Next Women of Country: Holly Williams

Her Love of Performing Paves The Highway

Holly Williams named her third album The Highway after a song she wrote about her love of being a touring performer. But the title works on another level, too, considering she’s spent the past several years as a woman in a million different kinds of motion.

She’s kept her high-end clothing boutique running, married a fellow musician, contributed to an album of never-before-heard songs from her grandfather, Hank Williams Sr. , and taken control of her career with her first truly independent release, which she co-produced with Charlie Peacock. All that’s to say, this 31-year-old singer-songwriter, who is part of CMT’s Next Women of Country , has plenty to talk about.

CMT: What was it about Charlie Peacock’s work, especially with the Civil Wars , that made you want to enlist him as co-producer?

Williams: I think Charlie has a really great grasp on the art of production around a song. He is also a writer and a musician and an artist himself, and sometimes it can be hard to find people who really understand that I want the lyric to shine through. I want the emotion in my voice and the story to shine through. And it doesn’t have to be about a lot of instruments on things. I co-produced both [of my other] records, loved both producers. But I had a little more pressure from labels before to put on more instruments. So this time it was just so great to be able to work with someone where it was just about us sitting down and going, “What’s best for the song?”

Your husband Chris Coleman is co-writing and playing guitar with you now. Wasn’t he mostly known as a drummer in the past?

Yes, he was a drummer for years and talented. He played with country artists and songwriters and then he was in Luna Halo, a Nashville band. Then he joined the Kings of Leon. He plays different instruments for them on the road. … Besides the fact that I obviously like to have him around, I’ve definitely come into a new musical place having him around me since he is a drummer. We’ll write a lot up-tempo with the drums. We’re in the house a lot together bouncing ideas off each other and playing guitar together. It’s really a great musical combo.

Did you get married during the period between your albums Here With Me and The Highway?

Here With Me came out in the summer of ’09, and we got married that fall. I was on tour for, I guess, about another year after that. Then he started touring with the guys [in Kings of Leon], and my store manager [at H. Audrey], who’d been with me for three years, left and moved to another city. So I had a lot of business stuff to deal with there at my clothing store.

And honestly, after I parted ways with the last major label, I was kind of confused about whether I wanted to keep writing and playing around town and putting out little indie records or really try to do a bigger release and stay out on the road. You know, that’s what the song “The Highway” is about. I mean, it all came back in a really strong way. I can’t stay away from the road. I want to be writing songs and singing them for people. That was really the birth of this record. … We were talking about maybe starting a family and just doing shows regionally. And I was like, “I’ve gotta get back out there.”

In your song “Without You,” you describe things you did early on in your career, like backpacking through Europe and trying your luck in L.A. What were you looking for in those days?

Honestly, before I got married, I was pretty independent and free-spirited. I toured alone a lot. I followed Train’s bus around. I literally would get out there in a car and drive around.

You mean you’d be alone in your car trailing behind a tour bus?

Yeah, I would just go out for like two weeks. I had a lot of manager friends who would say, “Hey, can you go open for this person for two weeks?” And now to think back, I went to Europe alone when I was 20 and did a month-long tour of theaters with Ron Sexsmith. … I remember printing out the venues and figuring out how to get there. Now I’m like, “How did my parents let me do that?” I got to do and see such awesome things.

On the subject of family, do you anticipate that you’ll have to explain that “Waiting on June” tells the story of your maternal grandparents — not, say, of Johnny and June Carter Cash ?

A journalist asked me a while ago, “Is this about Johnny and June?” I honestly never even thought about it. Then I was like, “Oh, well, people may think that because she was my dad’s godmother and we were close to them.” Or I’ll say it’s about my grandparents, and people will go, “Wait, she was named Audrey.” I do some explaining. It’s been funny because I’ve been doing some shows now for a few weeks, and I would not have thought a seven-minute story song would be the No. 1 most requested.

I gather that you were fairly insulated from the music business when you were young. Once you experienced what big productions Hank Jr. ’s arena shows were, what kept you from wanting to try out that approach to performing?

I really think that it wasn’t up to me. It was up to the songs that I was writing. … I realized that the kinds of songs I was writing were not loud with tons of instruments needed and big massive sing-along choruses. They were based around me and a piano or me and a guitar telling a story. When I first got out, I was used to opening gigs for big country artists. I did some shows with Sugarland and different people. And while I love their music, their fans, the songwriter songs were not getting through. And then I’d go out with John Hiatt and do theaters, and I’m like, “Man, these people are sitting down and hanging on every word.”

What was it like finishing a song begun by your grandfather, “Blue Is My Heart,” for The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams?

It was unbelievably nerve-wracking, first of all, for one of my songwriting heroes [Bob Dylan] to be heading up the project. … My old guitar player used to play for him, so when he came to Nashville to play — I was probably 22 — we met there. If he was near Nashville, I would go to his show. He was just, I mean, in love with Hank Williams. He told me stories about him that I did not even know. He said, “Hank Williams, your grandfather, was my radio. That is why I do what I do.” It was so incredible to have that circle. My songwriting hero said that he was so inspired by my grandfather. He showed me the lyrics — this was literally probably 10 years ago — and said, “I’m going to do something with these one day, and if you want to be a part of it, I’d be honored.”

Hank was one of the greatest writers of all time. He had such a simplistic style. He was able to just write these incredible songs and rip your heart out. So it was the most nerve-wracking work I’ve ever done by far. … My goal was that people not be able to tell which lyrics Hank wrote and which lyrics I wrote. And if I accomplished that, then that’s all good.

Your life and career were interrupted by a very bad automobile accident several years back. Once you’d recovered, why did you turn your attention to opening a clothing boutique instead of just focusing on music?

I was driving to Louisiana for my [maternal] grandfather’s funeral, and the next night I was [supposed to be] flying out to Germany to start a European tour. Then that happened. My sister [Hilary Williams] died and came back to life and had 29 surgeries, was bedridden for almost two years. … She was so sick, that’s all we could think about. My head got totally out of it, and I didn’t want to be away from the family. I needed to be here to take care of her. …

I thought, “I want to have something that — God forbid, my sister stays like this for a long time — I don’t have to rely on being gone all the time to make money.” So I wrote business plans forever, got turned down a thousand times by investors and finally found one and opened it. My mom’s got a full-time [accounting] job there. I’ve got girls in there that I love working with, and my sister helps out sometimes. So it’s really become kind of a nice family business.

I think being in the wreck propelled me to recognize my life could end at any moment, and I want to make sure that I’m doing everything in my power to be doing the things I love on a daily basis. I love clothing. I love buying for people. I love styling. I got a lot of independent stylist work when I was younger. I also love music. Some people think it’s crazy, but it’s just making sure you get to live your passion out.

A version of this story originally appeared on CMT Edge.