August’s Country Rookie of the Month: Sam Williams on Family Tradition and Why He Admires Taylor Swift

Sam Williams may be the grandson of Hank Williams and son of Hank Williams Jr., but he’s proving to be his own man musically. While his pedigree makes him country music royalty, on his debut Glasshouse Children (out Friday on Mercury Nashville), he showcases his own beguiling brand of country — from the rock-tinged title track to the haunting “Can’t Fool Your Own Blood,” a duet with Dolly Parton on “Happy All the Time,” and a collaboration with Keith Urban on the dreamy “Kids.”

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Sam Williams

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Unafraid to stare down his demons, Williams, 22, seeks to tell the truth in his music with his songs often expressing a vulnerability and wisdom that belies his young age. Below, our August Country Rookie of the Month talks to Billboard about growing up surrounded by music — though not necessarily the artists you’d expect — as well as why he admires Taylor Swift, and how his legacy affects his music and life.

Who were you listening to growing up who still has a direct influence on your sound?

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Growing up I listened to a ton of pop radio in the car, so definitely artists like Drake influenced me — and I still listen to him. In my early songwriting years, I fell in love with Lori McKenna and Tyler Childers. Tyler has such an emotional grit that I take to strongly.

What’s the first record you ever bought?

Chris Brown’s first album I remember buying, and I learned every word to every song. He was 16 and I was obsessed with him when I was like, 10. I sang “Say Goodbye” literally every day.

What led you to sign with Mercury Nashville? Were you actively looking for a major label deal?

The thing is — I purposely never met with any major label at all. I was always fearful of losing creative control, and being molded to be more similar to other male country artists. It seemed like there wasn’t a path for me to follow, and I wanted to be different. I shot the album cover in March, did [The Late Show With Stephen Colbert] in April, and was moving forward with releasing the album.

When [Mercury Nashville] came to us, I was so interested, but was intent on getting this album out in August. They moved everything very quickly, and I’m so grateful. They’ve been more than embracing of me and my music. [UMG Nashville president] Cindy Mabe is a true champion of mine, and I can’t wait to see what we do.

Dolly Parton sings on “Happy All the Time,” after you sent her a two-page letter. What on earth can someone put in a letter that convinces Dolly to sing with them on their debut album?

Real emotions, real words. I spoke of my life, my childhood, what “Happy All the Time” means to me, and how validating it would be for me for her to sing with me. I think she really felt connected to the message of the song and just me in particular, for some reason. “Happy All The Time” has a hopeful message and that’s what Dolly represents truly. I am very humble, but after that forehead stamp I felt pretty amazing, I can’t lie.

How did the twist with the alien come about in the “10-4” video? That’s some high-powered CB radio.

I had been watching A Quiet Place 2 and wanted to bring something out there to the treatment. I think people would expect a video in a field with a truck and fire, so I wanted to branch out and make it more up for interpretation. Alien love story? Yes.

You wrote with some topnotch songwriters here — including Dan Auerbach, Daniel Tashian, Lori McKenna, Jim Lauderdale, Mary Gauthier, and Jaren Johnston. What’s the biggest thing you learned about songwriting from them that’s made you a better songwriter?

One thing I struggle with is the truth that every song you write isn’t going to be incredible. I like to only write great songs, but that’s not always the case. [Laughs.] I think with Mary, she has such a folk foundation and I have a big voice and pop sensibilities- we just make magic together. Jim Lauderdale really applauded my out-of-the-box approach and just writing what’s currently on my heart. I’ve learned different things from everyone for sure.

Kids” with Keith Urban is a gentle dream pop song, while “Glasshouse Children” and  “Shuteye” lean more toward stately rock. What made you decide you want to pursue a country music career as opposed to another genre?

Obviously my blood is in country. I want to bring more diversity to the genre and push the boundary. Country music is broad, and I want to be a representative of that. I love to bring honest, gut-check country songwriting to the table, and add in sonic exploration and pop influences and see what I’ve come up with. “Glasshouse Children” definitely has some rock elements, and I think it comes from the raw emotion of the song. I really look up to how Taylor Swift has evolved in her career, and is now able to do whatever music she feels — and I want to be able to do that, too.

What was the highlight of your Grand Ole Opry debut in 2019, and how much of your family’s storied legacy did you feel that night?

The highlight for me now is remembering my sister Katie Williams’ beaming face backstage. She was so, so happy for me and I’ll never forget it. The standing ovation I received was pretty incredible, too. I felt a lot of legacy, but also an interest in what’s new and I felt that even more at my most recent Opry performance.

What have you learned about songwriting and/or making music from listening to your grandfather’s records?

For me personally, I’m less afraid to tackle unconventional topics or dark themes after I listen to his records. There are the hits, then there are the deep cuts. “I Dreamed of Mama Last Night” directly influences “Can’t Fool Your Own Blood.” “Wealth Won’t Save Your Soul” directly influences “Happy All the Time.” I just feel like being myself and honoring legacy but remaining unique when I hear his music. I look forward to recording my own versions of his music in the future.

The album closes with “The World: Alone,” which you wrote a year before your sister, Katie, died. How beautifully tragic was it to realize you’d already written a song that honors her? 

I was in a horrible place for a long time. The moment I realized the clairvoyance of “The World: Alone” a little light shined on me. It doesn’t make it fair, but I realized I don’t have to show her the world because she can see it. It’s her guiding me now. I still struggle with her loss every single day, some more than others, but one thing I can constantly remind myself is she would absolutely want me to be happy and want me to follow my dreams. I love you, Kate.

You sing about your heritage on “Can’t Fool Your Own Blood” and even through in a reference to your grandfather with the line “And then the lost highway claims me as its own.”  How do you walk the line between your famous lineage and blazing your own path?

It’s natural for me. I would be a terrible Hank impersonator, but I’m pretty good at pulling heartstrings. I grew up in Tennessee in the 2000s, and not rural South Alabama in the 1930s. There are humongous differences in our lives, but a DNA of brilliance and tragedy that connects us. I just do my best to be myself, write and sing from the heart, and give the world something great.

What’s the best piece of advice your dad has given you?

Be yourself.

You write brutally honestly about addiction and life’s struggles. What do you hope someone going through a rough time may glean from your album?

I hope the listener feels a positive sense of self. I hope they think, “I don’t have to be like someone else, that’s why God made me me.” I want to emphasize that vulnerability is powerful. Facing your fears head on is remarkable and important. It can be easy to run away from our past or our mistakes, but embracing them is vital to growth.