Holly Williams: Here With Me

HollyWilliams_HereWithMeHank Sr.’s granddaughter cuts a superb country and pop album

Williams’ gold-plated lineage (her father is Hank Williams Jr., her grandfather was Hank Williams) is in many ways misleading rather than informative. Though she’s the product of two generations of country music royalty (and a broken home), her songs are modern in style and her lyrics are mostly untouched by self-destructive rebelliousness. Unless, that is, you count her charting a mainstream musical course as rebelling against the family business. The Williams’ troubles passed from Sr. to Jr. to III, but in changing gender (and mother, Hank III is a half-brother), the darkest demons seem to have lost their grip on the steering wheel.

That’s the long-way around to saying that you shouldn’t expect a female version of the rowdy Williams sound or style here, though you will get a helping of the family’s breed of talent. Williams’ 2004 major label debut, The Ones We Never Knew, was a moody singer-songwriter album that lived in the contemporary folk and adult pop world of Shawn Colvin, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Jewel. After the album stiffed (and its single “Sometimes” failed to crack the charts), Williams was dropped by her label. A car accident and several years further along, she’s back with a new album for Mercury Nashville that has a stronger country flavor.

The opening “He’s Making a Fool Out of You” is an original slow waltz that would be a good fit for Lee Ann Womack, and Williams’ duet with Chris Janson, the sweetly themed “A Love I Think Will Last,” is an upbeat, two-step shuffle. Williams’ hasn’t abandoned the sophisticated contemporary pop sounds of her debut, she’s simply mixed things up a bit. There are songs of coping, faith, troubled relationships, emotional growth and unbridled love. There are biographical lyrics about Williams’ mother and father, and a quick name-check of her grandfather, but they’re more like waypoints than destinations.

Williams’ voice fits smoothly into both the highly produced tracks and the twangier arrangements. She’s a powerful singer, emoting forcefully when unburdening herself and choking up when delivering the romantic doormat’s heartbreaking simile “like a leaf in mid-October I still change for you.” She favors Rosanne Cash a bit on the country tracks. The album closes with a solid cover of Neil Young’s “Birds,” sung slower and shorn of the backing choir of After the Gold Rush. It’s a nice showcase for the expressiveness of Williams’ voice, and though it’s not as plaintively bereaved as Young’s original, it’s no doubt a showstopper on stage.

Those who felt Williams’ debut hewed too much to one tempo or sound will like the breadth in her songwriting and the new opportunities this provides for her stellar voice. This isn’t your father (or grandfather’s) country album. In fact, it’s as much a contemporary pop album as it is modern country. But as on her previous album, Williams shows herself to be a talented artist whose songs are dark but not damaged, and whose music doesn’t stand in anyone’s shadow. Now, Mercury Nashville just needs to figure out whether to break her on country or pop radio. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

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