly really knows on a first-name basis – like Faith, Martina, Sheryl), she’s the accountant. We’re one of the few mother-daughter relationships that we can work together all day. She used to handle my business management, which I totally trust her. She’s single and her and my dad are still good friends, but at night I’m always asking her to do something with me. … I’m very blessed to have her. …
“(Hilary)’s had 24 surgeries, the last one was last fall. … A lot of people had no idea of the severity of her injuries but finally she’s come around and the never-ending surgeries have finally stopped for a while. She’s walking on a cane. She’s walking really well now, though; she’s driving alone, she’s living alone again. She lives in Nashville, not very far from me. And I think she finally feels like she has her life back. She still is in a certain amount of pain, which they said probably will not go away; it’ll involve more therapy and things, but we’re finally at the other end of it. For the first year, it was pretty miserable. She was bedridden most of the time, she had to relearn to walk twice and just all those things. … She’s feeling a lot better.” (Hilary, far right, is shown with Jessica Simpson, Bocephus and Holly at the CMT: Giants show taped Oct. 25, 2007, that honored Hank Jr.)
Their musical styles are miles apart, but Holly and Hank Jr. are finally coming together, too.
“Well, we’re actually doing our first show together on July 4; I’m opening for him. It’s in Lexington, Kentucky (Rupp Arena); as far as the music, I think for both of us, if the right song came along, we would do it; but I don’t want to do it just for the press or idea of, you know, ‘Hank and Holly.’
Now I did write lyrics over some music – that Hank Sr. had written – for a project that Bob Dylan is working on. The song is called "Blue Is My Heart," and I wrote the lyrics over it and then dad sang backup on it. So that was a really cool thing that we got to do together. And it felt like the three of us. … So that, hopefully, will be coming out this year. It was really cool. … I think it’s going to released through Sony. It’s been worked on for a while. I think Sheryl Crow did some stuff on it and Jack White and different people writing music over lost lyrics of Hank’s. So I cannot wait to get that out to be able to talk about it more.”
And speaking of granddaddy’s music, Holly was introduced to his haunting song “How Can You Refuse Him Now” by a famous movie star who’s also an Academy Award-winning producer and director.
“That was, actually, Mel Gibson came to town to a local church here (for a screening of The Passion of The Christ). And he was just telling the congregation, ‘Please, get this movie played in your small groups and please tell the other churches about it.’ It was such a small project at the time. He had no idea it was ever going to be a hit in theaters or anything like that.
“So he came to town, he invited a few local musicians and I got to meet him after he did a little speech at the church in the little conference room. And he said, ‘You know, I’d love for you to do something from the record (The Passion of the Christ: Songs Inspired by).’ He knew this song of my grandfather’s, I never had actually heard it. And he played it for me and turned me on to it. It was amazing. It was a little project I thought I was doing and it turned into this huge thing. And even though the song wasn’t actually in the movie, it was still so great to have anything involved on it. … That was a really humbling experience. Just think, for someone else to bring me a song of my families’ that I was so unaware of.”
She gets star-struck by other performers, too, and lets the cat out of the bag regarding her chance to perform with Yusuf Islam, the artist formerly (and still sometimes) known as Cat Stevens, whose latest album Roadsinger includes Holly performing on three tracks.
“His manager (David Spero) is a good friend of mine. … So he called me and just said, ‘I’m managing (Yusuf) and we’re in town and do you want to sing on the record?’ And I was like, it was 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and he said, ‘Let’s have dinner tonight.’
And I’m a huge Cat Stevens fan. So I was just kind of blown away at the dinner table, going, ‘I can’t believe that you wrote “Trouble” and “Father and Son” and all these songs that just are my soundtracks of life.’ So I was just ecstatic about it. And we cut the next day in the studio and he wanted to go to the (Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum) to see the Family Tradition exhibit, the Hank Sr. and family exhibit that’s going on now. And we had a couple nights of dinner. And it was just amazing.
“He’s one of those types of people, I think one of the reasons I was so shocked and nervous is because, he is overseas and he’s one of those people you never hear about anymore; I never dreamed in a million years that I would ever have the chance to meet him, much less sing with him and work with him in the studio. So I was just blown away by it. … And he’s a great man.
You know, because of his religious beliefs (he converted to Islam at the height of his popularity in 1977), I think he gets judged a lot by people. People are very leery of him. Even though his faith is different than from what most believe in the U.S., he has a huge heart for people. When you talk to him, you kind of feel like you’re talking to just such a wise man. He has this aura about him, where you just want to soak in every word and just not speak and listen to him the whole time. And just a gentle spirit. It was just a great experience. So, hopefully, I’m going to open a few shows for him when he comes back and does a tour. We’re kind of talking about it now. That would be amazing.”
• Get a free download of Holly Williams’ “Mama” at amazon.com.
Holly Williams’ upcoming appearances
• She will open some dates this summer for Sugarland. Go to her website for concert news and updates. She will also attend the CMA Music Festival this week and visit Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on July 3 for a performance/interview presented in conjunction with the museum’s current exhibition, Family Tradition: The Williams Family Legacy, which is scheduled to run through the end of the year.
• Her Unplugged at Studio 330 performance will appear at cmt.com beginning June 9.