|Part of the key to Holly Williams’ success as a singer-songwriter is that it’s never been her mission to try and live up to the legacy cast by her famous and prolific father and grandfather – Hank Jr. and Sr., respectively – nor has she spent a lot of time trying to live it down.The respect that Holly has garnered as an artist over the course of many years spent building an international fan base, and the release of two acclaimed albums, 2004’s The Ones We Never Knew (Universal South) and 2009’s Here With Me (Mercury Records), has come on her own terms, based on her own sound. Indeed, to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a last name is just a last name.Her recent CD, The Highway, finds the 31-year-old artist putting a distinctly personal spin on universal themes like love, loss, conflict, family and desire. The Highway is heavy with references to memories of simpler times and beloved relatives; ruminations on lives destroyed by addiction; our shared need to love and be loved; and an earnest longing for the road.Holly spent nine months recording The Highway, which she self-financed and will release independently. Just because she went independent on this one doesn’t mean she was by herself. Throughout the process, the Nashville-based songwriter was surrounded by a hyper-talented supporting cast, including co-producer Charlie Peacock (The Civil Wars), her multi-instrumentalist husband Chris Coleman, bassist Glenn Worff (Mark Knopfler), pedal steel guru Dan Dugmore (James Taylor, Stevie Nicks), and friends like Dierks Bentley, Jakob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Gwyneth Paltrow who all make guest appearances on the record.In addition to her music, Holly carries a fondness for fashion and haute homemaking, passions she channels into H. Audrey, her Nashville women’s boutique, and her lifestyle blog, The Afternoon Off.
Check out this illuminating Q&A (excerpted from Holly’s website):
There’s a real sense of place on The Highway. It really sounds like you’re writing about the South, which makes sense considering you were born in Alabama and grew up in Nashville.
I’ve never really written songs about the subject matters I chose for this album. The older I get and the more complicated my life gets, memories like picking up pecans in my grandmother’s yard for a dollar a day become sweeter .We cant get back to those days now, no matter how much we want to and how hard we try. There is a constant yearning for the south that is always in my soul, no matter where I am. I just want to be back in granny’s driveway, waking up to the horses and the cotton fields. I miss the simplicity of childhood, of pre-technology Christmas dinners and summer vacations on the farm. I really do. My heart is in Mer Rouge, Louisiana where I spent so many glorious days with my mom’s side of the family.
People obviously know a lot about your dad’s side of the family, the Williamses, starting with your grandfather Hank Sr. This album talks a lot about your mother Becky’s family. Your maternal grandparents appear in both “Waiting on June” and “Gone Away from Me.”
A lot of people think “Waiting on June” is about June Carter, but it’s about my grandmother June Bacon White, who died in 2009. It’s the precise and true story of my grandfather’s relentless love for her, every character is real, even down to the order of the children and the family cook Bertha. It’s really hard for me to get through it, but I continue to try in honor of them. People need to know that kind of love and commitment is real and possible. “Gone Away from Me” takes place in the cemetery near my grandmother’s house. We have so many family members that are buried there, and unfortunately the untimely deaths of some of them influenced this song. I was really influenced by family ties on this record.
The Highway has a more simple sound than your other two albums. What inspired your choice to go so acoustic?
It isn’t completely stripped-down, but the sound was definitely born from a pure place inspired by touring. I’ve been playing plenty of gigs acoustically, either completely alone on guitar and piano, or with one extra person. The audience was relating differently to this completely raw performance. It allows me to truly be a storyteller, and not have to worry about so much production. I am playing and singing at the same time on almost every single song on this record. In the past, it’s been the usual Nashville recording of separating the musician and the music. But as a songwriter, I love having the instrument with me and flowing with my tempo and words at the same time. My favorite shows in history are the ones of Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Gillian Welch, Elliott Smith, or John Prine alone with their instruments.
What kind of album is this? Do you embrace the Americana label some folks apply to your style of music?
I’ll take whatever you want to call it – Americana is fine. I love all of the artists that are considered Americana, as much as I love Radiohead and Jay Z. Genres are truly exhausting to me. Think of how many we have on iTunes alone! Hank Williams said, “I don’t know what you mean by country. I just write songs.” That is my motto, day in and day out. Throw on a pedal steel-it’s country, add a rhodes-it’s indie, make a loop-it’s pop. However people want to interpret this sound is fine by me.
You didn’t write two of the songs until the very last minute. What’s that story?
Chris (my husband) and I wrote “Let You Go” after the album was mastered and completed. I knew in my gut there was something else to say. I walked into Chris’s man shed where he had started playing the song, I fell in love with the melody and drum/guitar combo and the song kind of wrote itself. “The Highway” is my personal favorite track on the record. I was pulling up to the gas station and I started singing the chorus (came out of nowhere, prayers answered!). I went home and grabbed my guitar, I was so thrilled about this lyric because it was exactly where my longing has been. This came from a very personal place. Recently I’ve begun to really miss the road.
In addition to Chris and Charlie, you have a very nicely appointed group of collaborators on this record.
The way we did this really reminds me of Hank Williams, Jr. & Friends. That was the album my dad put out in 1975 before he really blew up. It was pops and a few talented friends ala Charlie Daniels making music.
I love the bridge between people that is music,
I wrote with good friends, which felt very organic. Sarah Buxton and I were cooking and drinking wine one night when we wrote
“A Good Man.” I adore Lori McKenna’s writing and called her up to help me finish “Without You”.
I called up my favorite musicians and told them, “I don’t have a big record label behind me, and I’m paying for this album myself.
Will you take 200 bucks to play?” Everyone came together to help me out with this project, and I have never felt more love from fellow artists and musicians. It’s an incredible feeling to have such amazing support from my peers.
It’s not just the instrumentalists and writers. The other voices on the album are pretty impressive as well: Dierks Bentley, Jakob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Gwyneth Paltrow all sing with you.
I’d never really thought about having another person sing with me on a record besides my mother (an amazing harmonist). But these are my friends and the people that I admire. I have no words for my respect and love for Jackson Browne’s music. What a voice! I called up Dierks and asked for him to lend his perfectly raspy voice to “Til’ It Runs Dry”, and we were thrilled with the outcome.
Charlie thought Jakob’s voice would be perfect for “Without You,” which it was. And Gwyneth happens to have one of the best harmony voices I have ever heard. She is so damn talented in so many ways! Her husband, Chris Martin, kept encouraging us to cut “Waiting on June” live – just Gwyneth, my husband and myself. He heard us sing it over and over on a summer trip and we decided to try it that way after a different version of the song was already signed, sealed, delivered. We flew to LA, the three of us recorded with two guitars and two microphones in one afternoon and we finished it. I am so happy with this raw, live version of this song. I think my Granny would be too.
It’s interesting that on “Without You,” the only song on here that acknowledges your famous family name, you’re singing with someone else who knows what it’s like to go through life with a well-known surname. It’s a really small club that you and Jakob Dylan are in.
I honestly didn’t think about that until after we recorded the song. Bob Dylan has always had a lot of love for my grandfather’s music and been very open with me about it. He invited me to be a part of his project “The Lost Notebooks”. I was thrilled to do that for him, and honored to have Jakob do this for me. He’s a true supporter of his fellow artists, and it’s been really inspiring to see him continue to work so hard year after year. [read full Q&A here]