[8 July 2009]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
Take a look at the promotion Holly Williams has undertaken since her new album, “Here With Me,” hit stores two weeks ago.
She has performed on “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien,” played San Francisco’s prestigious Fillmore club and received glowing reviews from The New York Times and Chicago Sun-Times. Not exactly the flight pattern that a country artist normally takes when releasing a record.
But then, who said Williams is a country artist? Sure, there is the undeniable heritage to consider. The iconic Hank Williams is her grandfather, the rowdier and rockier Hank Williams Jr. is her dad; and country/metal hybrid Hank III is her half-brother. And, yes, when you notice how the singer is being marketed (her label is Mercury Nashville) and the artists for whom she is opening this summer (Sugarland being at the top of the list), you can’t help but think country is unquestionably her calling.
“What I do is still singer-songwriter music, though,” Williams said. “So I hope country music has a place for a female singer-songwriter.”
“I mean, there is no Mary Chapin Carpenter, no Emmylou Harris on country radio right now filling that void,” Williams said. “I would like to do that. But I would also still hope to play on a Steve Earle tour and then maybe a Keith Urban tour. At the end of the day, I’m singing these simple songs that I feel can be played to any audience.”
The tune that sits at the stylistic crossroads of “Here With Me” is “Mama.” Lord knows there have been enough tunes written for country-music mothers over the years, although most have been penned from a male perspective. Williams’ song is more of a family matter. Its inspiration draws from childhood years when the singer’s father was away touring, leaving her mother, Becky Williams, as the primary inspiration, musical and otherwise.
“My dad was touring 300 nights a year when we were young,” she said. “We knew he loved us, but sometimes we would go two months without seeing him. So my mom was my everyday influence — even from a musical standpoint. She would play classical piano every night and was always singing in the house. She also always had this incredibly positive attitude. My parents eventually split, but she never talked down about my dad. So this was my thank-you song to her.”
In the five years since the release of Williams’ debut album, “The Ones We Never Knew,” there was a major life interruption: a severe automobile crash in 2006 that also involved her sister Hilary Williams. The experience is reflected on the new album with “Without Jesus Here With Me.” The song’s title suggests where her inspiration came from. But there was another influence at work — Hank Williams Sr., the grandfather she never met.
“Hank’s words taught me everything,” Williams sings. “Thank God I saw the light for me.”
“The accident wasn’t necessarily life-changing in a spiritual sense,” Williams said. “I was raised in the church. But from a personal standpoint, when you’re in the hospital for a long time, you realize how much in your life you take for granted. I had broken bones in my arms and wrists but, really, I was spared physically. If you saw what happened to my car, you wouldn’t imagine being able to come out of that in one piece.”
Williams tends to distance herself professionally — but not personally — from her father these days to enforce the stylistic differences in their music. Lately, maintaining separate camps has been tough. For example, “Here With Me” was released the same day as a new Hank Williams Jr. album, “127 Rose Avenue.”
“Musically, I don’t think there is a role for him to play with my music other than just being a supportive dad,” she said. “We have always kept our musical lives unbelievably separate.
“In the beginning, I found clubs to play on my own, I found management on my own and I made Nashville contacts on my own. It was never like we were at some record company party and dad is introducing me. He would never go to any of those parties anyway.
“Every now and then I’ll get on stage and sing ‘Family Tradition’ with him. Mostly though, he’s not giving me any more advice than any father would give their kid.”