For those of you who think Holly Williams has ignored her country brethren and denied her past for too long, think again. Here With Me answers those charges.
Her second album (Mercury Nashville), to be released June 16, is somewhat of a departure from the quiet debut the Nashville singer-songwriter made five years ago with The Ones We Never Knew. But Williams doesn’t apologize for taking this downright down-homey approach.
In fact, Williams believes she never strayed too far off the path she originally paved for herself. “I feel like the songs didn’t really change to me, the production changed,” she said. “I still write about the similar themes, still pretty introspective lyrically; but this time I started using a steel guitar and we do a mandolin on a few things and experiment with the fiddle.”
She said she’s happy to be be working with label head Luke Lewis because he “kind of understands both sides of me and where my passions lie and my influences, so it really wasn’t an overwhelming amount of pressure” to have to make it on country radio with a top 10 hit.
“So I just tried to make it about the music, and not try to think about, ‘Is this guitar too country?’ or clean it up enough to make it more Nashville friendly,” she said.
Initially trying to ease her way out of the giant shadows cast by her father Hank Williams Jr. and grandfather Hank Williams Sr., she still brings folk, rock, gospel and pop sensibilities to Here With Me. But there’s no mistaking the country influence on uptempo songs like “Mama,” a tribute to her mother Becky; “Keep The Change;” and “A Love I Think Will Last.”
A duet in the spirit of “Jackson,” the song made popular by Johnny Cash and June Carter, “A Love I Think Will Last” was co-written and performed with Chris Janson. It’s a finger-snapping tune about finding true love that delivers the loosey-goosey fun missing from her first record.
“Mama,” which Williams said she wrote about four years ago, should be a crowd-pleaser, too, one with a simple and heartwarming message: Mama, you were smiling /
When you could have been crying all night oh / Mama, you made me believe everything was alright / Mama, you never wore your pain too thick / I’d like to thank you for this.
(From left, Holly and Becky perform the song at CMT’s Unplugged at Studio 330.)
“Mama” is currently available as a free download on amazon.com, an example of a spreading practice throughout the music industry. For instance, Coldplay is currently allowing fans to download their live album, LeftRightLeftRightLeft, on the band’s website.
“I’m a huge supporter of (the trend),” Williams said. “I’m also a big fan of Radiohead; they’ve done this for a long time and had so many different options to get their music for cheaper, for free; so, for me, it’s not about the money, it’s about getting heard.”
Brothers and sisters, are you listening? Say Holly-lujah!
While Williams kicks it up a notch with honky-tonk numbers that would even please Big Daddy Bocephus, that doesn’t mean her tender, inspirational touches are missing. The sad, sad songs that made Hank Sr. such a legend are here, too, as Williams strikes a delicate balance between heartache (“Alone”) and desire (“Three Days In Bed”). Her gorgeous lead vocals pack a powerfully emotional punch.
The most poignant track might be “Without Jesus Here With Me,” reflecting on the near-fatal 2006 car accident involving Holly and her sister Hilary. It’s raw and intensely personal, and directly references Hank Sr., considered by some to be the father of country music.
“That verse (The preacher tried to make me learn / I memorized his favorite verse / But Hank's words they taught me everything / Thank God I saw the light for me) was kind of referring to … so many people know Hank (Sr.) as the drugs and pills and sad-songs guy,” Williams said. “And even my dad has brought up how much humor he had; his friends who knew him said he was really funny and he had a lot of light in him that people don’t know about.
“He wrote so many songs, with ‘I Saw The Light’ and ‘When God Comes And Gathers His Jewels,’ a lot of church-based and gospel-based songs that people kind of pass by. His words in ‘I Saw the Light’ and some of the songs are just as powerful as a Bible verse.”
So proudly acknowledging her family’s legacy is important to Williams, but has her last name helped or hindered her career?
“Yeah, you know I’ve thought about it a lot and I really think it hasn’t really done either,” Williams said. “I guess, from the beginning, my dad has never made one phone call related to setting me up with meetings or anything. He was always very uninvolved. He said, ‘I love what you’re doing. I support it.’ But I never even wanted him to (get involved). I wanted to find my manager, my record label and my band, and all those things. I really wanted to do them on my own. …
“It’s been cool; I’ve gotten to spend time with Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder and countless country artists and Neil Young and so many of my heroes that I would have never met had it not been for my family and for their adoration of the family.”
But by adding a few country elements, Williams doesn’t expect to win over everyone. Especially those who resist her softer, more sophisticated sound. “Right now, with this new album going to country radio, it’s the only time I’ve ever felt any kind of hindrance,” she said. “I’ve had people say, ‘Why did you suddenly decide at 28 to make an album?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I’ve been doing this a long time.’ A lot of people don’t know much about me before this.
“So once they see that, they’re OK. But a lot of radio people have said, ‘She’s Hank’s daughter and we don’t want to support something that is just kind of made up.’ And they may think something else before hearing me play or meeting me. So I deal with that a little bit, but not until now.”
Williams, who plays acoustic guitar and piano, left most of the heavy lifting on this album to what she calls her “family of musicians.” She sings the praises of her session players, including drummer Chad Cromwell (Neil Young), bassist Glenn Worf (who tours with Mark Knopfler) and Tom Bukovac, who she calls, “probably the best guitarist in Nashville.”
Having people Williams has performed and recorded with in the past was important because, “I can say, ‘I do or don’t like that,’ and ‘Try this or try that,’ and they’re not mad at me and I’m not intimidated by them,” she offered.
Williams, who wrote or co-wrote eight of the 11 songs, isn’t afraid to cover some of her heroes’ material, either. Her rendition of Neil Young’s “Birds,” is another highlight, an even starker version than the one on his brilliant early masterpiece, After The Gold Rush. Her lovely voice on the album’s closer is backed only by Gordie Sampson’s piano.
“I’m just a huge, massive Neil Young fan. And I’ve always loved that song and performed it live,” Williams said, recounting the last-minute decision to add “Birds” to the record. “I was going to put on ‘Angel From Montgomery,’ the John Prine song that I adore. And Bonnie Raitt has done that so amazingly and Susan Tedeschi and so many people, that I just called up my piano player and said, ‘Let’s cut it.’ We just did ('Birds') kind of for fun. And then I had a copy of it and the label heard it and they loved it. … Hopefully, Neil likes it.”
And has Williams heard from Young himself? “No, but … I am gonna send him a copy of the album and see if he approves.”
Odds are he will, along with the few skeptics, critics, and cynics she has left in the Music City.
• Unplugged at Studio 330 photo by Brian Tipton.
• Check out Holly Williams, Part I at Blogcritics.
• Holly Williams will perform at the CMA Fan Social on June 13, a free event and autograph session that will also feature the Eli Young Band, Gloriana and Emerson Drive. Go to cmt.com for clues to find the secret location.
• Holly Williams and her mother Becky sing “Mama” during her Unplugged at Studio 330 performance for CMT, and the complete show is available online.