A Driving Force, Holly Williams Finds Her Way Along The Highway

Don't tell Holly Williams that the road is a lonesome place. To begin 2013, there's nowhere else she'd rather be.

Of course, it took a while for the thoughtful singer-songwriter, a breath of fresh Americana heir within country music's royal dynasty, to get back there. And while there are so many interests dividing her time -- from fashion to cooking to blogging to deer hunting -- she seems determined to avoid any dead ends and keep moving forward.

Williams is drawn to The Highway, and not just because it's the name of her new record released today (February 5).

On a song written by Leon Payne, Hank Williams sang about going astray on the "Lost Highway," but his willful granddaughter born 28 years after he died sees it in an entirely different light, singing 72 seconds into her title cut:

I should be wearing out the blacktop /
Out there with the boys I love /
Everybody will you roll with me, roll with me /
Running down the street /
Hey, get me out there on the highway

In fact, that's where she is right now, opening selected shows this month for Sheryl Crow and Loretta Lynn, while playing material dating to her luscious 2004 debut The Ones We Never Knew, and complementing it with juicy covers such as "Hold On," one of her favorite Tom Waits songs that she recently learned to play. The road load that includes numerous headlining gigs will be heavy through July, when she'll support John Hiatt.

Williams seems almost as content now to just cozy up to her musician-husband Chris Coleman and their two Labrador retrievers, but she apparently inherited that willingness to express herself musically in the Music City she still calls home, even if her "left-of-center" music doesn't fit the country radio format.

Ready to turn 32 in March, she appreciates the support CMT and channel executive Leslie Fram have shown by naming her one of its 10 "Next Women of Country," though "some people call me a folk singer and some people call me a Sarah McLachlan No. 2 or ... it's like so confusing the titles that people put on you," Williams said over the phone last week.

Before hitting the road, there was a trip to H. Audrey, the cool clothing boutique she owns, to choose an outfit off the rack for her appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno two days later, where she'd perform the swampy "Let You Go" with Coleman (guitar), Annie Clements (upright bass), Ian Fitchuk (drums) and Bucky Baxter (pedal steel).

"It's not that I'm not country or I'm trying to shun the country audience," Williams added. "I am a singer-songwriter. It's a little different from what the mainstream genre is playing right now for country. But that doesn't mean to say that there aren't people out there who may love CMT and watch it and want to hear something that's a little more organic like this."

Grouped with rising country stars such as Ashley Monroe, Kacey Musgraves, Kelleigh Bannen and Lauren Alaina, Williams admitted, "We're all a little different. ... When I'm on the piano, I don't think that (my songs) have anything to do with country music. But we all have our little shtick, you know."

Williams made the most significant change of her career by going the independent route on The Highway. Her third album is the first on Georgiana Records, the label she created and named after the Alabama town where her legendary grandfather was born.

Her major-label departure came about as a result of a "heart-to-heart" talk with Luke Lewis, then-president of Mercury Nashville, which released Here With Me in 2009.

Realizing her introspective songs were meant more for intimate audiences than outdoor amphitheatres, Williams recalled telling Lewis, "That is what I feel like my calling is and the path I need to go down."

She said his supportive response, which made an impression, went something like this: "We can do this again if you want. We can go out and cut other people's songs and try to get you a country radio hit, but that just doesn't sound like what your goal is. You want to be doing theaters when your 60. It's not about the now. It's about the long career building."

That positive reinforcement was all Williams needed to make the move. "And so I'm not one of the artists you meet that hates major labels," she said.

"It was very mutually beneficial. ... I remember leaving that day at lunch and going, 'You know what? Let me try to figure this out on my own. And write songs and figure out how to get there down the road where my career is determined by me and how much I'm willing to work and I'm willing to put out there and the quality of songs I'm writing and not by one radio song.' "

Williams didn't pull the trigger as fast as she talks, though. After the release of Here With Me, her life was filled with momentous occasions. Most notable were a quick engagement and marriage to Coleman, the former Luna Halo drummer she has known for so long that the year they first met escapes her, but it was "probably 1999."

"He remembers meeting me and claims I was on the phone and not paying attention to him," Williams said. "I don't know, it just happened out of the blue. We started writing together and making music, and Lord knows what happens with that. And then when you start making music, then you start making out. Then you're like, Oh shit, I'm in love with you.' "

Despite "too soon" protestations that Williams heard from everyone who "thought I was pregnant," the wedding took place Sept. 27, 2009, only eight weeks after they officially announced their engagement.

"Then we did like eight weeks in Europe for the last record and it feels like we've been going nonstop ever since then," she offered.

Saying, "Oh my gosh, I could barely scramble an egg at 27," Williams decided it was time to start making meals instead of babies and records. Out of necessity more than anything.

"Well, my husband was like, 'We're gonna have to figure out something so we're not eating like tuna packages every day,' " Williams said of her indoctrination as an undomesticated newlywed.

Cooking became her therapy, and the process doesn't take nine months -- like it ultimately did with The Highway.

"A meal, if it ruins, I go, 'Screw it, we're ordering a pizza, throw away the burned chicken.' But it feels, I think that with buying for a clothing store and with cooking and with writing, to me they're all equal forms of creativity and building," she said. "You build a meal, you build an outfit, you build a song. Maybe that's just a weird female-who-loves-to-shop kind of philosophy on it."

Williams received help and encouragement from two of her best friends who are "serious, serious cooks" -- Jill Wade and budding singer-songwriter Jessie Baylin, who's married to Kings of Leon drummer Nathan Followill, a groomsman in Williams' wedding.

While not crazy about 5 a.m. wake-up calls, Williams took up deer hunting to put fresh meat on the table as an alternative to the factory farming she totally opposes.

Receiving cookbooks by Julia Childs and Alice Walters as gifts inspired her to prepare three-hour roasts and make dishes like venison chili and what's now her specialty -- cinnamon-braised short ribs over gnocchi. "Not the redneck chicken casserole every night," pointed out Williams, who often dishes on some gourmet dishes on The Afternoon Off blog she writes. "There's nothing wrong with redneck chicken casserole, but like, you know, I learned a lot about other stuff."

That patient preparation process also transferred to her music making. Not consciously writing for another album, Williams eventually completed five songs, including "Waiting on June," the poignant tribute to her mother's parents, "Drinkin' " and "Railroads."

Loving Charlie Peacock's production on The Civil Wars' stark Barton Hollow, she sought him out through a mutual friend. After playing those five songs, "He said, 'Let's just do this. Let's take two weeks and make a record and do whatever you want with it and let's just get back," Williams recalled.

"So two weeks turn into nine months and five songs turn into 11 songs and four guest artists. ... I really loved some of the songs and I could feel myself really missing the touring life again and just being a storyteller night after night."

To sing background vocals, Peacock enlisted Jakob Dylan for "Without You," and Williams landed Dierks Bentley (on a rousing " 'Till It Runs Dry") and Gwyneth Paltrow ("Waiting on June"). Her dream to work with songwriting hero Jackson Browne came true after an email to his management company, which "didn't know me from Adam," she said.

Williams was floored that Browne not only considered her a "great songwriter" but also made her 2012 Valentine's Day by agreeing to sing on "Gone Away With Me" during one afternoon session in Los Angeles.

So the record initially titled Railroads was actually mastered last August with nine songs.

Then "The Highway" came calling. "I was literally at the gas station pumping gas when I started singing that chorus," Williams recalled. "And came home and finished the song that night and I said, 'I have to record this. This is exactly the purpose of this album and why I made it because of this feeling that I'm having right now.' So we went back in and everyone thought I was a complete psychobag."

"Let You Go" was another late addition and a stripped-down version of the wistful "Waiting on June" was recut in Los Angeles with her husband and Paltrow, the Academy Award-winning actress. The two blonds with a shared passion for fashion connected in 2010 after Paltrow praised H. Audrey in Goop, the weekly online publication the actress started in 2008. The bond further developed when Paltrow portrayed a singer battling addictions in Country Strong.

"I knew that she had a great voice," said Williams, who sang harmony when Paltrow performed "Country Strong" with Vince Gill on the 2010 CMA Awards. "It's a very kind of sweet, angelic, Alison Krauss, bluegrassy type of range."

Though Paltrow received mixed reviews for the movie, Williams raved about her performance. "It was a very different kind of character because in Nashville we dealt with that with men. With men struggling with addiction. But there hasn't really been a famous female story. I mean I'm biased, but I think she's incredible and played it brilliantly."

Though she didn't contribute any songs to Country Strong, Williams expects to be in the mix for TV's country drama Nashville -- as soon as she finds time to write again.

"It's really cool because Buddy Miller and T Bone (Burnett) are doing all the music," Williams said. "So they're really keeping it left of center. They have a really kind of strict rule they're following: They don't want to put out a song that's already been recorded or that is being released. So a lot of different unique writers from Kate York to Sarah Buxton (Williams' friend and co-writer on "A Good Man"), I mean all kinds of people they're having come in and write stuff for it. ... I'd love to work with T Bone, obviously."

Also on Williams plate, so to speak, is a desire to have a travel-based cooking show as long as, she insists, it's "not the Big Fat Greek Redneck Wedding." Williams has heard wild reality TV pitches ranging from becoming the Kim Kardashian of Nashville to "the deer hunter who sings with Gwyneth Paltrow and goes to buy for your store in Paris, France but then goes to Paris, Tennessee," all of which she considers a little too unrealistic.

"I have to say some days when I see how much Kim Kardashian makes, it's tempting," Williams said. "But you know I'm trying to build a singer-songwriter career and I don't feel like that parallels with reality television. Maybe one day if I'm tired of music, and I can't imagine it getting to that point. I feel like that's something you do for last resort."

Williams enjoyed getting a taste of cooking on TV last year when she appeared on Kimberly's Simply Southern, the half-hour GAC show hosted by Little Big Town's Kimberly Schlapman. (Williams, left, with Schlapman.)

A show like that appeals to her senses. Fed a steady diet of cartoonish characters appearing on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Buckwild, she acknowledges her part of the country "is misrepresented a lot." Williams would consider seizing the opportunity to expand on the cooking element (her idea is a Garden & Gun for TV) by showing off other skilled artisans of Southern culture who produce handmade knives and homemade guitars.

Right now, though, that yearning for the road still lingers. Motherhood will have to wait as long as she keeps delivering songs. Yet her own family remains a cherished part of her life and everlasting legacy.

Holly's mother Becky, who's also H. Aubrey's accountant and the heartfelt subject of 2009's "Mama," will join her excited daughter during selected tour dates this summer.

Referenced as one of four children in "Waiting on June," the seven-minute story of June Bacon White and Warren Shelby White Jr., who spent all 58 years of their married life in the north Louisiana town of Mer Rouge, Becky obviously was touched by the feelings her daughter conveyed in that song.

"So I think that she was kind of waiting around to see what I was gonna do," Williams said. "If I was gonna have babies or put out this album and really go on tour. ... I told her, 'Mom, when I do start a family, I want to be able to look back and go, whatever happens with this, whatever happens with my career, I really, really tried it, like for real. I put out my own label, I've assembled a team and busted my butt on the road."

Proceeding down The Highway, Holly Williams might even take you along for the ride of her life.

Publicity photo by Kristine Barlowe. Kimberly's Simply Southern photo courtesy of Great American Country.

Hear Holly Williams' song "Drinkin' " from her new album The Highway: