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Sunday, 27 September, 2009 10:21 AM

Holly Williams Sees the Light (CMA)

Photo by Autumn de Wilde

Mercury Nashville recording artist Holly Williams

The blonde with the face that carries the delicate features of her grandfather likes to drop in to check out the goods in her upscale Nashville boutique, where boots that were dragged by a truck through Italian dirt go for $1,200-plus.

“I love it,” said Holly Williams, granddaughter of Hank, daughter of Hank Jr., talking about her Nashville store H. Audrey, whose stock of contemporary clothing and accessories ranges from those Golden Goose boots at the higher end to some $198 jeans on sale for $50. Audrey is her middle name as well as the name of her dad’s mother, the woman who inspired Hank Williams to compose some of Country’s greatest songs of heartbreak and love.

“My grandparents sold clothing, cowboy boots and all that at a place called Hank and Audrey’s Corral,” she said, referring to the family-run store that once operated on Commerce Street in Downtown Nashville. “I’ve always had this business side. So did they. I’d always secretly wanted to have a little boutique with off-the-cuff designers — and after the wreck, I decided to do it.”

Williams was referring to a near-fatal auto accident in 2006, which has affected her somewhat surprisingly, personally and professionally, in a positive way. Instead of facing life with her feet hanging out the window of a fast-moving car, she is firmly grounded. And some of that matter-of-fact approach is evident when she drops in at her store on days off from the road.

“She likes to come in and try on the jeans,” said Sarah Richey, who has worked at H. Audrey since it opened in 2007. “This is like her big clothes closet.”

Richey’s eyes twinkled as she talked about her boss, who makes sure each piece of clothing meets her personal approval. “She’s such a sweetheart.”

With the early radio interest shown to her first full-album foray into Country Music, Here With Me, co-produced by Williams, Tony Brown and Justin Niebank, she may have a little less hands-on time at the boutique. Williams’ songs on the album include “I Hold On,” “He’s Making a Fool Out of You,” and “Mama,” which tells the story of her mother and the positive attitude she displayed to her daughters while splitting up with their father. She’s able to wrap her voice around a lyric and wring the emotion out of every syllable as evident on the first single, “Keep the Change,” written by Hillary Lindsey and Luke Laird.

“My whole thing with writing is I love to tell a story,” Williams said. “When I listen to songs, I play the movie in my head. I’ve always hoped some of my songs inspire vivid pictures.”

Her measured choice of words and haunting vocal performance of “Three Days in Bed” paint a startling visual in the listener’s mind as they recount a love affair in Paris. “This song speaks for itself, inspired by truth and fantasy,” explained Williams. “It’s the only track on the record that is a live performance with me and my guitar, completely raw, which was very important to me to have on this record.”

Niebank, whose client list includes Vince Gill, George Jones, Taylor Swift, Keith Urban and now Williams, noted that this album is destined to connect with her targeted audience because “I think she has something to say.

“To me, Country Music, in the perfect world, is about great songs and great personality,” he explained. “As a songwriter, she gets better with each song. As a singer, I love the directness of her voice.”

Perhaps that directness is what distinguishes this sophomore album from her debut in 2004, The Ones We Never Knew. While suggesting that “the songs have stayed the same, we just added some steel guitar to them,” Williams allowed that her first album was more “organic” singer/songwriter than Country.

“This time, it’s a little more lyrically driven, more vocally driven,” Niebank continued. “Her first record was too closed off vocally. This time, I let it out, let it be who she is, let her open up that expression. Holly was trying to find a way to communicate her personality to people,” which was why she double-checked every take, striving to ensure that the vocal was dead-on for the message the song was intended to convey.

To Williams, this more-defined self-expression suggests the possibility of accelerating her career. The critical acclaim of her previous album (as well as an earlier EP) didn’t translate into significant commercial success. “I didn’t realize how hard it is for women in the genre,” she admitted. “At the time, Country radio was so into the pop Country world. The genre wasn’t open to the singer/ songwriter stuff until Miranda Lambert, Michelle Branch and Sheryl Crow came along. We experimented with Country stations, but for the time I was left of center.”

The timing is better now, with female singers among the biggest Country artists on radio, stage and video. “I used to feel young. And then Taylor Swift came along and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m such an old lady’,” Williams said, with a self-deprecating laugh. “When I was her age, I couldn’t even play a guitar.”

Williams began playing, with a vengeance, when inspiration hit. At 18, just out of high school, she became a regular at, as she put it, “every club in Nashville.” Fueled by a passion for Jack Kerouac’s rambling tales, she embraced life on the road as she opened for John Mellencamp, Ron Sexsmith, Billy Bob Thornton and other performers. In stumbles and starts, she began discovering herself and fashioning her own spot in her family’s hierarchy.

Good-timing and rowdy living are components of that heralded family’s tradition. But so is tragedy. And just as it shaped the legends of her grandfather and father, so too did it play a big part in defining the artistry of the 28-year-old Williams.

That near-fatal car wreck in 2006, from which her older sister Hilary is still recovering, left a gory scene that recalls Hank Jr.’s life-defining, 400-plus-foot fall down a Montana mountain in 1975. After arduous reconstructive surgery, he returned to Country with a new, live-for-tonight attitude.

In contrast, rather than transform into a female Bocephus, she emerged from her near tragedy with the conviction that “I was left here for a reason.”
Her conclusion stems from one simple detail. A mile before the accident, Hilary advised her to buckle her seatbelt. “It was a sunny day and I had my feet out the window,” Williams recalled. “I usually didn’t wear my seatbelt, I guess maybe because everyone said you had to.”

Still, she went against her nature, buckled up — and survived, with injuries less severe than those of her sister. “When they found my sister, she was medically dead. Her blood pressure was 55 over 0. She was blue.”

Even so, Williams sustained serious injuries that “were worse visually” than Hilary’s. “Neither of our faces was damaged,” she said. “It was like an angel was covering our faces. But when I first saw myself, my head was so swollen up I didn’t recognize myself. Mine was more gore. There was no white in my eyes. It’s a wonder I didn’t have brain injuries. I have all these scars on my head and in my hairline. They tried to shave my head but I was like, ‘No!’ I was pulling glass out of my head for about a year.”

Both parents hovered and prayed over their daughters after their hospitalization. “It was good for my dad that he had that experience with the mountain fall,” Williams reflected. “He was so helpful. He would sit at the bedside for 24 hours.”

As the healing began, Williams found spiritual fortification. “My faith was reinstilled,” she said. “I did see the light and have a ‘come-to-Jesus’ moment,” documented on the album with an original song, “Without Jesus Here With Me.”

“I don’t know why I’m still here or why I lived that Wednesday morn,” she sings before wondering in the song about her grandfather’s legacy, her terrified parents, physical and spiritual salvation and seeing the light.

Even with the maturity and artistry exemplified by that song, Williams wasn’t sure she was ready for the big time in the Country market as she began work on Here With Me, for Mercury Nashville. She leaned initially toward the Lost Highway part of the Universal Music Group family, home to Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams and other icons of alternative Country. But when Luke Lewis, Chairman, UMG Nashville, suggested Mary Chapin Carpenter and Emmylou Harris as models for a strategy of pursuing wider, more mainstream radio and venue exposure on the way toward establishing their niches as artists, Williams was receptive to the point of accepting invitations to open arena shows for Sugarland and Keith Urban.

“Where I am most comfortable is on a theater stage, with me and a guitar and a piano,” she said. “Country tours don’t lend themselves to that. But when I’m 60, I want to be touring the world with a sit-down audience. That is my favorite thing in the world.”

“Family Tradition: The Williams Legacy,” a 5,000 square foot major exhibition examining the personal lives of Hank Williams and Hank Williams Jr. and their musical heirs, runs through Dec. 31, 2009 at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

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