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Holly Williams mines family tradition and strikes gold

The SInclair, Cambridge, Mass., April 23, 2013

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Holly Williams is pretty much your typical member of the Williams clan. First off, she is not afraid to continued adhering to her family's roots, meaning she is mining the family business.

Second, she has at least for now given up on the major label route after two attempts, giving up on the establishment.

Third, she knows a thing or two quite apparently how to put words to songs, and it also helps to have a few life experiences to guide you.

The result was one excellent show for the blonde-haired 32-year-old daughter of Hank Jr. and, of course, granddaughter of Hank Sr. Cynics doubtlessly would pounce upon those connections and insist the only reason she's put out any music was because of family tradition, but that would be patently untrue. Williams did not run away from her roots, but, in effect, embraced them and proved herself a worthy heir to the family biz.

Williams has an excellent new disc out, "The Highway," which she self-released and co-produced with Charlie Peacock, who produced The Civil Wars. She, of course, played a good chunk of the songs, ranging from Drinkin' (there's a theme that somehow crops up from time to time among the Williams family) to Waiting on June, a piece about her family in Louisiana.

What separated Williams from the pack artistically was her quite fine voice and quality of songs. She dug deep, and that's because the material required that. These were songs that told stories, and life wasn't always pretty. She trotted out Mama, from her "Here With Me" disc, a song about the troubles her mother faced in marriage to Hank Jr. In introducing the song, Williams didn't mince words. "I love my dad, but she put up with a lot of shit," said Williams, who made clear that she loved both of her parents and that she was glad they didn't put her or her siblings in the middle either. "It saved me thousands of dollars of therapy," she said.

Perhaps the most heartfelt song played during the 85-minute show was Without Jesus Here With Me. Williams was in a horrific, near fatal car accident with her sister, Hilary, in March 2006 and suffered many injuries. Hilary was left in far worse shape, requiring 29 surgeries to date. With Hilary talking about wanting to die, a song doesn't get much personal than that.

But Holly Williams didn't take advantage of their extreme misfortune for the sake of song and, instead, put heart and soul in this song (among many others) without overdoing it. "I'm not sure why it happens for some and not others…but we're here," said Williams

Williams sometimes played solo acoustic or on keyboards with upright bassist Annie Clements, usually a member of Sugarland's band, helping out. This was not music that required much instrumentation, but Williams and Clements' offerings worked.

With a winning, warm stage presence, an excellent delivery and stellar songs, no wonder Holly Williams likes "The Highway" as she sang in the title track of life on the road. She deserved to be there.

Lori McKenna, who has carved out a career as a Nashville songwriter while living in the Boston area, opened with a half-hour solo acoustic set. While not billed as such, this was record release day for McKenna, who put out the excellent "Massachusetts" today (McKenna had a record release bunch of gigs a block away at Club Passim two weeks ago).

Although the songs tend to be fleshed out more in a band setting, McKenna also translated well on her own. She always has a friendly stage demeanor, punctuated by humorous stories.

Like Williams, McKenna gets to the heart of the matter with her songs often about relationships that offer questions. McKenna closed her six-song set with another heart tugger, Lorraine, about her mother who passed away when McKenna was young. It was McKenna's story, and she was unafraid to tell it.

The billing of McKenna and Williams (McKenna said that Williams asked her to play) made perfect sense. The pair, who have written songs togehter, are sincere, emotional writers of ultra high quality songs.

And yet for the possible depression that could set in from listening to these guys, that was anything put the case. McKenna and Williams knew how to make pretty much anything sound good and strike gold.