Without A Song: Holly Williams – The Highway

Holly Williams - The HighwayWithout a song throws a spotlight on albums and tracks beloved of Skin Back Alley. Old, new, classic or cutting edge, our aim is to share good music that has touched us through the years.

Artist: Holly Williams
Album: The Highway
Originally Released: 2013
Label: Georgiana Records

I remember vividly the first time I heard Holly Williams’ music.

It was August of 2013 and it was the middle of the night. Insomnia was whispering in my ear and the bedroom ceiling was rapidly starting to loose it’s appeal as a source of entertainment. As is so often the way, I turned to music to ease my troubled mind.

Via the wonders of modern technology, a music streaming service suggested that I might like to listen to The Highway. Being brutally honest, my prejudices and previous disappointments got the better of me. I looked over the album details and, with low expectation of another anonymous pop-country wannabe, hit play.

And that is when Holly’s voice punched through my chest, pulled all the air from my lungs, slapped my heart upside the head, and made that bedroom ceiling – the entire room, even – disappear.

Astonishing, epiphanic, unexpected and transporting, now I really was awake. Wide awake.

Three quarters of an hour later, I hit play again, and didn’t care what time of the day, night or year it was. I’d also ordered my own copy of the album, and didn’t want it to end.

Opening track, “Drinkin'” showcases Holly’s soulful, smoky, heart-rending voice in the most raw and captivating way. Over gently picked guitar, her impassioned cry of “Why are you drinkin’ like the night is young?” is an overwhelming emotional suckerpunch. The fact that the lyric develops across characters and genders, from “Why are you screamin’ like I don’t have ears?” to “Why are you leaving like we don’t exist?”, probably tells you all you need to know about the calibre of songwriting and the heft of the subject matter.

The musical arrangement grows beautifully in tandem with the lyric, introducing a full band of electric guitar, upright bass, mournful fiddle and drums, that perfectly complement rather than overpower. And the song delivers one killer final blow in it’s last poetic line, turning the earlier desperate questions on their head in a mix of scarred sadness, fateful acceptance and battle-weary wishing – “Hope we don’t die drinkin’ like the night is young.”

Of course it was only after my initial astonishment at what I was hearing that research availed me of Holly’s family heritage. In the firmament of American roots music, that heritage doesn’t come any more prestigious than country legends Hank Williams Jr. or Snr. But whilst Holly’s family and her relationship with it’s history make up a key part of the songs here, it is abundantly clear that Holly is an incredible talent in her own right.

“Waiting On June”, is a masterclass in deeply affecting, carefully crafted storytelling. Documenting the relationship of Holly’s maternal grandparents from initial meeting, through war, marriage, children, infirmity and death, at just shy of seven minutes it may sound like heavy going. And on a profound level, in presenting what Williams describes as the “… precise and true story of my grandfather’s relentless love…”, it is. Yet it is full of light and warmth and connection too, and brings the album to a close on a tender and life-affirming high.

Other songs explore Holly’s relationship with husband, multi-instrumentalist and musical soulmate, Chris Coleman; her deep-seated need to write, play and tour her music; death and the destructive nature of addiction. The record is, in short, a stunning 46 minute exploration of life, the universe and everything, influenced in attitude as much by a love of “…Radiohead and Jay Z…” as it is of the Americana and Country greats.

Guest appearances from Dierks Bentley, Jakob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Gwyneth Paltrow of course do the record no harm whatsoever. Combined with Charlie Peacock on production duty, The Highway is a future classic that demands – and deserves – to be heard.

You can listen to The Highway via the SoundCloud playlist below. Just click on the songs to listen.

Read why we chose The Highway as one of our Top 5 Albums of 2013 here

Holly plays The Ruby Lounge in Manchester, UK on the 25th June and you can buy tickets here

Find out more about Holly, her music, clothing store and other assorted activities via her official website


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