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Throwback Thursday: Holly Williams, ‘The Highway’

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly series showcasing an album, single, music video or performance of a bygone era and its personal and/or cultural significance.

Albums can be a vehicle of deliverance from a troubled, agonizing past. Or it can transport you back to those moments, reopening stitched-up wounds and allowing the blood to flow freely. Holly Williams brandishes searing fragility with her career-defining The Highway album, an earthy, painstaking character study of sorrow, redemption and seeking “the things worth living for,” as she casts on “Without You.” The 2013 disc, her third album and first independent release, ages quite eloquently. At the time, it earned mixed reviews, ranging from PopMatters‘ paltry 50 to Country Weekly‘s stalwart 83. It’s a confusing jumble of scrutiny for Hank Williams’ granddaughter, who rarely uses her namesake for attention or as a driving force to her music. Her heritage pumps in her veins, and its natural occurrence permeates every vocal tick, production tumble, lyrical detail.

Instead, she employs her caramel contralto to peddle heartbreaking narratives, breathy and brittle tales of death’s inevitably through passing generations ⎯⎯ “I never liked to see my daddy cry / I guess I’ll never know how grandpa died,” she weeps on “Gone Away from Me.” And later, she exposes another brutal blow, “Strangers live inside my childhood home / And I can’t believe daddy’s really gone.” Williams makes you feel every savage edge, the rawness of time’s merciless killings, the sharpness of clear, definable reality. My own father wouldn’t die until a year and a half after the album’s release, but even now, I relive that day through this striking 11-track manifesto, somehow burned onto my forearm, as if I had been cutting myself. When songs like “Happy” (containing the crucial opening lyric “Everybody says it’ll be OK / But I don’t know when that day will come / Will it come?”) and the titular cut pound my brain, his face flashes before me, a ghostly reminder of that day’s late-morning blast. Flairs burst in mid-air, choking me, catapulting me into self-inflicted chaos. I was knelt next to his hospice bed when it happened: the life literally draining from his lips and once-rosy cheeks, the flutter halting behind his eye lids, his straining muscles ceasing to seize ⎯⎯ it loops nonstop sometimes. But it’s a cathartic experience, a harsh cycle I put myself through to feel something…feel anything again.

Our relationship was stereotypically “complicated.” For years, his romantic entanglements meant more to him than his own children. Whether he realized it or not, it hurt. It’s a bedsore that’ll never heal, fated to jolt aches throughout my bones, slicing me up and discarding the excess. My last words to him I spent alone. I told him I was sorry for the barbaric words I spewed at him two years prior, relaying injury so he could understanding the weight of my pleas. His old self still danced wildly in his brown eyes, if even his physical shell had long decayed. But I knew he knew I was guilt-ridden and only wanted his forgiveness as a last act of parenting, mercy even. If he could have spoken, I wonder what he would have said to me…

Williams’ feathered, splintered vocal is my remedy. “Well, the truth came out and the church burned down / Daddy’s heart stopped on the edge of this town / I’m out here searching for that boy of my own / Don’t ever make a judgment if you ain’t been shown,” she cautions on “Railroads,” one of the record’s prime examples of flighty juxtaposition, the jangle of production, thanks to producer Charlie Peacock, contrasting profoundly against the story. She has no qualms about stepping into the male vantage point (as she also does on closer “Waitin’ on June”), injected with her own womanly experiences, a jarring but necessary disparity. It’s been just over three years since I witnessed my father’s death: four Halloweens, four Thanksgivings, four Christmases and three birthdays. There’s no slowing it down, no matter how much I need it to. “These seasons change and the ground will turn to snow / New blood, old heart still trying to let you go,” Williams maintains on “Let You Go,” another spunky number pouring out a duality of tone. Then, with “A Good Man,” she considers losing the love of her life, which can also play as a poignant examination of any type of relationship, really, singing, “If I never saw you once again / If suddenly you met your bitter end / I’m not sure I’d ever understand.”

I may never be completely over the death of my father, for better or for worse. It’s probably toxic to relive that day over and over and over and over again. But I dream about him almost nightly. His specter follows me around. Sometimes, I can hear him say “Hey, dude” in his endearing little way, a slanted smirk plastered on his face. For all the times he was incredibly abusive, I recall the deeply-rooted well of good memories ⎯⎯ the time he took my sister and I to Virginia Beach, the times we flew a kite in the backyard, going to his carpet installing gigs just for kicks, his passion for holiday decorations (seriously, we always had the BEST yard for Halloween and Christmas, no one could compete), his love of hunting ⎯⎯ to snuff out the bad, gruesome hours. He was a blue-collar worker who lived live to the fullest, loudly and proudly. That is what I will always cherish most.

The Highway officially turns five-years-old Feb. 5.

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Jason Scott

Editor-in-Chief of the Badlands, spinning those B-Sides. Love Parks & Rec. Addicted to high-priced coffee drinks, alt-country and synth-pop, and never know when to quit. Got a cat named Jake--and she doesn't like you very much.

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