Holly Williams Doesn't Think Country Needs Radio Anymore
Holly Williams, the 31 year old granddaughter of the iconic Hank Williams, has grown into a formidable artist all her own. Unlike her off-his-rocker dad and her crazy-ass half-brother, Hank Williams III, Holly hasn't really dabbled in the stone-cold honky-tonk sounds that her family has been making for decades. She plays with Loretta Lynn on Saturday, January 9th at the Arlington Music Hall.
Following up on her excellent 2009 album Here With Me, is the even more excellent, newly-released country-folk gem The Highway. While she wrote all 11 songs on the album, she had an impressive list of collaborators. Lori McKenna and Sara Buxton co-wrote some tunes with her, while Charlie Peacock (Civil Wars) produced the record. And the album's guest vocalists include Dierks Bentley, Jackson Browne, Gweneth Paltrow and Jakob Dylan.
It seems as this might be the album where folks finally catch onto the quality Williams produces. Not only has the new album received almost unanimous critical praise, she recently performed on Jay Leno and is currently touring with the awe-inspiring Loretta Lynn (which brings her to Arlington on Saturday night) before she soon takes off for a lengthy run of dates with Sheryl Crow. In a twist that seems to becoming more the rule than the exception, this is now happening for her as she releases her album from the new label she created, Georgiana Records. It's not a a stretch to suggest that fans of the recent explosion of rootsy artists finding success, such as The Civil Wars, Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons will find plenty here to sway to.
We recently caught up with Williams as she was rehearsing with her band in preparation for the craziness of the upcoming year. Here we discuss the resurgence of roots-minded bands, her impressive collaborators and how she's glad that country radio isn't in control of her career path any longer.
Your new album has one of the more impressive rosters of guests artists I've seen in a long while. How did wrangling all of those people come about?
It was all completely unplanned. When I started making the record, I didn't think I would have anyone join me to sing. As we did more and more, it started to make sense, though. The first guest we had was Gwenyth [Paltrow]. We'd become friends years ago and she has a killer harmony voice, and after we a played around with the song, "Waiting on June", for a while, it just came out naturally. We decided to cut it with just our voices and acoustic guitars, instead of adding more instrumentation to it, so it would keep that natural sound. On "'Til It Runs Dry," we needed a third part harmony to go with my husband (Chris Coleman) and I. Well, Nashville's a small town and everyone knows everybody, so we called up Dierks Bentley, whose voice was perfect when he came in to sing his part.
The big one for me, was having Jackson Browne be a part of this. My manager called him up, and I said, "There's no way he knows who I am, he won't do this." But he liked the songs and asked us to come out to L.A. to record the song together. All of this was organic because the decisions were made as we created the record, and not before we knew what we wanted.
Are you drawn to the simple combination of a voice and an acoustic guitar?
I really am. I wanted to focus on simplicity on this record and highlight the lyrics. I love my other records, but they sometimes feel overloaded with production, which is how it goes when you're with a major label and that's cool if you want it that way at that time. I've toured as an acoustic act many times and people would come to me after the shows and ask where they could buy the acoustic versions of the songs I played, but of course, I didn't have those available. I wanted to capture that with a piano, guitar and vocals, then build the song from there if it needed it.
It's funny, because it takes a lot more skill to get things right when you want it to sound simple. There are other instruments on this record, so we just made a point to showcase the story as best we could without getting in its way. I've learned that from listening to John Prine, Tom Waits and Bonnie Raitt records. There's a time and place for big production, but I wanted this to be a story-telling record.
Approaching the songs for the new album in such a manner suggests that you're not very worried about getting big hits or tons of country radio airplay. Is that true?
I've been on two major labels, and I'm not an artist who hates the majors, but in that scenario, it's always about what radio thinks and who plays your songs. If country radio doesn't think you and your songs fit, then you're sitting at home, not doing much, wishing you were on tour. For this record, I wanted to be in-control of when it was released and when I went on tour. I want those things so I can build a long-term career. My goal is to be able to sell-out 2,000 seat theaters someday. It's not about hits and playing arenas. My music doesn't fit in to that word, really. I get support from CMT, who also play The Avett's and Mumford and Sons, who aren't yet considered mainstream in the country world. I try to not let any of that get into the middle of what I do. I'm glad that my career will now be based on touring and connecting with audiences instead of whether country radio thinks I fit into what they are playing.
Speaking of The Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons, why do you think audiences are responding to such roots-based bands in major ways these days?
I feel like the quality of indie musicians, combined with the capability of what can be done on the internet has just opened things up to where we don't have to solely rely on what the radio tells us what's out there. Things are in-place for artists to build fan-bases on their own now, more than before, of course. As for the music, I think people are getting tired of the over-produced feel of a lot of the pop music out there. People want something to really latch onto that's real and to a band they feel is going to be around for years instead of that person with one, huge hit that's nowhere to be found a year down the road. In general, I think people just want an authentic musical experience.
Do you think these popular roots and folk acts will continue to be authentic the more popular they become?
Actually, I have a friend who's a roots musician now on a major label. He told me the other day that he feels like a small organic farmer that's been told Wal-Mart wants more of his produce. He's not sure how he's going top control the quality of his music. He wants to keep playing with the same guys he always has, but the label wants more from him. He just doesn't want things to go overboard.
You're coming to the Dallas-Ft. Worth area to perform with Lorettta Lynn. Given your family history, I have to assume that you've known her or at least met her before, right?
I've never actually met her, so I'm thrilled to play these shows with her, of course. I'm also doing some shows later with Sheryl Crow, which I'm also really excited about. I've got a lot of things going and it's all very exciting.