"The Highway," the latest album from Holly Williams, out Feb. 5 on her own Georgiana imprint, details her family history. But not the family you're probably thinking of. Holly, daughter of Hank Williams Jr. and granddaughter of Hank Williams, delves into the other side of her family tree on this release.
"I've done about six to eight shows with this album, and the No. 1 request is 'Waitin' on June,'" she says of the final track on the set, a tribute to her grandparents on her mother Becky's side. "It's the story of them. I got into my grandfather's shoes to write that one. That's the closest song to my heart."
Williams' music is often discussed in the shadow of her grandfather's legacy. But as she explains, her maternal grandparents actually had a much bigger impact on her personal life. "Even though Hank Williams is my grandfather, I don't feel that closeness," she says. "I didn't know him--like my dad didn't--with him dying when he was 3. I am a fan of Hank Williams, but he's not as recognizable to me as my grandfather in Louisiana is. I grew up with him and sat up in his lap my whole life."
"The Highway," produced by Williams and Charlie Peacock (the Civil Wars), is filled with deeply personal moments. According to Williams, it's the disc that "finally defines me as an artist, a singer and a songwriter"--on her own label, after albums on Universal South (2004's "The Ones We Never Knew") and Mercury (2009's "Here With Me"), which have sold 20,000 and 17,000 units, respectively, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
"I'm not one of these artists that hates major labels," she says. "I had great label heads who were very supportive of me. [Former Universal Music Group Nashville chairman/CEO] Luke Lewis and I had a sit-down, and he said, 'If you want to search for those mainstream hits and go that route, you can do it. But it sounds like you are starting to really build this songwriting career.' I said, 'I just need to take time off, and see what I need to do.'"
The resulting album grew out of close collaboration with her husband, drummer Chris Coleman (formerly of Luna Halo) and Peacock, as well as guests Jackson Browne, Dierks Bentley and Jakob Dylan. "It became like 'Hank Williams Jr. and Friends,'" she says of the record's collaborative spirit, referring to her grandfather's classic 1975 album. "We started writing these songs I never thought would come out of me."
Making and marketing the disc has been a learning experience for all involved, Williams' manager Ali Harnell says. "It's definitely a challenge," she says. "She's been to the rodeo with two major labels, so we are putting it together-one brick at a time. That's kind of our motto."
"I was on major labels and doing nowhere near the work I'm doing now," adds Williams, who also runs a successful Nashville clothing boutique, H. Audrey, and food blog theafternoonoff.com. "In the beginning, there were breakdown moments. I went to my manager one day and said, 'We have to get a record label. I can't handle all of this.' I'm having to check on the merchandise and get a video submission form for CMT. There were so many things, and I definitely had to sort through that and delegate. But there's more freedom. I wouldn't trade that for anything."
Ahead of the album, which is being distributed by Tonetree, Americana radio has been serviced with "You Don't," while the video for "Drinkin'" has just premiered on CMT, which named Williams to its "Next Women of Country" list for 2013. Williams will also be touring domestically through April to promote the album, setting off from Santa Barbara, Calif., on Feb. 5.
"I'm thrilled I did the work," Williams says of releasing the album herself. "I cried a lot, but it all got figured out. Now, it's on to the good part. I get to tour for this album and play the songs for people. It's definitely worth it in the end."