It’s doubtful anyone could throw a stone in Nashville without hitting someone influenced by Hank Williams. Though Holly Williams didn’t know Williams, her paternal grandfather, her poignant lyrics throughout her latest album, “The Highway,” are reminiscent of the sweet-aching often induced by his immortal words. Songs like “Drinking,” “Gone Away from Me,” and “Waiting on June” explore familiar themes of family, love and loss.
In the new year Williams has hit the road with former Drive By Trucker and Southern roots-rocker Jason Isbell. encore had the pleasure of talking to Williams about her famous family, much-talked about album and upcoming visit.
encore (e): You have a legendary name in this business; do people immediately make that connection to your family?
Holly Williams (HW): In the beginning, it wasn’t mentioned as much. Not that I was against it, but because my label didn’t want any kind of first impression to not be about the music. But I think now most everyone knows about it, and it’s a very talented family to be from. I’m very proud of it.
e: With a family full of musicians, do you get together and play at family gatherings?
HW: Music and family have always been kept very separate. My dad [Hank Williams Jr.] did not want us around the music business or musicians at all. We all do so much with music in our professions that whenever we hang out it’s more about quality family time, making dinner, telling stories, and going out on the farm and riding four-wheelers.
e: Are you asked about your grandfather a lot, even though you obviously didn’t know him?
HW: People have always asked what it was like or what he was like, and I have no more connection to him, at least that I can feel, than anyone else—besides being a huge fan of his music. Unfortunately, most of his friends are gone, most of the people he hung out with are gone, so I never got to spend time with anyone who truly knew Hank and could tell me a lot of stories about him.
My dad has stories he’s told, but it’s amazing to me how I’ve become such a fan despite not knowing much about him for so long. I think he was a genius and one of the best singer/songwriters of our time.
e: Were you always a fan of that era and genre of music?
HW: You know, I really wasn’t introduced to music early on; my dad didn’t really play music in the house at all. He would always say, “I’m not Bocephus; I’m Daddy.” So, with him it was always about fishing and hunting. I didn’t really know much about Hank Sr.’s music until I was about 18 or 19, when I started listening to Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and all these artists who talked about how they were influenced by Hank.
Growing up, it was my dad that was famous—selling 60 million or so records and selling out arenas everywhere. So, I didn’t really understand Hank’s fame until much later in life. It wasn’t until I started getting into writing, music and hanging out with my musician friends that the full influence of his music was realized.
e: What did your dad think about you deciding to pursue a music career?
HW: In the beginning, he was a little bit against it, understandably. I think he was worried about his baby girl going out into the “wild music business.” Once he saw I was doing it because I loved it—I was working behind a makeup counter for 10 bucks an hour, playing every horrible club at 3 p.m. happy hours, with six people in the audience. I did that for years.
I’m sure I could have gone and gotten a record deal, put on a cowboy hat and done a “Hank’s daughter thing,” but he saw that I was doing it because I wanted to write my music. [My music] didn’t really fit with the country music market. It didn’t really fit in Nashville and mainstream. I’ve been touring in a van for close to 10 years now, and he knows that it’s my passion, and it’s for the right reasons.
e: Do you think he worried about you falling into a certain lifestyle associated with the business—one he knew in his career?
HW: I don’t think so. I drank in high school like most everyone else, but I don’t think it was ever a “partying” thing he was worried about. He just knew how hard it was and didn’t want to see me get hurt. I think it was more about being protective of my emotions and not wanting me to get rejected. I probably would have [gotten hurt] if I had gone out and tried to do something that wasn’t all me.
My fans are such a different fan base than his. He’s playing for kind-of rowdy country fans that drink beer and sing songs at the top of their lungs. I’m playing for a small theater crowd that likes to hear the occasional Tom Waits cover. I think because we’re so different, it allowed for my own path, and he knew I was going to stick to it no matter what. He’s been really supportive of that.
e: Touring with Jason Isbell is definitely a different sound from the “rowdy country.”Have you two played together in the past?
HW: I have not known [Isbell], but I am a huge fan. I think he’s put out the best album of 2013 [“Southeastern”]. I’ve loved him forever and am so excited about this tour. I think he is incredibly underrated, and just such an unbelievable guitar player, songwriter and musician.
e: You were actually really close with your maternal grandparents, with some songs based on them on “The Highway.” What else has been your muse when writing?
HW: Definitely [on my mom’s side], I was so close to my grandparents because they are so much more familiar. I spent so much time with them in my life; lost them a few years ago.
When I lost my grandparents, I would just think about how my grandpa was always waiting on my granny and then waiting for her in heaven, and that’s where “Waiting on June” came from. “Happy” was about a friend going through a really bad divorce, and “Giving Up” is about dealing with addiction. It’s just people’s stories, but also my own that are very personal to me and about my life.
I love stories, I love storytelling, I love hearing other people’s stories and reading stories, and just things about real life and what we all go through. Love, loss, addiction, all of the ups and downs in the roller-coaster of life, and all of us probably have enough drama with our own families to choose stories from. But it’s not all drama; it’s the good and bad of everything.
I’ve never been one to plan to write a song, it’s all about trying to find the lyrics and music in the emotions first.
e: You can hear that emotion when you sing your songs, and when you cover your grandfather’s classics.
HW: I don’t have to work really hard with Hank’s songs, because they’re just really simple and beautiful on their own. “Just three chords and the truth,” as they say. They’re amazing songs that are perfectly written and tell great stories.
Holly Williams and Jason Isbell
Saturday, January 18th
Ziggy’s by the Sea • 208 Market St.
Tickets: $17 adv, $20 day of show
Doors: 8 p.m., show: 9 p.m.