Holly Williams “The Highway”
By Terry Paul Roland
The importance of pedigree has long been a factor in the life and careers of American songwriters. The last 20 years have produced some of the best output from the offspring of veteran artists. Justin Townes Earle, Shooter Jennings and Lukas Nelson all rise from the shadows of their famous parents to extend their family names with originality and vision.
In the case of the offspring of Hank Williams Sr. quite possibly the most important country singer-songwriter to emerge from the 20th century, the family connections may not represent her artistic identify. Holly Williams aims to break the mold cast by her father, Hank Williams Jr., and half-brother, Hank III. Not that growing in their musical careers in the shadow of such a legendary family member has been easy. Nor have Hank Jr. and son been entirely vacant of some damn fine music over the years. Hank Jr. paid his dues being exploited during his childhood as ‘Hank’s Son,’ and then, overcoming the challenges after a mountain accident, his career has been a legacy unto itself. Hank 111, bearing an eerie resemblance to his grandfather vocally and physically, has managed to make his mark as an unpredictable alt-country-rocker with a metal-punk attitude and musical roots planted firmly in modern twang. However, both artists remain in the shadow of the lonely figure of Luke the Drifter who exhibited the same failures, successes and excesses as his son and grandson. Both artists remain referenced to the legacy of Hank Williams. Both stand in that family traditions forged by their self-destructive patriarch.
Not so with granddaughter, Holly Williams. Her talent for lyrically driven songs with heartfelt vocals links her to Hank Sr., but her style is far removed from the country-honky-tonk-blues her grandfather championed. From her debut release in 2004, The Ones We Never Knew, to her new album, The Highway, Williams has demonstrated the certainty of an artist who has found her own voice apart from her family tradition of rough and rowdy ways. In “Sometimes,” from The Ones We Never Knew, one of the few songs to mention her grandfather, she says about all she needs to say in a loving tribute to someone lost so many years ago:
“I wish I were an angel in 52′
In a blue Cadillac on the eve of the new year
And there I would have saved him,
the man who sang the blues
But maybe he is listening right now
Hopefully he’s listening right now”
Those lyrics, which began her recording career, are about all you will hear of her famous family ties. But, if she were an artist without the legendary family name, she would still be worthy of attention.
The Highway shows the full confidence of an artist who has come into her own with songs that deliver characters and stories with a yearning and warmth that draws us into each world she ably portrays. Like a short-story writer, her sense of truth is not always happy or pat, but still longs to be told midstream through the struggles felt as she moves through the curves of the highway of life she travels. What brings the depth and intimacy to these songs is Williams’ willingness to openly tell the stories of her maternal family while revealing her personal fears and joys. While it steers her far from the famous Honky-Tonkin’ Hank Williams ancestry, the stories are as classically rooted in the traditions of the American south as are the tales from her father’s side of the family.
“Gone Away From Me,” tells the story of Williams mother’s traditional visits to the family grave site in Louisiana on the 4th of July. It’s a powerful tale of family connection, mortality and grief. Jackson Browne provides a haunting background vocal adding a melancholy texture to this beautiful song.
“Waitin’ on June,” is the story of her maternal grandparents. It’s a song that is laced with love and compassion for her family as well as a haunting sense of longing for the memories of her grandmother and the life they shared together. The performance is recorded acoustic live with Gwyneth Paltrow on harmony vocals.
The title song, “The Highway,” is a love song to the road. Probably the most mainstream country friendly song on the album, it captures the experience of the road-weary musician who remains hopelessly in love with the highway she travels down in pursuit of her musical dreams.
The strength of the album production, by the Civil Wars’ Charlie Peacock, is the acoustically based approach to each song giving the vocals and lyrics the kind of focus that brings a center and a soul to the proceedings. Also, guest vocalists like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jackson Browne, Jakob Dylan and Dierks Bentley adds to the collaborative feel of the album. Rather than going for star-power, the guests are chosen because of the qualities they bring to the songs.
The Highway is poised to become the kind of album that has a timeless following for country and Americana fans. In the same way that Late for the Sky fleshed out Jackson Browne’s intimate songwriting skill or Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush provided career highlights that would reverberate for decades, Holly Williams has achieved a similar defining moment with The Highway. This tradition of songs from the core of her life is where Holly Williams has found her strongest family tradition.
Listen to “Drinkin” by Holly Williams
Holly Williams Giveaway:
Turnstyled Junkpiled has the hook up for two (2) tickets (one pair) to see Holly Williams at The Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles on Thurs. Feb. 6, 2013 (6:30 pm).
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