Holly Williams - No shortcuts for Hank's kin
With her blonde, leggy good looks, she might have become a model and there was a time in her mid teens when she actually did some modelling, although only in a small, local way and not to the extent that’s been portrayed. Acting also appealed. But Holly Williams’ path in life was established at seventeen, the day her sister brought a guitar home and having learned a few chords, Holly found songs started arriving from nowhere.
This wasn’t how it was meant to turn out. The grand-daughter of Hank Williams, the country music legend responsible for Your Cheatin’ Heart and a priceless catalogue of other songs completed in a life cut short, Holly had been shielded from her father, Hank Jnr’s on the road excesses as he coped with living up to the ‘son of Hank’ expectations through sex, drugs and onstage brawls.
“My dad didn’t want us to be around him when he was working because he didn’t want us to see him at his worst,” she says. “So we’d spend our time together on the family farm and I actually had to sneak into one of his concerts to see what all the fuss was about, back in the days when he was stripping to the waist and firing guns onstage. He didn’t really want any of us to go into music – he was just protecting us because he’d been pushed into the business by his mother – but when he saw that I was serious about it, he was very encouraging, told me to be myself and to take my time to develop my music.”
There would be no short cuts for Hank’s grand-daughter, and that’s the way Holly wanted it. Growing up with her mother – her parents divorced when she was nine – she wasn’t really aware of the Williams legacy. Her dad had only been three years old when Hank Snr died in his sleep while being driven to a gig overnight on New Years Eve 1952, and so had come to know his father second-hand, mostly from musicians who had played with him.
“People always ask what it’s like being Hank Williams’ grand-daughter and the truth is, I don’t really know,” says Holly. “My dad always talked about how funny he was, saying that despite the drugs and alcohol issues and all the sad songs he wrote, he remembers him as being a happy, smiling figure. He did happy songs as well as sad ones. Look at My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It and My Little Bocephus, which he wrote for my dad. So although my mum and dad stayed good friends after their divorce and never bad-mouthed each other in front of us, it wasn’t like we were brought up hearing about this famous grandfather we had all the time.”
In fact, it was only when Holly started listening to people like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, both big Hank Williams fans, that she realised how important an influence her grandfather had been as the prototype singer-songwriter. Determined not to follow the Nashville route of being groomed for show business, country style, she had steered clear of the music that was coming out of Music Row and studied at what she calls her own university: the classic songwriters of the past forty years, including Cohen, Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro and blues singer-guitarists Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell.
This was instead of formal university because, in an act of rebellion that chimes with her fondness for the Willie ‘n’ Waylon-led Outlaw Country movement over the manicured Nashville sound, she became possibly the first pupil ever at her very academically minded school not to go on to college. Instead, she got a job on the cosmetics counter in a Nashville department store to subsidise her music career.
“I became an outcast because going straight to work from school just wasn’t done,” she says. “But I was getting invaluable experience, playing gigs on Tuesdays, Wednesday and Thursdays, sometimes in an Irish bar, sometimes doing songwriter in the round places. My dad wouldn’t make calls recommending me or trying to play on the family connection – and I wouldn’t have wanted him to because I needed time to develop, find my own voice, learn how to relax with an audience and how to hustle for gigs. I didn’t go out on tour opening for my dad, although I did use the Williams name a few times maybe, but only because I wanted to play. I didn’t want to be like a lot of other Nashville hopefuls who get signed by labels before they’ve even played a show or have people thinking I was some kind of jetsetter.”
Originally giving herself a year to try to pursue her dream, she extended this to three years as playing solo and sometime with a small band, she began to build a small local audience around Nashville. She then moved out to Los Angeles, where she worked on her songwriting and learned piano as a second instrument, before getting her first real break, a European tour as support to Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith.
“I flew over with a guitar and a backpack full of five-song EP’s I'd made and took trains to each venue,” she says. “It was killer. I had just read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and it changed me. I was travelling along, soaking up every minute of it. I loved it.”
If she’d wanted to make it in music without being mollycoddled, she was getting her wish as back in the States, she began to get live dates all over, taking on those engagements that hardy road warriors wear like medals, where they drive for ten hours, play to a handful of people and get back in the car, drive hundreds of miles to a motel, grab some sleep and start all over again. The handfuls of people grew into hundreds and thousands as she toured with artists including John Mellencamp and Keith Urban and in 2004, she signed her first recording contract, releasing her debut album, The Ones We Never Knew, the same year.
It wouldn’t be a true Williams tale without some element of tragedy, though, and in March 2006, Holly was involved in a near-fatal crash when her sister Hilary’s car overturned on the highway just outside Memphis. Fortunately the arm she thought she was going to lose – the car landed on top of it - turned out to be only broken. The experience had a bearing on her songwriting, however: it’s now much more direct, she says, and her second album, Here with Me, just released in the UK, is generating positive reviews and airplay on country music radio stations back home.
“Songs still come from nowhere and they come all at once, lyrics and melody,” she says. “That’s something that goes back to when I was about eight and had a whole book of things I’d written but couldn’t explain. They’re usually personal. I can write something and look at it later and realise, oh right, that was when such and such was happening, although I couldn’t have sat down intentionally and written about how I was feeling at the time. Maybe it’s something in the blood after all.”