“I’ve seen the damaging effects of the unsaid—of not talking about the uncomfortable things,” Sam Williams tells American Songwriter in an interview about his debut album, Glasshouse Children. Released August 20 via Mercury Nashville, the introspective record offers an unobstructed view into the artist’s upbringing as the grandson of Hank Williams, and the son of Hank Jr. Cut from a famed paternal cloth, the 22-year-old wields inherited vocal talent to tell tales of hurt and loss and his hopes for healing and growth that might shift his family’s story to one of redemption.
His single “Can’t Fool Your Own Blood” was a strong entrance into the overarching concept. Penned with Mary Gauthier, Williams laughs as he recalls coming on strong with the lyrics. “I wrote the first line, I think Mama’s drinkin’ again and Mary was very hesitant,” he explains. “She was like, ‘Woah, I don’t know if we want to do that.’ But I explained that’s just the type of writer I am. It’s hard for me to like, pivot and scrap, and restart. That’s what I’m feeling. That’s what’s on my heart and what I’m good at. And so we went with it. And thank God we did, we made a beautiful song.”
Another co-write with Gauthier resulted in the album highlight “Happy All The Time.” Produced by Bobby Holland and Sean McConnell, the star-studded scaffolding on the song allows space for a shimmering vocal feature by country music icon, Dolly Parton. The wistful soundscape is a reflection of the struggles to fill the kind of void that no material wealth ever could. As the third generation of a family steeped in stardom, the message is critical to the emerging artist bearing a heavy mantle of country music tradition.
“I’d always envisioned Dolly singing on it, so I wrote her this sincere two-page letter, and when it finally got to her, she loved the track and said she’d be honored to sing on it,” Williams shared. He wrote the letter on a typewriter and anxiously awaited a response. Parton’s contribution adds levity to the burdened lyrics.
These two tracks, which Williams considers album “cornerstones” were crafted between 2017 and 2018. In the years since, he has been preparing space for the two standouts with other songs that, as a whole, paints a candid portrait of his life as he wants to world to see it.
“I didn’t want to put out important songs like that and not have something to back it up,” says Williams about those tracks. “It was important that I go through the process of writing songs that meant something to me, and at the time same, appeasing. I also needed songs that have commerciality and show versatility. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed in one spot. And I think that can be a pitfall of having artists that can do a lot of different things, hone in on one specific sound, or message.”
To avoid being compartmentalized, Williams reached for many hands to assist him along the way. Williams recorded Glasshouse Children primarily in Nashville with the production ear of Jaren Johnston (The Cadillac Three, Keith Urban, Tim McGraw), alongside others like the five-time Grammy-nominated producer, Paul Moak (Joy Williams, Ashley Monroe), Sean McConnell, Bobby Holland, and more. Beyond Gauthier, Williams leaned into co-writers including Dan Auerbach and Ronnie Bowman on the title track. Brandy Clark helped shape the slow-burning “Shuteye,” and Daniel Tashian stepped in to polish his country-pop sensibilities on “10-4.”
In addition, Ben Roberts stepped in to co-write some of the most poignant tracks on the record. The brief “Bulleit Blues” characterizes addiction over the course of just a minute and a half. Hunting harmonies share a painful perspective that Williams feels is critical to changing the narrative and expanding the conversation around tabooed familial topics. “The World: Alone” is especially painful. He released the song last October on what would have been his sister Katie’s 28th birthday. When he wrote the song in 2019, he never could have imagined the tragedy of losing his sister in a car accident the following year. The touching track speaks to the fragility of life, further emphasizing the importance of family.
The diversity of his collaborators allowed for a dynamic approach to each of the 10 varied tracks, which Williams describes as “all over the place, but still cohesive.” He adds, “I wanted to showcase a multifaceted approach, and to have something that felt country to me—but my interpretation.”
These songs, he says, are about “being a pattern-breaker and taking control of your own life.” In one regard, he is referencing toxic cycles and addiction—which is evident in his candid songwriting. But the sentiment expands into his artistry. Williams adds, “In my music, I’m supposed to be more of the pattern follower, be great, and live up to my family’s legacy.”
On the one hand, Williams is humbled by the praise he receives for his music that has merit without his last name. But, the artist explains there are also comments like ‘I don’t think Hank’s done it this way’ and questions like ‘Would Hank have a synth on his album?’ or ‘Would he wear this shirt?’
The answer to those questions is ‘probably not.’ But, that’s why Williams is here. His goal is to purvey the parts of his family’s contribution to country music tradition that he feels are worth preserving. Glasshouse Children is country music he has carefully distilled through his lineage to deliver to a new generation of listeners. The key to Williams’ individual contribution lies in his ability to craft a new sound for a new day.
Rather than following the same patterns that led his grandfather to an early grave, and created turbulence in his childhood home, Williams evolved. Glasshouse Children chronicles a third-generation artist who holds a deep reverence for his bloodline, and determination to correct the course of toxic familial patterns by addressing them head-on in his songs.
“I didn’t grow up in rural Alabama in the ‘30s, after the Great Depression, and during World War II,” he clarifies. “I grew up very privileged in West Tennessee in the ‘90s. It’s a stark difference. And it’s quite uncomfortable to be compared to the greats. I obviously share the same blood, the same DNA. So there’s some talent pushing through, a little bit got passed down. But I’m my own person. And I hope that comes through in the music.”
Listen to Sam Williams’ new LP Glasshouse Children, here.
Photo Credit: Alexa King