Depending on the artist, it’s every music maker’s dream to create songs that are bigger and better than themselves — music that withstands the test of time long after they’re gone.
Alex Williams, a 26-year-old native of Pendleton, Indiana, did just that with his full length debut album Better Than Myself. The 12-song collection is a colorful mix of honky-tonk and cosmic country that stands up to the material heard on impactful debuts such as Guy Clark’s Old No. 1, Steve Earle’s Guitar Town and Todd Snider’s Songs for the Daily Planet.
The timing of Williams’ music could not be more perfect. He is part of an undercurrent of rising hard country stalwarts like Paul Cauthen, Cody Jinks, Cody Johnson, Nikki Lane and Margo Price who are all gaining in popularity by the minute. Contributing to this honky-tonk movement is a combination of defining moments that occurred within the last decade.
Jamey Johnson laid the foundation for this return to hard country with 2008’s That Lonesome Song and his 2010 double album The Guitar Song. Now clean and sober, Johnson continues to create and plays to packed audiences every time he tours. This summer, he added a horn section to his band.
Chris Stapleton sweeping the 2015 CMA Awards and his following success at the 58th annual Grammy Awards catapulted him to superstardom and exposed a greater fan demand for more country music that speaks to everyday life (and not just what happens on Friday and Saturday).
Kacey Musgraves and Jason Isbell each delivered career-defining albums such as Musgraves’ Same Trailer, Different Park and Pageant Material; and Isbell’s Southeastern, Something More Than Free and The Nashville Sound.
In February, Sturgill Simpson picked up his first Grammy for best country album for A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, which was also nominated in the all-genre album of the year category.
Miranda Lambert poured her heart out on The Weight of These Wings, her first double album following her split from her ex-husband Blake Shelton. The collection has gone platinum since its 2016 release.
Storytellers like Brandy Clark, Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley and Charlie Worsham continue to captivate with their distinctive imagery in song. Then there’s the Texas contingent represented by the Randy Rogers Band, Turnpike Troubadours and others whom fans can trust to tour and play until the day they die.
All of this has essentially happened without the support of corporate country radio, which continues to favor pop and rock-influenced country by predominantly male artists.
During our cold beer conversation for CMT.com at Williams’ home away from home, Nashville’s Red Door Saloon on Division Street, he said he believes his career off to a good start. At the time, Williams was fresh off a six-month tour with Aaron Lewis where he was introduced to hundreds of loyal hard country fans night after night.
“I’m happy that there’s people who are doing traditional stuff and making a living out there playing music,” Williams said. “I’m just doing what inspires me. It’s always come full circle to me. I might be wrong. But it feels good that people still care about traditional sounding shit.”
They certainly do. Millions of fans from around the world continue to make pilgrimages to America’s music capitals to satisfy their love for traditional roots music. For jazz, they travel New Orleans or New York. For blues and soul, there’s Chicago, Memphis, Muscle Shoals, Alabama or Clarksdale, Mississippi. Bristol, Tennessee has bluegrass, traditional folk and country, while Austin and Nashville offer a taste of everything.
“I love country music that sounds traditional, and I always have that quirky mentality on things,” Williams said. “I love Jerry Jeff Walker and all the ’70s Texas guys. I think that really translates to my mindset as far as where my head’s at. I’m not trying to bash pop country music because there’s a market for everything. But I think being safe, that’s been a huge problem.
“I’m not trying to be an outlaw or whatever,” he added. “I just love thinking outside of the box. Cosmic country is my deal. There’s definitely a spacey vibe with this album. I think we’ve captured that, and I hope we capture it more on the next one.”
Most of the songs on Better Than Myself are inspired by Williams’ life within the last decade, and some were written within the two months leading up to his two-day recording session with Grammy-nominated producer and songwriter Julian Raymond.
Basic tracking was done live with an all-star cast of session players including drummer Victor Indrizzo (Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris), keyboard player Matt Rollings (Lyle Lovett, Mark Knopfler), bassist Joeie Canaday (Leann Rimes, Steven Curtis Chapman), pedal steel player Dan Dugmore (James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt) and guitarists Tom Bukovac (Don Henley, Stevie Nicks) and J.T. Corenflos (Dolly Parton, Alan Jackson).
The high lonesome harmonica solos on the title track is by Willie Nelson’s longtime harp player Mickey Raphael. The song’s lyrics are loosely inspired by a comment the drummer of Williams’ former band once said to him.
“My old band hated me for a minute,” Williams admitted. “But it was really my drummer that was like, ’Hey, man. Your songs are better than you are.’ That was kind of hard to hear, but I was like, ’Dude, I’ve got to write that down and do something with it.’ And so I wrote it and it just felt right. It’s not necessarily about that. I just feel like it signifies a new beginning.”
Co-written with Marshall Altman, the fiery “More Than Survival” insists on living a life that’s more meaningful than just getting by. Altman also co-wrote “Strange Days” and “Freak Flag,” the latter of which is an ode to self-acceptance.
“I want to write songs that make people feel like they don’t have to do everything this world tells you to do because there’s a lot of expectations,” Williams said. “I might be a douche when I say that. But that’s how I feel.”
“Few Short Miles,” which draws inspiration from someone Williams met at one of his first gigs in Texas, and “Old Tattoo,” which is a tribute to his late grandfather and the strength of his mother and grandmother following his passing, were written solo.
“I didn’t know my grandpa that well,” he said. “I just saw my mom and my grandma and how they dealt with that so easily. It’s really hard to do for somebody that can just hide that and keep moving on. It was just one of those things I wish I knew him better than I did.”
When asked which artists Williams hopes fans discover when listening to Better Than Myself, he responded by kidding around about the subject. Practicing brutal honesty and joking around with people are essential to who he is. And he loves to do both much as he loves smoking Camel Blues.
“I hope people discover people that are actually cool and not fucking idiots like myself,” he joked. “It’s good to be surrounded by people who are doing the same things you’re doing. I love what Cody Jinks is doing. I dig what Margo’s doing. Jamey Johnson, Jinks, Paul Cauthen — I would love to be into that world. I’ll play with anybody.”
Williams will celebrate Friday’s (Aug. 11) release of Better Than Myself with a headlining show at Nashville’s Basement East. He is on tour through fall, opening for Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blackberry Smoke and Aaron Lewis.