Jack Kerouac and Holly Williams were both born on March 12. More telling than that detail itself is the fact that the 31-year-old Nashville-based singer-songwriter offers it up as a way of explaining why she's never seemed too keen on being groomed for country stardom — even if she is Bocephus' daughter.
"I had the Kerouac spirit," Williams says. "We were born the same day. I just wanted to travel, travel, travel. I could've probably gone and tried to get a major label country record deal and put out other people's songs and put on a cowboy hat and done the Hank Jr. thing and — I don't know — maybe made some freakin' money. But I was independent, and my parents raised me like, 'Go find what it is you want.' "
Williams has indeed landed two separate major label deals, but the resulting pair of albums spotlighted her songs, skirted the hat issue and turned out to be a little too muted for the mass country audience. On her self-financed third full-length, The Highway, she's finally made clear that she knows what she's after, and it's no simple thing.
Williams closes her new album with a nearly seven-minute narrative titled "Waiting on June" that brims with nostalgic longing for her grandparents' lasting bond. (That's her maternal grandparents as opposed to Hank Sr. and Audrey.) Before that come two love songs dedicated to her husband Chris Coleman: In "A Good Man," she savors what she has in him; "Without You" contrasts her solo guitar-and-Kerouac-toting European treks and foreign flings with how much more satisfying her life is with him in it. It's evident, though, that Williams doesn't regret those freewheeling experiences. The album gets its name from a song that's all about her urge to roam around playing her songs.
Williams and Coleman — Luna Halo's former drummer and sometime Kings of Leon sideman — married in 2009, months after the release of her second album, Here With Me, and he's since taken on a collaborative role with her as co-writer and guitarist. Without making a show of it, Williams is challenging the fallacy that feminine women can't identify as troubadours. And, as an important counterpoint, she's refusing to buy the myth that building a life with a partner and enjoying freedom as a performer are mutually exclusive.
"It's complicated," Williams allows. "I'm from a very big family. I really want a big family. But I'm not on a tour bus. I'm in a van roughing it every day, and I don't really want a baby in a van. Right now my season is putting out this batch of songs that I love and I'm super proud of and doing this all independently on my own label, working my butt off. ... And I've been blessed to have my husband with me to do so many of the shows. It would be harder if I was out there and he was in another country all the time.
"A lot of my favorite female artists don't have kids," she adds. "As far as I know, Bonnie Raitt doesn't have kids; Patty Griffin doesn't have kids. They focused on road-dogging it for years. So I really want to find that balance." (To make things even more complicated, she also has a high-end clothing boutique, H. Audrey, to run.)
As examples go, Williams learned more from the sweat equity her dad put in over the years than his big, boisterous live productions. "That arena show is perfect for him," she says. "He sits down with his guitar and piano and then he plays these killer, wild songs, and they're these anthems for country people. But it was never natural for me to write that kind of stuff."
Williams found her musical model in a performer who's of that same generation but inhabits a very different world. "The first time I saw Jackson Browne really changed a lot for me," she says. "I started listening to a lot of Tom Waits and Dylan and '70s singer-songwriters. I saw [Browne] play at a theater, and I'd never in my life seen everyone know every word, not just the singles."
In a bloodline packed with imposing personalities — her half-brother Hank III included — Williams has quietly staked out her territory as a confessional singer-songwriter in the tradition of the classic rock-era storytellers. Browne is one of several guests on The Highway, as is Dylan's son Jakob. And the elder Dylan — a famous Kerouac fan himself — invited Williams to flesh out a lyric fragment of her grandfather's and record the finished song, "Blue Is My Heart," for The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams.
"I want to honor the legacy," Williams says on her way back from a songwriter festival in the Florida panhandle, "while still being able to just sing what I'm singing."
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