Inspiration comes from the darnedest places. Just ask Alex Williams, who, after spending nearly five years driving around and playing shows with his band, was nearing the end of his rope. “By that point I was ready to be done with it,” Williams tells Wide Open Country.
“One of my old bandmates told me, ‘Man, your songs are better than you are,'” he says. The dig was meant more as an insult thrown around in the heat of an argument than a compliment about his writing. Instead, it turned into inspiration.
Williams took that line and wrote “Better Than Myself,” a song that ultimately inspired an entire record. But not only did the tune form the anchor point for the record, it essentially assured its existence. That song, along with a few others, inspired Big Machine Label Group to ink the outlaw-inspired newcomer.
Finding the footing
Williams has a penchant for classic country storytelling structures. He has a baritone reminiscent of Cody Jinks and Jamey Johnson (and the beard to boot). But around the time he’d grown tired of the van life, he needed a bit of a new start.
Originally from Pendleton, Ind. (a town 30 miles Northeast of Indianapolis), Williams moved to Nashville to attend Belmont University. “I can’t remember what the major was,” he laughs. “Songwriting or something.” As you can guess, he found the allure of Broadway’s neon lights more beneficial to his career than a “proper” schooling.
Williams dropped out after a year to play around more, a decision he now says could easily feel like a mistake. “It might have been a mistake,” he says. “Thinking playing at Tootsie’s was the key to success.”
But he did meet his band — the first one he ever had — and took to the road. An arduous process that ultimately took him to where he is today, so you know, it wasn’t the worst decision he could’ve made.
Williams’ manager eventually sent some of his music to producer Julian Raymond, who kept some tabs on the band. Raymond’s work with artists like Glen Campbell, Cheap Trick, Jennifer Nettles, Hank Williams Jr. and Fleetwood Mac made him a great resource. And when he reached out to Williams about working on some tunes, it came just in time.
Figuring it out, One Dozen Songs at a Time
In early 2016, Williams and Raymond sat down to work on demos. “I went out to his house, and we ended up doing 60 or 70 songs,” Williams says. “He wanted to make an album and I was more than happy to do that.”
But a big part of that process involved co-writing with a handful of people. Williams resonated heavily with Marshall Altman and Greg Becker. Eight total songs co-written with those writers made it on the record, four from each. “They’re two really different people, you know,” Williams says. “Greg is like, this dad who is just a great writer who understands my vision.”
Altman, on the other hand, has a lengthy career as an alternative artist, producer, studio owner and A&R for major labels. “Marshall is a quirky dude,” Williams says. “A lot of what ended up on the record we wrote at his studio after 10 p.m. But both of them challenged me as a writer. I like being around that.”
Raymond took those songs to Big Machine and got the green light to make an album.
Better Than Himself, Better Than Before
Williams and Raymond assembled a badass band of Nashville cats and cut the meat of all 12 tracks in two days. The whole CD revolves around the ethos expunged in the title track and album title Better Than Myself.
Songs like “Hell Bent Hallelujah” and “A Week Without A Drink” feel like spiritual cousins, though they have their nexus in different worlds. The former is a rockin’ honky tonk lament of being down in the dumps, while the latter is a tongue-in-cheek ode to alcohol. It actually has inspiration from Williams’ grandma, who “drinks her ass off.”
Then there are tunes like “Freak Flag” and “Pay No Mind,” which champion being yourself in the face of homogenization and roadside signs trying to scare the weirdness out of you with the fear of God. Meanwhile, “Little Too Stoned” and “Strange Days” should resonate well with Blake Shelton’s “old farts and jackasses” who don’t want to see history bulldozed for something shinier.
But some of the most meaningful songs come from Williams alone. “Old Tattoo” draws from Williams watching his mom and grandma deal with the loss of his grandfather. “Few More Miles” is a true story about a man Williams met while playing down at his cousin’s shrimper bar in Texas. It’s one of the finer examples of a story song you’ll hear from a still burgeoning writer.
Texan at Heart
Williams isn’t a Texan, but he attributes a lot of his inspiration to the state. In fact, it’s one of the first places where he really played his first “real” (read: non-Broadway) shows. “I have such a passion for that state,” he says. “The culture, the music, everything about it.”
After spending more time down there, he started listening to more legendary Texas writers like Jerry Jeff Walker and Guy Clark. “I hadn’t given it much of a chance before,” he admits. “I’m not a Texas artist by any means, but I do have a passion for everything about it other than like, Waco,” he laughs. (Sorry Waco).
In this sort of “second wave” of outlaw musician, Williams doesn’t want to get it twisted. “I love Waylon and Willie and Billy Joe Shaver, but I ain’t trying to do that,” he says. He is signed to one of the biggest independent labels in the country, after all. And really, nobody can replicate that age. Which is what makes it so iconic.
But he does strive to create an aesthetic and a sound rooted in something authentic. “I just want to make it honest, as cliche as that sounds,” he says.
And when new fans get their hands on Better Than Myself on Aug. 11, that’s exactly what they’ll find. Alex Williams being himself.