Although Hank Williams’ death at age 29 on January 1st, 1953, marked a premature end to what had been a remarkable career, his legacy has survived — and thrived — not only through his classic recordings but also through the two generations of family members who have forged their own paths in country music and beyond. Williams, who was born 95 years ago on September 17th, was followed into entertainment by his two children, Hank Williams Jr. and Jett Williams, and more recently by Hank Jr.’s children Shelton (a.k.a. Hank 3), Holly and Hilary with their own albums and musical projects.
In May, Hilary Williams released the LP My Lucky Scars, an uplifting, pop-splashed record of confessional country songs that picks up where Taylor Swift left off with Red. Produced by John Would (Fiona Apple, Graham Parker) and Lincoln Parish (Cage the Elephant), the album features a dozen tracks, eight of them co-written by Williams, who collaborated with Natalie Hemby, Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, Bobby Tomberlin and the Civil Wars’ John Paul White. An effervescent collection that winds through the struggles of heartache and pain but finds peace, gratitude and even inspiration along the way, My Lucky Scars would be an impressive debut under normal circumstances. But for a woman who actually died in a mud-soaked Mississippi field in 2006 — then again two days later in a Memphis hospital — it’s nothing short of a miracle.
The oldest daughter of the man his daddy lovingly nicknamed “Bocephus,” Hilary Williams grew up surrounded by music and was raised in a family that certainly had more than its share of success tempered with tragedy. In March 2006, Williams was driving with her sister from Nashville to Louisiana for her maternal grandfather’s funeral. Looking down at her iPod — which was playing Patty Griffin’s “Tony” — Hilary lost control, with the vehicle skidding across the road then flipping over four times. The events that followed were recounted in harrowing detail in Williams’ 2010 memoir, Sign of Life, chronicling her long journey from that horrific scene through dozens of surgical procedures to physical therapy and finally to her emotional return to the stage. The first song she performed was “Sign of Life,” which recalls the moments after the wreck when she lost consciousness, floated out of her body and encountered the spirits of her late grandparents, Hank and Audrey Williams, as well as Johnny and June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore.
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In a new interview, Williams shares the inspirations behind some of the songs, including a gorgeous cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River,” recalls the lessons and challenges of her recovery process, and what she’s learned as the descendant of two of country’s most influential artists.
How long do you think it was before you fully realized just what happened with the accident?
I was so drugged, like, the first few days, I had no clue. I didn’t realize how much stuff I had broken. I was so out of it, I don’t know, probably a week. I remember on that Friday, March 17th, when I died again — I didn’t realize I had died again, but I woke up and there was a team of doctors standing around my bed. It felt like a movie scene. They were all just staring me down, seeing if I was alive and responsive. They told my parents, “We’re not sure if she’s gonna make it or not, and we’re just keeping an eye on her.” I had a compound fracture, a hole in my leg, and they said, “If this reverse skin flap doesn’t take, we’re going to have to amputate the leg.” Thank God that didn’t happen. But [points to legs] I have scars back here, and the sides of my legs, here, and on the front of my stomach. I read something the other day that said scars are like tattoos, with better stories. I thought that was a great line. People always ask me, “Do you have any tattoos?” And I’m like, no, but I have scars, and they’re like my tattoos.
How tough was it to have to depend on other people for so long during your recovery? Have you always been pretty independent?
Very independent, even after the wreck. It was so weird for me to have people wait on me all the time. I remember my mom, she got me a little bell, and I’d say, “I’m sorry you have to wait on me.” And she’d say, “Stop apologizing!” [Laughs] But she’s that way, too. My dad’s like that, my sister. I guess we’re all just independent. But it’s good when you let other people help out.
At this point do you ever find yourself flashing back to the wreck?
It’s getting shorter and shorter. But the line that freaks me out in the Patty Griffin song, “Tony,” is “I think I might do a little dyin’ today.” Listening to that song, and then that happening to me, it took me quite a few years to listen to it again.
Once you reached a certain point in your recovery and got into the making of the record, did you have a particular sound in mind that you were interested in capturing?
I’m a big fan of Sheryl Crow, Coldplay, Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell. I just love their organic, but also poppy sound. I just wanted to blend the two together in honest, real songwriting. I was wanting to get back on my feet, and I had that goal in mind, to get back to doing what I love to do.
In terms of the songs on the record, what was it like for you having come through everything to then sing “Sign of Life” on stage for the first time?
The first time I performed it was at [Nashville club] 12th & Porter. My mom was there, and my sister was there, and close family and friends. It was just amazing to get back on stage and be signing again. I went, “Oh, my gosh, my dreams are coming true!” I wrote that song with Blu Sanders. I was still recovering at my mom’s house, and I wrote it from the hospital bed. I couldn’t walk at the time. I came up with that title because I told my doctor, I was in so much pain, and he said, “Pain is a sign of life.” It’s not a pleasant thing, but you know, that’s how we know we’re living, if we’re feeling pain.
You chose to cover song the Joni Mitchell song “River” on this album. Why was that?
I’ve always loved that song. I love Joni Mitchell. I’ve sung it a lot before, and people really loved it. I just love the lyrics in it and the honesty, the vulnerability in the song. It’s just a really pretty song. I actually did it in one take.
“Bedside Manner” is one on the record that has some bite to it and it’s also interesting because of some medical terms in the song. Did you write that about a specific person, and if so, does that person know?
[Laughs] It wasn’t about a specific person, but Natalie Hemby came over to my house, we wrote that, and she was naming all the song titles. She said “Bedside Manner,” and I said, “Oh, my gosh, I love that. Let’s write that.” I was just thinking about different people and kind of gathered upon those experiences.
Do you remember how old were you when you realized who your dad was, in terms of what he did for a living?
Like, third grade is when it hit me. I think I would have been like eight years old. I can’t remember how many times he’d won at that point, but he’d won Entertainer of the Year, and my teacher made me get up in front of the class and hold up a newspaper article and talk about how he had won Entertainer of the Year. I was a very shy kid. I was really happy for him, but I was really nervous to do that, too. I think that’s when it really struck me. But also, I realized like when I was four years old, I should say, because Mom took Holly and I, and I remember sitting on the side of the stage. I fell asleep in Mom’s lap, but I had earplugs in, and fans would be going crazy. Dad would be shooting guns in the air and I remember balls and bras thrown on stage, it was wild. I just remember seeing all these women sitting by the side of the stage with really hot jeans on, and I’m like, “What are they doing? Why are they just standing there?” [Laughs] I didn’t understand!
Did you sense any difference in how your classmates treated when they would find out he was your dad? Were they even aware of who he was?
In middle school, they were. That’s when he was really, really huge. Late Eighties, early Nineties. They would ask me for tickets and merch! This one kid called me “Bocephette” when I was in middle school. Every time I would walk down the hallway, he would shout that out. It got annoying, though, when he played [Nashville’s] Starwood Amphitheater because I was hit up from everybody for tickets. I’m like, “I’m only allowed a few, you gotta call Ticketmaster!” [Laughs]
What do you think is the best thing he’s ever taught you, either directly or just through watching him?
Well, the good thing is he’s never forced any of the kids to be in the music business. He just always wanted us to find our path, our own voice. He just told us to do our own thing, which was great. I think that’s really good advice. Just follow our own path and beat our own drum.