I ignored Holly Williams's new album, The Highway, as long as I could. It arrived in a swarm of padded envelopes, among a flurry of other CDs I also didn't listen to right away. The cover photo showed a pretty blond woman, her hair in her face, close up. She looked tired or urgent, or maybe like she was waiting for something, it was hard to tell which. Besides, the idea of an Americana album called The Highway seemed oh so preciously cliche.
I had tried to fall in love with her music before, mind you, after seeing her sing one song at the Opry a few years back. That song, that performance, slayed me. When I went home and looked up her recordings and tried to get to the same place with them, I was left wanting. You see, her grandfather wrote some of the greatest songs ever written on American soil. Somehow the Williams family musical legacy seemed to have hit a high note with Hank Sr. then slumped away, mumbling under its breath through his son and grandson. Granted, both those men have made a darn good record here or there, but nothing remotely resembling the greatness of Hank.
Of course, it's not fair to start listening to any artist with the expectation that they should do what Hank did. Almost nobody could do what Hank did.
So, as this recording collected dust on my shelves, I became curious about it. After all, what Holly Williams displayed on that Opry stage was a certain augmented empathy, a near-tears kind of songwriting that her father and stepbrother have never quite approached, but which made her granddad one of The Greats.
Anyone can make up a song to play with rhythm and rhyme, to get stuck in your head, to make you dance. The difficult thing is to make a song that's so shockingly true, it flies straight to the heart of your being, like a fast and determined hawk. It stabs at something so deep inside you, the emotion it generates makes you stop for a second to either catch your breath or cry.
There's some indication from the beginning of this album that she's raring to go there. But, the place that comes in is on the title track. That tune I so flippantly brushed off when I first spotted the albm's cover. You see, in 2006, Williams was in a car accident that burst her world wide open. Dozens of surgeries later, she probably thought she'd never be able to sustain a career as a performer. The trauma and heartbreak that must have been swirling in her mind's eye comes to fruition on "The Highway". On first listen, the song might come across as yet another song about touring - that thing almost no laypeople can relate to, rolling into a new city every night, resetting your clock to highway time, and so on. But listen more closely and you start to realize this isn't a song about reckoning with the oddity of life on the road. It's a song about the desperation and uncertainty that comes from wondering if you'll ever get your life back. The pain in Williams' voice as she sings, is palpable, and it sets the stage beautifully for the most telling moment of the album, on the following track.
I got here on crowded trains
with an old guitar and a famous name
running like a kid
...that's when I was searching
I'm not searching anymore
Indeed, there is no searching on this album. It's not an album about trying to figure anything out, which would be fine in and of itself. Plenty of artists find something worthwhile through the songs they write, exploring emotion and ideas. But, The Highway is about knowing, and trudging forward anyway. There's a lot of grappling with mortality here, struggling with family ties, determining to live a meaningful life. And, not for nothing, there's a lot of acoustic instruments sounding like acoustic instruments. Strings ringing after they strike, until they almost start to buzz...it's all very real and raw and present, and only adds to the idea that this is not music about imagining one's way out of anything; but rather about facing it head on.
And, just what meaning is to her, comes clear on the album's final track, "Waiting on June". It tells the life story of her grandparents, constructed in the traditional folk format of verse/chorus/verse/chorus. Rather than repeating the same refrain, she's constructed the choruses to move the story ahead in a sort of fast-forward way. They take the listener from childhood in Louisiana, to the second World War, to a marriage and family, grandchildren, a nursing home, and eventually death. It was an ambitious premise to begin with, but Williams's writing is spot-on. By the time she gets her grandparents into the nursing home, there seems nothing more broken-hearted than lying in a single bed, missing your wife, who has to sleep in the next room over.
I watched her perform "Waiting on June" three times during AMA week, which was about eight months after this album came out. That's eight months of touring and playing it almost every single night. Williams could not get through the line, Oh what I'd give for one more night of sleeping with my wife, without tears, and neither could anyone else in the audience. For all the other stuff one could sing about, this song seemed to sweep it all away, cutting to the most basic idea of all: love is all there is. The way she demonstrates that in this remarkable song, makes some of the corny moments earlier in the record ring more clearly and true. ("I could say I loved a good man," for example, from "A Good Man", suddenly becomes a tear-jerker line.)
Songs about life and love, struggle and addiction, touring and trauma and coming to terms, are not difficult to find. What's hard is finding the ones that take the leap from simply discussing those things to making them well up in your chest. On The Highway, Williams proved she can do the latter. Kind of like Hank did.