Holly Williams Follows Family's Americana Tradition on 'The Highway'

Daughter of Hank Williams Jr. writes about her mother's kin on new album

Holly Williams
Kristine Barlowe
Holly Williams
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Although The Highway is Holly Williams' third album, the singer-songwriter regards it as something of a fresh start. She paid for it, for one thing, and she's releasing it on her own Georgiana imprint after stints on major labels.  

"This really almost feels like my first album, in a way," Williams tells Rolling Stone. "It feels like a new launch."

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That's true on the creative side, too. The Highway is a simpler, more stripped-down affair, full of rootsy songs that emphasize storytelling more than in the past. However, creating it wasn't as easy as Williams (daughter of Hank Williams Jr., granddaughter of Hank Williams) thought it would be; what started as a few weeks in the studio with Charlie Peacock of the Civil Wars stretched into nine months, and what seemed at one point like a finished record turned out to be incomplete when inspiration struck again.

"It was done; it was called Railroads and it was nine songs," she says. "I'd paid for the mastering, artwork and everything, and then one night, I wrote 'The Highway.'"

She felt the song belonged on the album, so she added one more, and nine tunes became 11, including showcases for guest vocals from Jackson Browne, Jakob Dylan, Dierks Bentley and Gwyneth Paltrow. "Part of me worried that it would overshadow the record, like, 'Oh, it's Holly and four celebrities,' but it kind of feels like Hank Williams Jr. and Friends."

That's the 1975 album that featured Hank Jr. playing with pals like Charlie Daniels and moving toward country rock, away from the deep shadow of his father's legacy. Williams grew up mostly unaware of her family's country music pedigree, though.

"It took me a while to really understand the legacy," says Williams, 31. "Growing up, I was really not exposed to the music business. My dad would always say, 'I'm not Bocephus, I'm Daddy.' We would be on the farm, we would hunt, we would fish, but there were very few concerts when I was little. His concerts were so wild, he did not want us anywhere near them. People think we'd have breakfast with Garth [Brooks] and dinner with Waylon [Jennings]."

She pauses, then laughs. "The one person we did spend a lot of time with was Waylon, but it was only going to his pool in the summer and playing with the floaties," she says.

Williams didn't listen to much country music as a kid, gravitating instead toward songwriters like Browne, Tom Waits and Laura Nyro. She discovered her family's influence through other artists. "I fell in love with Leonard Cohen and found out he was a fan of Hank's," she says. "Same with Dylan, finding out he was a fan, same with Springsteen. So there were a lot of things that felt like a strange circle: these people I loved so much were inspired by my grandfather, and now they've inspired me." 

Williams writes about her family on The Highway, but she focuses more on her mother's side. When her maternal grandparents died in the time between her 2009 album Here With Me and this one, the singer found herself contemplating a different kind of family tradition, resulting in "Gone Away From Me" and "Waiting on June" (which is about her grandmother, not June Carter).

"After they were gone, I just realized not only how much I missed them, but the kind of legacy they left, the impression they left on me, and I just wanted to capture it somehow," Williams says. "It all just kind of fell out one morning. I was washing dishes and thinking about their relationship and the constant love they had and commitment my grandfather had."

It's the kind of commitment Williams seeks to emulate in her own life. She got married recently, and she owns the H. Audrey clothing boutique in Nashville, which she says has become a profitable business with six employees. Not least in this process: finishing The Highway, which required its own sort of perseverance. She says, "It was blood, sweat and tears, and the best time of my life, too."