Here’s a great little interview with Holly Williams — you may know her as the granddaughter of country music legend Hank Williams, Sr. But she’s equally famous for her own songwriting career, and deservedly so. Her latest album The Highway, helmed by veteran producer Charlie Peacock, has earned her critical raves. We asked Williams about her family ties, the overuse of the word “baby,” the most annoying thing about songwriting and more.
Why did you name your new album The Highway?
This was the last song I wrote for the record. I could feel the desire to be back on the road building and building, and this song poured out one night. The album was finished and mastered, but it was really important to me to go back in and cut this song. After that there was no question in my mind that this was the title. It wrapped up everything I was trying to say on this album, and the most important and meaningful part of making music for me is getting out there on the road and playing it for people night after night!
Did you learn anything from working with Charlie Peacock?
He is an incredible talent. He taught me a lot about patience in the studio. If something isn’t working right or not sounding good, I am on to the problem solving and solution one second later. But you have to let things breathe and see how they affect you when you’re not standing smack dab in the middle of the confusion. There are things on this record that I was ready to bail on, but as soon as I stepped away and took a two day break from listening, the thing that bothered you isn’t even noticeable anymore! I learned through this that the hardest work is usually your best work.
You’re active in preserving Hank Williams’ legacy. What does that involve?
I’m trying to work with the estate in different ways to get him heard for the new generation. Website rebuilds, tributes, new merchandise… there are many things that need to happen sooner than later to get him back in the public eye this most important year. It would have been his 90th birthday on September 17th. It is very important for me to keep his amazing legacy alive and relevant.
Was there ever a time where his legacy made it hard for you to feel confident about your own songs?
No, you can’t go there as a songwriter. I don’t think Jakob [Dylan] would waste time comparing his songs to Bob, nor would I waste energy comparing mine to Hank’s. He was brilliant. My dad has some absolute gems on his catalog. I am really proud of some of my songs, and I’ve written crappy ones too just like everyone else. I write from a place of passion and need to tell a story, because I have to and it is only natural. I do the best I can with them, and hope that fans can see them for what they are. Separate from my family’s, but I hope still honoring them in a way.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Jackson Browne, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Thom Yorke, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Bon Iver, Tom Petty, Richard Thompson, Robert Johnson, Gillian Welch, John Prine, Elliott Smith, Merle Haggard, Stevie Nicks, the men in my family, and too many more to name…
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
Oh my heavens, it was called “Who Am I.” I wrote it when I was eight for Debbie Gibson to sing in my dreams. I still sing it sometimes, but it’s bad 80’s pop! It was a strangely heavy lyric for an eight year old, but those were always the lyrics I attached myself to…
What’s a song on The Highway you’re particularly proud of and why?
“Waiting on June.” It’s the true story from childhood to heaven about my grandparent’s on my mom’s side. I wrote it from the standpoint of my grandfather to my grandmother. Every word is true down to the order of the kids and the cook’s nickname. It’s really hard for me to get through it, then I’ll hear an audience member crying and that makes it worse. But it’s sad in the most bittersweet of ways. They had a strong love and a simple sweet life on their Louisiana farm that left a huge impression on me.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
Charlie Boy died in my arms
He saw Jesus I saw blood, it soaked her wallet picture that cold night
I told my best friend Charlie I would kiss his girls goodbye
He made me promise I’d go home and make miss June my wife
Shakin’ like a drunk old fool I hopped off of that plane
And I ran home to ask her in the rain
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
Easier, much easier. In the beginning you write all day, try a million things. It took years of touring for me to get comfortable with my voice and playing and writing, etc. I’m in a much more confident and familiar place now, and I write less than I used to. But I write songs I’m closer to and I truly love telling their stories, they don’t feel so fragmented like in the early days of writing.
Are there any words you love or hate?
Specific words? “Baby” should only be used if you’re under 18. Other than that, can’t think of any! They’ve all been used so much!
The most annoying thing about songwriting is…
When you are singing and performing the greatest song ever in a dream, and it wins song of the year at the Grammys, and you’re playing piano and everyone’s loving it, but you can’t seem to wake yourself up to write it in real life. This happens three times a year for me on average!
Do you do any other kinds of writing?
Yes, I write for my blog www.theafternoonoff.com — lots of recipes and foodie ramblings, travel guides, fashion essentials, etc. I did a Holly’s Kitchen column all of 2012 for Nashville Lifestyles magazine. One day I hope to write for many more mags, I love doing reviews, etc.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
“Giving Up” about a friend who is a mother struggling with addiction, “Mama” off of my last album about the way my mom gracefully handled her divorce with the children in the face of heartbreak, and “Waiting on June” off of this one is for sure the one that makes even the old men cry.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
A song with my grandfather, cliche-sounding but true. A book with Jack Kerouac.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Oh my lord, so many. Lori Mckenna and Malcolm Holcombe are the first two that come to mind…
What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
“Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen or “Hold On” by Tom Waits. They are both the absolute pinnacle of melody and lyrics that grab you and stop you in your tracks. The stories are all at once beautiful and heart-wrenching and they play like little movies in your head, every scene is absolutely captivating. I love songs with lots of mini-scenes; John Prine does that beautifully.