Culture // 5 min Read

Holly Williams: Roots and Wings

Written by Justin Jarrett

Oct 10, 2019

Given her family name and the fact that she never strayed far from Nashville for too long, one might expect Holly Williams always planned to pursue a career in country music.

But it was quite the opposite for the 38-year-old daughter of Hank Williams Jr., whose daddy did his best to steer her in a different direction.

In fact, ol’ Bocephus was none too pleased when his little girl told him she didn’t want to go to college and intended to follow in her famous daddy’s and granddaddy’s footsteps.

“I never really had any expectation on me from family or friends, and I really think it’s because we were not really around the music business at all growing up,” Holly said. “My dad would always say, ‘I’m not Bocephus; I’m Daddy.’ When we were with him, it was fishing, hunting, (and) four-wheelers. We were just on the farm. He didn’t grab guitars and play songs at the dinner table. He just wanted to keep music on the road and home life at home.”

Despite his initial objection, Hank Jr. came around when he saw Holly’s talent. “I started sending him a lot of lyrics and songs I had written,” she said, “and he became very supportive and let me do it in my own way.”

That’s in part because Hank Jr. didn’t feel that same freedom to do it his own way when he started touring in the late 1950s, just a few years after his pioneering father passed away in 1953. Bocephus mostly stuck to covering his daddy’s songs in those early years and was met with blowback when he deviated from that expectation.

“I’ll never forget him telling me about the first time he plugged in an electric guitar when he was a teenager and half the crowd left, kind of like when Dylan played his first electric guitar,” Holly recalled. “People just wanted to hear what they think they wanted to hear from him. They didn’t want to hear him sing his own songs.”

Like her father, Holly was determined to forge her own path. She wrote her own lyrics and played the piano and guitar, drawing on the influence of legendary singer-songwriters such as Jackson Browne, Tom Waits, and John Prine. She booked show after show in smoky clubs and played the same cities repeatedly, trying to build a following.

In contrast to the crossover-country songs of her contemporaries, Holly’s sound is stripped-down country, her delicate voice soaring over acoustic guitar, subdued drums, and harmonic backing vocals.

“I think I could have gone to Music Row and gotten a record deal and put on a cowboy hat and kind of gone that route, but I loved the songwriting part of it so much. I loved the storytelling, and I really wanted to build my own fan base.”

Those fans might be getting antsy. It’s been five years since Holly released her third full-length album, the critically acclaimed The Highway, and while she doesn’t regret taking a break from the studio and the road to raise her babies—ages 2, 3, and 4—she’s eager to revive her music career. She has already booked time with a producer next March and plans to carve out time in the coming months to get back to writing songs. Along with a musical revival, and raising children, she’s also overseeing the expansion of her White’s Mercantile stores, now totaling six locations coast to coast from Malibu to Charleston.

But music is still a big part of her life, and she sometimes misses life on the road, especially when it took her to places like Palmetto Bluff for the 2014 and 2015 Music to Your Mouth festivals, which served as her formal introduction to the Lowcountry.

“I’d read about Palmetto Bluff in great travel magazines and had a lot of friends in the South who had visited and told me all about it, so I was ecstatic when they reached out,” Holly recalled. “We got to come down and absolutely fell in love with it from the second we were in there. It reminds me of places my grandparents used to travel when they were younger. Just the beautiful trees and the homes and the food and culture, we just were absolutely thrilled to be there.”

She strengthened her ties to the Lowcountry with the opening of a White’s Mercantile store in Charleston in March. A friend who lives in the Holy City alerted Holly to a prime space in a historic building on King Street, and the rest is history.

“We saw the space and just fell in love with it. It’s right there in the heart of everything,” Holly said.

Like many before her, she has become smitten with Charleston and the rest of the Lowcountry.

“I fell in love with that city like everyone else does. I was full-on drinking the Kool-Aid,” she said. “We haven’t figured out how to move there quite yet, but I’m just so in love with that city and the area and surroundings.”

Of course, leaving Nashville—the city that is so closely tied to her family name—is easier said than done. Holly has watched the popularity of the Music City blow up and seen country music culture become mainstream, both of which bring mixed emotions.

“On one end, it’s frustrating as a local to now have traffic and all of these people everywhere, but on the other end, it’s incredible to see the rise of Nashville and how many people care about going to the Country Music Hall of Fame and visiting the monuments and exploring our city. That’s been really cool.”

She laments the rise of corporate radio as she watches talented singer-songwriters toil in relative anonymity because they don’t fit the mold.

“I love so many of the artists out there, and they are my friends, but I do feel sad for people who might not be able to get in the door because one version of country is the version that people are listening to and that they have access to,” she said. “I wish more of the kind of grit of country could be exposed.”

As for herself, she’s trying to avoid becoming overexposed. She has plenty of help with the kids—she and her mother live a mile apart and she has a full-time nanny who travels with the family to free up Holly to oversee her retail operations.

Building the White’s Mercantile brand has been her primary focus recently, especially with the addition of four new locations in early 2019, with two more set to open, one in Fairhope, Alabama, this fall and one in Rosemary Beach, Florida, next spring.

“It was kind of bizarre to grow that much at one time, but I’m so passionate about the brand and about kind of bringing back the Southern general store,” she says.

The first White’s opened in 2013 in a converted gas station in Nashville, inspired by the classic but eclectic style of Holly’s maternal grandparents, June and Warren White.

“Everything they had in their home, it wasn’t Southern, it wasn’t modern, it wasn’t shabby chic, it was just timeless. It was antiques, mixed with heirlooms, mixed with new things,” she says. “I wanted to open up a store that was kind of a one-stop shop for dog food and antique chandeliers and lip balm and kitchen and wine items. Honestly, I opened it out of just being really busy in our little neighborhood and thinking we needed something where I could get a lot of my favorite things in one place.”

The irony, of course, is that Holly’s entrepreneurial spirit makes it difficult to stay in one place for too long. In addition to seven White’s stores, she also owns H. Audrey Boutique in Nashville and enjoys restoring historic homes, not to mention playing a handful of shows per year, even during the downtime in her music career.

She likes to think of it as having a passion for each season.

“When I was only doing retail, it really made me miss performing and touring and singing songs and meeting new people,” she says. “And on the other end, when it’s just music and it’s just me and I don’t have a big band with me, it can get very isolating. It gets to be a very narcissistic world. . . . I love having a balance.”