Third Generation Country Music Standing on Her Own Two Feet
by Lisa Morgan
Her grandfather’s name is carved into the very foundations of country genre and culture. Her father’s reputation for rebellion is as widely known and celebrated across the globe as his unique brand of music. One might assume that the granddaughter and daughter of these great American icons would have been handed a recording contract along simultaneously with her birth certificate. Not the case with the beautiful, talented and very down to earth, Holly Williams. Instead, she cut her own path. She learned to play guitar and piano, purchased her domain name and launched a website. She recorded an EP and booked herself in clubs around Nashville. She soon toured Europe with a backpack full of EPs and a charm that cultivated a loyal fan base. Williams’ music shows no signs of celebrity nor the weight of living up to family legacy. It is infused with the beautiful, gracefully told stories of growing up in the South with the lesser known members of her family, and the influential singer-songwriters of her childhood era. Williams took time away from her many “passion projects” to talk to me about her music and plans for the future, including her upcoming show at Stagecoach 2014, in Indio, CA.
“Dad didn’t talk about or play music or even play the radio around us when he was home,” shared Williams. ‘I’m not Bocephus here. I’m Daddy,” he would say.” Ultimately, on her own, she discovered Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jackson Brown, Bruce Springsteen and the music of many other 1970s singer-songwriters within her youthful grasp. “John Prine is one of my heroes. I get to tour with him a lot. I’ve just always wanted to hear the stories, without them getting lost in the band. Don’t get me wrong; It’s not that I don’t like big, rock band music – I listen to everything from Cold Play to Jay-Z. I just love hearing every lyric. As cliche as it sounds, songwriting was always in my blood. Since I was young, I had ‘Holly’s Song Folders’. I’d enter poetry contests. I wanted to be a poet or a writer, so I’d play and sing my songs just to get them heard and maybe land a publishing deal or have an artist pick them up. But then the stories became so personal, I started to think that it didn’t really make sense for someone else to sing them. And aside from being a loving, supportive dad, I don’t think he’s made one phone call for me. I wanted to be respected as a songwriter. It took me a long time to find my voice. Some people find their voice very young, but honestly, I was not 100% comfortable as a writer/performer until this last album (The Highway).”
In 2003, Williams signed with Universal South and toured with Billy Bob Thornton, Jewel, Train and Keith Urban, among others. Her debut album, The Ones We Never Knew released in 2004, gained critical acclaim. Her second album under Mercury Records, Here With Me, released in 2009, received even greater recognition. People Magazine named it “one of the best top ten albums of the year”. Billboard called it “one of the best singer/songwriter albums to come out of Nashville”. And USA Today said, “there’s purity and potency in her milk and whiskey kissed singing”. Williams contributed along with Jack White, Norah Jones, Merle Haggard and Lucinda Williams to “The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams” released in 2011.
Her most recent work, The Highway, which she co-produced with Charlie Peacock (The Civil Wars) was released early this year, once again to the praises of the critics. American Songwriter Magazine said, “Williams has recorded her most accomplished, mature and world weary album. Even Hank Sr. would be proud.” The New York Times stated, “Williams is often closer to songwriters like John Prine or Bruce Springsteen than the smiley Nashville mainstream.” And People Magazine predicts that “it is sure to go down as one of the year’s best country albums.” This labor of love was done with the help of her husband and fellow musician, Chris Coleman (who co-wrote on two of the albums songs). Artists Dierks Bentley, Jakob Dylan, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jackson Browne contributed with background vocals on the album as well.
“I’m an artist that has sold 30,000 records independently, driving around in a van,” she shared. “I probably could have taken bigger deals along the way, but I knew it didn’t really make sense. Although, at the time,..it seemed like the easy road…I still struggle with that. I’ve had major labels offer tour buses and stylists and hair dressers. But a lot of the time, you end up having to give up 100% of your control. For the music I’m doing, it’s just easier to do it independently. I’m 33 now. I’ve been doing what I love for 15 years. I’m not in a tour bus yet, but I play for 200 people in really beautiful rooms. I’m a long way from where I started out with people in the audience shouting, ‘I want to hear Hank’s song.’ ”
In March of 2006, between the release of her first and second albums, Williams and her sister were in a life threatening automobile accident. William’s sister suffered the brunt of it. “She actually died and went to heaven, was pronounced dead and then revived. I couldn’t think of anything other than that, and I went into medical mode. I had a broken arm, wrist and shoulder and I didn’t know if the feeling in my fingers would come back and I’d be able to play guitar again, so I had to come up with a ‘Plan B’. I didn’t go to college for this, but I put together a business plan, found investors who believed in it, and opened H. Audry (a higher end women’s retail store). We’ve been through some hard years with the recession, and it’s a lot of hard work, but I love it. We opened a new store in December. It’s another passion project. I always felt that if music was the only thing I did, I’d get way too much into my own head, and start thinking that the world revolves around me. It’s such a nice break to stare at denim inventory numbers and buy candles. Today’s Friday, and I probably won’t pick up a guitar until Monday. It’s a really nice balance to be passionate about different things, and I have the most amazing employees.”
Williams will finish up her tour in Europe and hopes to slow down sometime in August to begin working on a new album. In regards to what we can expect from her on this next album, she explained, “It is kind of a blessing. Radio hasn’t played me because I’m too left of center, so I don’t have any rules. I can play the music I want to, and just try to write the best songs I can. I would have never dreamed that a 7 minute folk song, ‘Waiting on June’, would be the most requested song I do live! I’ll be keeping that in mind as I write for the new album.”