The back seat of a Cadillac speeding through the New Year´s night of 1953 with Hank Williams dying on it; this is one of the most told stories in pop music. Whether it really happened that way is inconsequential, it´s the stuff that legends are made off. The granddaughter of Hank Williams, Holly, presents herself with a beautiful album on the edge of folk, pop, country, ballads and rock, full with stories of love and woe.
Holly Williams has a voice with a rough edge, sandblasted with use, a voice that makes a difference with these sort of songs. From R.E.M. right up to Dolly Parton can all be called influences. Unlike Stephanie Fagan, who's album 'Heart thief' is one of best albums in the country-folk rock idiom in the past year, Ms. Williams has an edge to her songs, where Ms. Fagan is sweet. Williams is a storyteller, an observer, where Fagan pours her heart out. All this may be, the conclusion has to be that The highway is an album deserving attention if you like this sort of music.
The highway is Holly Williams´ third album. In 2004 she released ´The ones we never knew' followed in 2009 by ´Here by me´. Following this speed of release the world can count on a new album by 2016. Ms. Williams is not overly productive, but The highway delivers an amount of quality that makes it okay to release albums in this tempo. Having the name Williams does help a career. On The highway you will find Jakob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Gwyneth Paltrow doing background duties. Mrs. Martin lays down a great background vocal in 'Waiting on June', a bare ballad. An acoustic guitar is almost all we hear, sometimes a second and an atmospheric noise. ´Waiting on June´ is a song that ends The highway, but is memorable, touching. The vantage point to sing from is perhaps a bit odd for a woman, but that happens somewhere else on The highway also. It doesn't matter, does it?, with a story like one told in 'Waiting on June', from the very moment you find out who is waiting where. 'Waiting for June' is touching, insightful and sung with a lot of empathy.
Producer Charlie Peacock's production, he also produced the acclaimed album ´Barton Hollow´ by The Civil Wars, is mostly low key, allowing Holly Williams' voice to shine. Peacock lends just enough instrumentation to make the songs shine. 'Gone away from me', with Jackson Browne, is a typically less is more song. The story that is told, about a family tragedy and perhaps mystery, told around a family grave, the melody with which the story is sung, is nearly enough. And when embellishments set in, strings, horns, it is in the background, soft and unobtrusive. Just like it should if one 'grew up in a one red light town'. To me personally it is often the quality of the production that makes me like an album in this genre. Peacock made it just right by me.
'Railroads' is more brazen, with a lapsteel guitar that stands out and drums. Lapsteel always gives a song a country flavour, unmistakably, the tempo makes sure the song does not go over the edge. It is in 'Railroads' Holly Williams comes closest to Stephanie Fagan and not in her ballads. 'Happy' is another gem The highway offers the listener. Sadness, regrets over mistakes made, all come by in this song about acting before thinking and thus throwing it all away. Again the accompaniment is spot on, creating an atmosphere of loss. Around the acoustic guitar things happen that set the mood, without coming to the front. So does 'The highway', the title song, a Hammond sets in, a lap steel, and we know that a lot will happen before Holly is back home, warm and cosy.
'Without you', which she sings with Jakob Dylan, is the hit of The highway. Chamber music set in the folk idiom. The strings are so tender, the singing superb and the slide guitar makes the longing even worse. There's no hiding in 'Without you', the song goes right down to the bare essence of feelings. 'Let you go' lets us hear Williams in the new folk idiom. Banjo, mandolins and a kick drum. To be honest here, I'm trading all of Mumford & Sons' albums for 'Let you go'. This song has it.
Wrapping The highway up, I can only say that I'm surprised how good it is. It makes me forgive a dip like 'Giving up' as so many good, superb songs come by that a song like 'Giving up' only shows there's a human angle to The highway after all. (Okay, the moment when the band kicks in is good.) The highway is an album you need to check out.
You can order The highway here