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It's not relative

Holly Williams is proud of her roots but wants to make her own name.

January 02, 2005|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

If you listened to "The Ones We Never Knew," knowing only that this debut album comes from a member of an important musical family, you might think Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell or even Coldplay's Chris Martin was the relevant relative. The songs reveal a writer who alternately is staunchly opinionated, deeply introspective, disarmingly honest and openly emotional.

Little on this impressive first effort would suggest that the singer's grandfather was of one of country music's true titans, or that her father is one of its biggest mavericks.

That suits this descendant of Hank Williams just fine.

"When I first played in Nashville, I never told people who I was, because I wanted to know if they liked me for my music first," Hank Williams Jr.'s daughter Holly says between bites of an oatmeal frittata at a health-food restaurant near a friend's house in L.A., where she was staying on a recent visit.

"Even at my shows now not many people know who I am unless I tell them -- which I don't -- or unless they've read up on the website []," she says. "That's my favorite part, because when they go to my website or read a bio and find out, they'll be like, 'Cool, I was a fan before I knew.' And that's what I always wanted."

It's not that this confident and assertive 23-year-old isn't proud of her heritage -- though it wasn't until she was 17 that she realized her granddaddy was more than "this old country singer." But Williams is more interested in making a name for herself than in exploiting the one she was born with.

Like her daddy, though, she's not afraid to invoke the family connection in her music.

"Sometimes," a song from her album, references Hank Sr.'s drug- and alcohol-related death at age 29 in the back seat of a Cadillac:

I wish I were an angel in '52

In a blue Cadillac on the eve of the new year

And there I would have saved him

The man who sang the blues

"I don't really contemplate his death," she says, soft waves of blond hair falling past her shoulders over a pistachio green dress that matches her eyes. "It's so hard to feel like he's my grandfather because there's not that many people [still alive] who knew him. My father didn't know him -- he died when he was 3 -- it's so far away from me....

"But when I first started listening to a lot of music -- I'll never forget -- I heard Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen and Dylan each mention him in a song, and then I heard Neil Young's 'From Hank to Hendrix.' I just started wigging out because I had just thought he was this old country singer who was in the Hall of Fame.

"When it's someone in your family, you just think, like, 'Oh, whatever,' " she says, a hint of Valley Girl speak intruding on her low-key Nashville-bred twang. "After that, I started listening a ton" to the man who wrote "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Cold, Cold Heart," "You Win Again," "Hey Good Lookin' " and other country classics.

A difficult path

It's not easy being the relative of a legendary musician. Just ask Hank Williams Jr. He struggled in his father's imposing shadow early in his career, when his mother, Audrey, shepherded him into singing his father's songs. It was years before he cast off that shadow.

Few others have achieved anywhere near the success of their famous relatives: Marty Haggard (Merle's son), Buddy Allan (Buck Owens' son), Stella Parton (Dolly's sister), John Carter Cash (Johnny's son), Carlene Carter (June Carter's daughter), the Lynns (Loretta's twin daughters, Patsy and Peggy), even Hank Williams III (Hank Jr.'s son and Holly's half-brother).

"I think it's a hindrance," says R.J. Curtis, operations manager at Los Angeles country radio station KZLA-FM (93.9). "It raises people's interest, but unfortunately for the offspring, it creates some unrealistic expectations on so many levels. It's almost a lose-lose situation."

Officials at Williams' label, Universal South Records, don't see it that way, but they acknowledge they don't have an easy job promoting an artist whose music doesn't fall into neat categories.

"All along we knew this was the sort of project that radio wouldn't embrace in a big way," says Susan Levy, Universal South's vice president of artist development. "We believe Holly is her own best salesperson, so instead of putting money into pushing a single at radio, we've chosen to put it into touring."

So far, she's been in front of singer-songwriter-attuned fans, opening shows for Mavericks singer Raul Malo, heartland rocker John Mellencamp and Australian folk-country singer Kasey Chambers. This year she'll resume opening for Chambers, including a six-week trek through Australia.

Williams displays her father's renowned feistiness in "Everybody's Waiting for a Change," which includes the stinging rebuke: "Everybody's waiting for me to fall / You criticize my walk as I watch you crawl."

That outsider sensibility fits right in with the rebellious history of her celebrated family.

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