Versatile songwriter Holly Williams does her pedigree proud

“I am a songwriter first and foremost,’’ says Holly Williams, granddaughter of Hank.
Kristin Barlowe
“I am a songwriter first and foremost,’’ says Holly Williams, granddaughter of Hank.

Holly Williams comes from a dynasty in American music — starting with her grandfather, the iconic country singer-songwriter Hank Williams (she’s the daughter of Hank Jr.). But her pedigree is the last thing you think of when you hear her latest album, “The Highway,” a collection of forlorn ballads and story songs about life’s ups and downs.

After her doctor ordered her to go on vocal rest, Williams recently answered a few questions over e-mail in advance of her opening set for Jewel at the Wilbur Theatre on Tuesday.

Q. Especially on this new record, it’s fascinating to hear the shifts you make from first-person accounts to singing from the perspective of others. Do you tend to see a little bit of yourself in every song you write?


A. It’s not that I can see myself in every single situation, but I can feel that emotion. Things have always affected me very deeply, even since I was a child. Stepping into someone else’s shoes to write a song is somewhat easy for me. I’ve seen the woman I write about in “Drinkin’,” though it’s not me. But songs like “Without You” and “The Highway” are 100 percent autobiographical. No matter how close or far away I am from a situation, I love to tell the roots of a story underneath the facade.

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Q. You made the leap from major label to your own with “The Highway.” How did that change your approach to making music?

A. I can’t say that I had many rules and regulations when I was on a major. The label heads still let me do what I wanted for the most part, but, of course, there are always opinions of needing certain tempos, a fuller sound for radio, enough songs under three minutes for radio, etc. This time, while it was nerve-racking to go in without any other opinion, I was confident enough as an artist for the first time to do it my way completely and not worry about the reaction. I worked closely with [producer] Charlie Peacock, my husband, and the other players to make sure every decision was right for the lyric and the emotion of the song.

Q. You’re usually described as a country artist, but I think of you more as a singer-songwriter. Do you make a distinction between those two titles, and do you associate more with one?

A. I’m a singer-songwriter, and singer-songwriters fit in many genres. I was described as a jazz artist on my first album, because of some piano songs. Then Americana-rock, then folk-alternative, then country on the last album. And on this album most of the press refers to me as a singer-songwriter, but some people say country singer. There is nothing wrong with that, but I am a songwriter first and foremost. And when people say “country,” are they talking 1980s country with Lyle Lovett and Vince Gill (which I relate to much more) or modern country that is now pop? It’s exhausting. What do you call Patty Griffin, Lucinda Williams, Tom Waits, Ryan Adams, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Neil Young? They’re all great writers who change with the instruments and albums, but at the core [they write] great songs. Those are the footsteps I want to follow in. My grandfather said, “I don’t know what you mean by country. I just write songs.” That is my motto.


Q. You co-wrote a song with Lori McKenna, who’s from the Boston area and beloved around here. What did you learn from that experience?

A. Lori is a genius. I am in love with her songs! We’ve known each other for a few years, and we finally got together to write. I had the verses to “Without You” and couldn’t come up with a chorus. She came in and nailed it! She knows how to cut right to the heart of the matter, say the perfect thing in a few words, and rip your heart out while doing it. Writing with her is a great reminder of the pleasure in simplicity and never trying too hard.

Q. How do you handle interest in your family’s legacy? Are you comfortable talking about it? Has your relationship with your pedigree changed over the years?

A. Right now I’m working on developing some things to possibly happen around what would have been Hank’s 90th birthday in September of this year. My dad has slowed down, is so happy on the farm with the kids, just hunting and fishing and playing shows here and there. It is up to the kids to make sure the legend of Hank Williams is continued and that his songs are still heard through and through. I am totally comfortable talking about it and always tell people it is neither a burden nor a blessing career-wise. It is what it is, but I’ve had to tour in my Toyota for years and play for five people and work just as hard as anyone else. The singer-songwriter path is not the easiest! Radio is scared of people like Lori and me.

Interview was condensed and edited. James Reed can be reached at
Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.