Holly Williams, the granddaughter of Hank Sr and the daughter of Hank Jr, has taken a little while to achieve the recognition she deserves. It was her second album, ‘Here With Me’, that first launched her as an artist, and it was this record that first introduced me to her music, a folk-influenced, kind of Alt. Country display of musical elements and emotions that yet was surprisingly stripped back and simple. That album provided the soundtrack for several of my teenage years, and is one of my favorites. So I had high expectations for ‘The Highway’, much like the other fans of her work, and I was so worried that I would be disappointed.
Thank God I wasn’t.
Throughout ‘The Highway’, Holly’s incredible songwriting shines through, and the sheer level of honesty I felt from her previous collection is here in buckets. I am someone who finds it very difficult not to detach herself from the music and deconstruct the very cultural foundations it’s built upon. I rarely feel like an artist means every word because my study means I cannot lose myself in notions of authenticity. However, I found myself exploring the lyrics of ‘The Highway’ and desperately trying to relate them to Holly’s life. As her raspy vocals pour over the guitars, lap steel and mandolins, I picture her singing and feel every word. There’s something in the emotional straining of those vocals that don’t always quite hit the notes, the imperfections that have been left open without alteration, that feels so basically raw. Much of Holly’s writing plays on the negative, from the post-heartbreak laments of ‘Happy’, where she cannot get over her previous lover, to ‘Gone Away From Me’, a deep contemplation on the cycle of life and death and a longing for what is lost (and one that is extremely powerful), to ‘Giving Up’, trying to save a female friend who is intent on self-destructing. I often feel negative emotions provide the best songs because it allows deep reflections and solace for those in need, but the songs on ‘The Highway’ are far from conventional sad country songs.
However, if you’re looking for something a little punchier, then you won’t be disappointed with the selection this offers up. ‘Railroads’, an infectious rocky number that is guaranteed to have fans singing (shouting) along live, the title track, a slow build-up to a country anthem that calls all of the wanderers who miss their dirt road home, and the unexpected ‘Without You’ a more mainstream country rock ballad, all provide a more upbeat feel or fuller production. The latter track in particular feels pretty epic-sounding with a beautiful string section, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it became a single.
Holly’s lyrical grasp is highlighted in songs such as ‘Let You Go’ (“these seasons change and the ground will turn to snow, new blood old heart still trying to let you go”), and the Southern rock fireside tune, ‘Til It Runs Dry’ (“hot as hell, cold as ice, this Ferris wheel that we call life, with a past I could erase, but I’ll serve it up on a silver plate”). However, the lilting strings-based ballad of ‘A Good Man’ brings it back to very simple, real basics, of true love, and if she were to lose it. ‘Drinkin’’ is similar, tapping into country music tradition and telling a story creatively in such a simple way. It really exposes current mainstream country music for how far it has strayed in places from the essence of what it was supposed to be: truth, honesty and real emotion from the ordinary people.
Finally, Holly’s storytelling skills are really brought to bear in the last track on the album, ‘Waiting On June’. At nearly 7 minutes long and relatively quiet, it requires a considerable amount of time and concentration to fully appreciate it. It is essentially a love story, following at length the life (from the point of view of the man) of a couple, and how he will always be waiting on her. It is diary-like, beautifully descriptive and feels like a short story in itself, noting the little joys and quirks of life. At times it is genuinely emotional but ends with a positive feel of never-ending love in Heaven, and when it comes to storytelling in song, it really doesn’t get better than this. A fantastic way to end such a wonderful album, that leaves the listener reflective, content and in a quiet frame of mind.
It is records like this that really put country music in perspective and remind us what can be created if we allow it. The ironic thing is that for the most part, it doesn’t sound conventionally ‘country’ as such, with Southern rock and folk influences in abundance. However, it is the most country record I think I have heard in a long time, the most profound, the most thought-provoking, and the most enjoyable. I could listen to this again and again.
You can buy ‘The Highway’ on iTunes.