It’s a fact noted in every feature about her that Holly Williams is country music royalty, as the granddaughter of Hank Williams and the daughter of Hank Jr. True as that may be, it’s never actually been all that obvious in her own music, and it certainly hasn’t made her a big conventional success. Williams’s own music is more in the area of sophisticated adult-contemporary pop with occasional country flourishes. Her songs might feature an occasional fiddle or slide guitar and her singing voice has a soft twang that comes more to the fore on the more country-oriented songs. With her upbringing, the studied subtlety and restraint of her music, not to mention her outside interests in fashion and cooking, might almost be taken as its own form of rebellion.
Rebellion or not, it’s an approach that has brought difficulties of its own. Her music has always been enjoyable enough listening, but appears to have been difficult to market to her obvious core country audience. Past album covers in the classic country-belle style — glossy poses of Williams looking all long legs, high boots and guitar — didn’t really reflect the content therein. And though her first two albums were generally fairly well reviewed, the music often seemed at odds with itself — the brightly polished production in the Nashville style didn’t really marry well with the subdued, downbeat songs she was writing. She left her label after, 2009’s Here With Me, and her new album The Highway has been released on her own independent label.
For The Highway, Williams pulled in a few celebrity friends to help on several songs. A major and obvious influence on her music, Jackson Browne, sings backup on “Gone Away From Me”, while fellow musical-legend progeny Jakob Dylan and even Gwyneth Paltrow feature elsewhere. But famous guests aside, The Highway is very much evolution rather than revolution for Williams. For better and worse, the album is in most respects a continuation of the direction she set on her first two albums, although there is perhaps more of an expansive country flavour here than previously.
Williams’ songwriting has tended to be serious, somber and introspective, sometimes to a fault, and that remains the case on The Highway. The songs on the album almost without exception aim to go into deep emotional territory — alcoholism, wasted lives, death, melancholy, heartbreak and the redemptive power of love are the main themes, returned to exhaustively (and exhaustingly) over the course of the album.
In isolation, there are rewarding moments amid all this plumbing of the depths, depending on your mood and your willingness to overlook Williams’s sometimes trite and unconvincing lyrics. “Without You”, in particular, is an affecting piano-led ballad that is one of the most obviously personal songs on the album, describing her own stuttering attempts to find a career and a path in life and love.
The album also has a few fun, upbeat rockers, a promising direction that Williams has tended to shy away from in the past. In “The Railroad” she takes on the persona of a gambling, moonshining preacher’s son wasting his life riding the rails and makes a surprisingly good fist of it, thanks in large part to the excellent, rollicking backing track. It’s the sort of song that hints at where Holly might have gone if she’d chosen to follow more closely in her dad’s musical footsteps, and the results are pretty interesting.
The title track is a more melancholy affair, a paean to touring with a band that feels like it’s from the heart and that builds to a satisfying crescendo behind a mournful slide guitar and a pleasantly loose rhythm section. Besides, for a woman that was almost killed in a car accident, it takes a certain amount of guts to pen a song called “The Highway”. The album’s other upbeat track, the opener “Drinkin’”, could have been equally good. It’s let down though by the mismatching of its strange passive-aggressive lyrics with a loose, good-time fiddle backing — her character asks an alcoholic, absent husband why he’s “cheating on a woman like this / I raise your babies and I kiss your lips”, but doesn’t seem inclined to do anything about it, before resorting to drinking herself — making an awkward listen. It’s a party song, with the host sitting crying miserably into a bottle in the corner of the room.
It’s this kind of lyrical tin ear that frequently lets the album down. Those with a high threshold for syrup might enjoy maudlin songs like “Gone Away From Me”, “Giving Up” and “A Good Man”, but they defeated me. The latter track finds Williams imaging the sudden death of her lover, and finding consolation in her having loved “a good man”. On “Giving Up”, she sings “Seventeen years with a wedding ring / The saddest damn story you ever seen,” a line as presumptuous as it is lazy — telling listeners how sad a story is is a poor substitute for making them feel it. Later in the song, after berating a mother on death’s door from alcohol abuse for abandoning “the daughter that you’re leaving / The man you used to love / And the son that cries for you,” the accusatory line “Well I guess this is it / You must be giving up” is delivered flatly, with none of the spite or sadness that would have made it convincing.
The closer, “Waiting on June” spends nearly seven minutes in tribute to her grandmother (written from her grandfather’s perspective), but the song’s spare backing and repetitive framing device (Count the ways someone can wait for June! Watch as she does her makeup, cooks dinner, and decides on a marriage proposal!) become suffocating less than half way through. Still, it’s one of the best vocal performances on the album and the ending is genuinely moving, if cloying. The issue is that Williams is often all too obviously straining to wring every tortured, disconsolate emotion out of these tearjerkers, and when the lyrics are as banal “I can’t believe Daddy’s really gone” and “Love is not as simple as it seems” it can hard for cynics not to roll their eyes.
Williams might be shooting for simple, earnest truths with many of these songs, but this is territory that has been mined so heavily over the years that it takes something really special to pull it off. Williams has a pleasant, listenable singing voice, with a soft twang that at times sounds like a female version of Ryan Adams. But, while her voice is adaptable, it doesn’t have enormous character or range and doesn’t have the special level of purity, richness or interesting rough edges needed to carry really simple songs on its own.
There will be plently of people who will feel I’m being too harsh on this album. Williams is a talented artist who is capable of making lovely, heartfelt music, and softer-hearted listeners than this one who are willing to meet her more than half way might find they make a real connection with this collection of songs. Personally, though, I found too many of the songs to be undermined by their own po-faced sentimentality and unremarkable delivery. I find it difficult to recommend overall, despite the presence of a few very good songs. On The Highway your mileage, as they say, may vary.