Holly Williams: Keeping the Family Tradition
There's a lot you'll learn about singer-songwriter Holly Williams from listening to her just-released album, 'Here With Me.' She's got a loving and supportive mom; she's intrigued by international men; and she knows she's blessed to be alive.
But there's one thing that isn't quite as obvious in the deeply introspective music and lyrics of this 28-year-old: Holly Williams is country-music royalty -- the granddaughter of Hank Williams and the daughter of Hank Williams Jr. And while those are facts she's not trying to keep from anyone, achieving success on her own terms was far more important than trading on those famous – and impossible to live up to – names.
The Boot sat down with Holly to discuss her family legacy, the life-changing car accident that nearly took her life, and her own "wilder" days that led to getting busted at a Hank Jr. concert.
When did you first realize how important your father and grandfather were in country music?
I didn't really get aware of who Hank Sr. was until I was much older, because my dad was so famous that it really overshadowed the Hank Sr. thing growing up. All my friends I went to high school with were Hank Jr. fans and would come out and drink beer at the shows. So everyone knew [who he was] at my school. The only time people would really freak out was if I was on spring break in Panama City and one of my friends would tell some of the guys down there. They'd be like in shock.
There's so little film footage of your grandfather available, when you hear his music are you able to picture him in your head?
Not really. I think about the music more, and I think about who he was as a writer, more than like a visual character. It's just as amazing to me that I'm his granddaughter as it is to anyone else.
Did you go out on the road much with your father when you were a kid?
Very rarely. He always kept me and my sister [Hilary] very protected from the road, especially when we got older. [There were] maybe five or six shows where we'd do the whole "star" thing ... you know, bring the limo, get in the plane, fly to the show, fly right back. And it was awesome. We'd sit on the side of the stage and watch him do his show. Later in my teenage years, there was one show in Nashville that I snuck into with my friends because he didn't want us there. They were just so wild. If he knew we were there, he'd want us backstage. He didn't want us out in the rowdy, drunk, wild crowds. But I went one year and he called me out from the stage, and the tour manager took me backstage and I got busted, which was kind of funny! But other than that we really didn't go to many. He always said, 'I'm not Bocephus to you, I'm Daddy,' and he kept the music life very separate.
You started writing at eight years old. What kinds of things were you writing at that age?
They were definitely a lot more introspective than most eight-year-olds, just heavier issues. I really had a pretty normal childhood, even though my dad was Hank Williams Jr. So I don't know where they were coming from. They were just little droplets from God, kind of like they are now.
One of the songs on the new album is 'Three Days in Bed,' about an affair with a Frenchman. True story?
There's a true story in that I've always had a weakness for falling in love with international men -- anyone cultural and traveling the world. But I didn't literally spend three days in bed! I've had brief crushes on French men, but I don't want people to hear it and think it was like I literally went over and found some dude and hopped into bed with him. There is truth in it but it's not truth to that extent. But part of the fantasy was that a lot of women who haven't gotten to travel internationally like me can only dream. It's nice that when I'm old I can look back one day and be happy that I got to meet a hot Italian man and learn about the culture for a while. So the song is not about my fantasy, it's about women sitting at home changing diapers, doing laundry. That song can maybe take them away from that.
How do you deal with reviews of your music and your shows?
I made the mistake of getting on YouTube, and 103,000 people had watched the video for 'Three Days in Bed.' And even though 90% was positive, the 10% that was not was just ruthless. You have those people that say "she sounds like a dying animal" and all that stuff. But then I went to other people's sites, Taylor Swift and people like that, and there are always haters. The good thing is my personality is strong enough where I'll go, 'Oh well, moving on!' Some people, it can really make them sleepless for a week. I remember on the first album someone gave me half a star. They also hated my dad. But I remember reading it and it was like the most depressing thing, the coldest day of the year, and I was in a Super 8 motel on tour, and I was like, 'This is so depressing.' But you can't get too worried about it.
'Mama' is a really personal song about your parents' divorce. Was it hard for you to write? Or hard for your dad to hear?
It was really easy to write, because I'd seen so many experiences of the other side. I realized how many friends of mine were bitter towards their mom, or were put in the middle of the divorce. But I get along with my parents great. I don't have any weird issues. My dad would always say, 'Well, it's because you have a great mom.' I just realized, wow, Mom put up with a lot. I'm sure she had things to complain about but she didn't, and she raised us great and she always had a smile on her face and was always positive, and such a light. The words just spilled out. It was a very quick burst of emotion. It wasn't overemotional for me to write, or really difficult and felt really natural. I was still wondering what Dad would think about it, because of what it says about the whiskey and the women and all that stuff, but he was fine with it. We're all adults and we know what went on.
'A Love I Think Will Last' is a light and humorous song, and there aren't that many on this record. Do you write much in that lighter vein?
I wrote that song and 'I Hold On' with Chris Janson, my ex-boyfriend. We broke up in December, but we've managed to stay friends. We dated for three years. It was a long time. He's an unbelievable artist in Nashville, a rockabilly genius harmonica player, and a great songwriter. He was more the influence for that song. He brought the melody to me and we wrote the lyrics together. I love the whole Johnny [Cash] and June [Carter Cash] up-tempo country duets -- 'Jackson' and all that stuff.
As many people know, you and your sister Hilary were both seriously injured in a car accident near Memphis in 2006. How did the whole experience change you?
It changed ... not really my work ethic because I was always working hard and touring and all of that, but [it] was more about [realizing that] I want more than 10,000 people to hear my record, and I need to find an outlet where I can do that. The whole female singer-songwriter genre is nonexistent. I just wanted to do as much as I could with this record. And personally, I was never really the type to have big fights with people. I didn't really have any of those things where it's going to make me nicer to people or not get so mad. I hate drama and I hate confrontation. I like things to be very peaceful. But it made me not take my health for granted. There is not one day that goes by when I'm in the shower that I don't say, 'Thank you, God, that I'm washing my hair, that I'm moving my limbs.' Because it's a miracle that my right arm is still here. The car was totally on top of it. They couldn't even believe that my arm was still here. My sister is walking on a cane, and even though she's doing better, she'll never be able to go jogging in the park or walking in the mall for hours, or anything like that. And when you're in the hospital for that long, it just changes your view about the people who deal with people in wheelchairs, because we had her in a wheelchair for a year. I don't even know how they do it. The respect level has just grown tremendously. I pretty much have perfect health. So I can just wake up in the morning, take a shower and run out the door and I'm ready. My sister has diabetes too, so she has to wake up, do her shots, do her wound care, do the cane. It's such a process for getting out. So it really changed my whole life. Anytime I have a problem come up or an issue, I think, 'I have my health and thank God for that.' I can still go out and do whatever I want to. I can go rock climbing, I can do anything.
You opened the H. Audrey designer boutique, now frequented by the likes of Carrie Underwood, Sheryl Crow and Faith Hill. What made you decide to do that?
[After the accident], I didn't know if I was going to sign with another label. I was just in a period of not knowing if I was going to be able to play guitar again normally, or what's going to happen when the casts come off. So I wanted to have a backup plan. I finally talked the bank into giving me a loan. I wrote business plan after business plan. It's been open for a year-and-a-half. I do all the buying, and I have great employees. It's nice to come off the r
oad and go fold jeans for a couple of hours, just do things that take my mind off music all the time.
Do you ever think about designing your own clothing line?
I would love to if I had the time. That is one of my dreams. When I was a little girl I designed all my own clothes, way before I was even doing music. I wouldn't want to be like "Holly Williams and someone," where they do the designing and you just kind of follow it. I would really want to do all the drawings and sewing work.
I assume another positive thing that came out of the experience is the song you wrote called 'Without Jesus Here with Me'?
When we were growing up, my mom was a Christian. She was the non-judgmental, healthy one to be around, the normal one. She just taught us love for everyone and all those things so that really inspired that. Because it was a miracle that we lived it was a miracle that my sister lived and was able to keep her legs and all of that. So it's just kind of my thank-you song for all of that.