'Tuned In' review: Holly Williams' 'Highway' paved with platitudes

“The Highway,” Holly Williams (Georgiana)

Depending on a listener’s ability to suspend disbelief, Holly Williams’ new “The Highway” could sound great.

The singer-songwriter is an heir to music royalty — granddaughter of Hank Williams, daughter of Hank Williams Jr. and half-sister of Hank Williams III. And true to her genes, she has natural talent, a vulnerable voice that often seems on the verge of heartbreak, plus good melodies that play to her fragile delivery.

Producer Charlie Peacock (The Civil Wars) and Williams assembled her third release with a deft, but-not-overly-polished alt-country veneer blending Americana and folk. (It’s what used to be country before country became pop.)

Her grandfather would likely be proud, though he had something she fails to muster: authenticity.

Obviously songwriters are allowed their hyperbole and flat-out fiction. We all knew Madonna couldn’t possibly remember what it felt like to be a virgin when she sang “Like a Virgin,” and we went with it all the same.

Yet Williams’ tear-in-her-beer melodrama is contingent on buying her as a woman with a hard-scrabble upbringing, a lonely troubadour with an old backpack and Kerouac in tow (and not the owner of an upscale boutique in Music City).On “Gone Away From Me,” she sings, “I grew up in a town with one light ... Mama kept me warm and she kept me fed,” and it’s hard not think about Williams’ real youth as a child of privilege in Nashville. And when the song goes on to include, “I never liked to see my Daddy cry/I guess I’ll never know how Grandpa died,” it’s impossible not to think about Hank Jr. and Sr.

Unfair? Perhaps. But she certainly deserves criticism when she romanticizes her self-destructive behavior. On the suicide-dreaming “Drinkin’,” for example, she whines to her lover about his drinking and verbal abuse and infidelity, when the bigger issue is her dogged attachment to such a bullying loser.

Most of the album swims in such histrionics.

For those who need to wallow in self-pity, “The Highway” does sound beautiful, and guest vocalists (including Jackson Browne and even Gwyneth Paltrow) are fun to discover.

However, as Williams piles on the manipulative cliches, listeners might succumb to detached apathy.

Surely with her talent and pedigree, she could come up with something a little more real.

Rating (five possible): 3

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Comments » 1

Wordman writes:

This is a terrific album. Wonderfully produced and played. Superbly sung. The songs are well written and far and away better than what passes for country in the mainstream these days. Perhaps the reviewers imagination is so small that he cannot stop thinking of the Hanks when he hears Holly Williams, but I would submit that most intelligent listeners will realize that she is a songwriter and not a journalist. She is creating art, not reporting on her life. Randy Newman was never a slave trader, nor a Redneck to the best of my knowledge. Gordon Lightfoot never worked on the Canadian railroad and I have no idea whether Dylan was ever lost inside the rain in Juarez. She is a writer. A teller of tales. Sorry that her pedigree doesn't match the reviewer's preconceived notions, but perhaps he should try to drop his narrow worldview and listen to the songs without filtering them through his apparent jealousy of Holly's upbringing as " a child of privilege". Bad form, bad review.

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