About two years ago, one of the most striking albums I’d heard in a long time slid across my desk in the form of Robyn Ludwick’s Out of These Blues. The narrative I took in reviewing the album was that of Robyn’s artistic triumph in the shadow of her brothers (Bruce and Charlie Robison). Well, more recently, I was confronted with a female artist reaching for the limelight from underneath longer casted shadows than that of the brothers Robison. That artist is Holly Williams. Daughter of Bocephus, granddaughter of Hank. Half sister of Hank III.
After enduring a major label enslavement, Williams bounced around as a young artist trying to find her voice and displaying glimmers of greatness on two uneven major releases. On The Highway, Williams calls Charlie Peacock of The Civil Wars fame to the producer’s chair and proceeds to unleash eleven tracks of honest, heartbreaking country music with enough Americana flourishes to remain hip.
The album bursts out of the gate with the breathtaking lead single, “Drinkin’ “. A classic cheating song delivered in such a unique, powerful manner that it will stick with you for hours upon each listen. Williams singing voice is striking and strong and seems to fill each nuance and syllable of each track with enough emotion to fuel 10,000 heartbreaks. The production never gets in the way of this superior collection of songs. Instead, it works as all production should…it supports each song without overpowering or dominating the entire affair. “Railroads” is what marks the album’s most upbeat song is the offbeat tale of a wrecked family that hid their skeletons in the closet behind the cloak of religion. Lines such as
Well I used to pray to Jesus but I done backslid
Carrying the burdens of a preacher’s kid
bring to mind Evan Felker’s finest work with lines like “I never knew I’d be the boy who your mama warned you about…” but with a lot more emotional weight within the context of the song. And, if somebody’s released a better heartbroken song than “Happy” in 2013, I’ve yet to hear it.
The aching with which Williams emotes the title track reminds of the best work from Will Hoge. A non-cliche’d look at a musician’s life on the road, this is the type of song that used to make country radio unique before it turned into a rural infomercial of bad stereotypes. The album closes with the gutwrenchingly bittersweet “Waiting on June”, the tale of a loving couple that has evolved from young, passionate lovers to sleeping in different single beds at the nursing home. This entire album is brutally honest and absolutely beautiful. The Highway isn’t simply an Americana record, certainly not a Texas record, sadly couldn’t even be referred to as country by most modern definitions…but the one label it deserves is brilliant.