Southern View: Holly Williams

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There are few families in the country music world more filled with legend than the Williamses. Holly Williams is the granddaughter, daughter and half-sister of the most famous Hanks in the business (Sr., Jr. and II, respectively), but rather than ride the coattails of her familial success, the leggy, blonde, 32-year-old is determined to make it the old-fashioned way: with honest, hard work. Her eclectic taste (she identifies John Prine, Bonnie Raitt, Vince Gill, Radiohead, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Gillian Welch as influences), impeccable style (find examples at her Nashville boutique H. Audrey) and melancholy wanderer’s soul are showcased beautifully on her third album, The Highway. Here, she talks about the stripped-down record that focuses on the lyrics and the stories, built upon her own close-to-the-heart experiences.

Country music is deeply rooted in tradition and family, things you know a lot about. How does that influence your music?
It has always been natural to me to write about matters closest to the heart, and for me family is a huge part of that. The good and bad, the ups and downs. My family alone could provide albums and albums worth of writing material. I love them, but we all have our things to deal with. That’s what I love about the South though: you stick together no matter what. From the day I started writing, I always stuck to pretty simple chord structures and as honest lyrics as possible. It was in the blood.

You’ve talked about how The Highway feels like a fresh start. Why? 
It took me awhile to get comfortable in my own skin as an artist, performer, songwriter and as a player. Some people get it right the first time, and there are still songs from earlier albums that I love and I will always perform. But I had to get out there on the road and go it alone with just me and my guitar to figure out where I stood musically.

How has your legacy as part of the Williams family impacted your music? 
I can’t think of any way it’s affected my music and writing. In good and bad ways it’s affected press, ticket sales, assumptions and expectations, but I think when people see I’m on my third record, driving all over the country playing music in a Suburban, they can surely see I’m in this for the long haul. I’ve been writing since I was eight years old, and I’ve always written what was natural to me. I never really tried to fit in with a family mold. I’m amazed and so proud of what my family has done though, they are all wildly independent and focused. Hank Sr. was a true genius in my opinion. I adore what my dad has done. He is one of the most talented people on the planet, playing every instrument, and my brother has carved out his own punkabilly path, which I think is awesome!

How has growing up in the South shaped your music? 
I spent a lot of time on my grandparents’ farm in a tiny town called Mer Rouge, Louisiana. “Gone Away From Me” and “Waiting on June” are both portraits heartbreaking and happy of this place. I would rather be there than any place in the world. I learned the art of simplicity through growing up in the South, and what really matters. So many of my songs are influenced by all of these rich stories from our heritage.

When did you know music was your passion? 
I always listened to music, but we were only with my dad if we were on the farm. I didn’t play guitar until I was 18, though I had been writing lyrics forever. I remember the first day I wrote a song like it was yesterday, running downstairs to tell my mom I had found my calling. I knew immediately. That was 14 years ago; I’m still working as hard as I was then to get these songs heard. I didn’t care if I had to travel in a van for years and carry my own stuff everywhere, I just wanted to play music.

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