Texas country artist Zane Williams is enjoying a unique time in his career. With his first performance at the Grand Ole Opry and a new album under his belt, the amount of buzz surrounding him might make you think he's a newcomer to country music. In reality, Williams has been working steadily towards this moment for years.
Although much of his recent success is due in part to his constant touring presence in his home state, Williams returned to Texas only three years ago. Before that, he spent nine years in Nashville working under a publishing contract with Big Yellow Dog Music. In 2009, Jason Michael Carroll scored a hit with "Hurry Home," which was written and originally released by Williams. The success of the song earned him more exposure in town, but something never quite clicked when it came to his career.
Williams has been an almost constant entity on the Texas honky-tonk touring circuit for the past three years since his move back to the Lone Star State. Fans from near and far flock to his shows not only because of his great music, but because of who he is as an artist and person. It doesn't take much time with Williams to see what the fuss is about. He's a laid back family man who prides himself on staying grounded and building close relationships with the people that support him and his music.
His 2013 album Overnight Success helped him break into the mainstream country scene, with the title track's video receiving heavy rotation on both CMT and GAC. His rising fame comes at a time when country fans are looking to rebel against the over-produced bro-country epidemic that has filled country radio airwaves in recent years. His music, especially on his latest album, teeters perfectly between modern and traditionalist country. The poetic story-songs and stripped-down sound that he's expertly molded create a stellar combination of what traditional country fans are seeking out more than ever.
After years of dedication and hard work, Williams' career seems to be reaching new heights. In April, Williams released his fifth album, Texas Like That. The songs range from poignant and introspective to cleverly witty, and are a true representation of Williams as an artist and Texan. Williams' recent debut on the Grand Ole Opry marked an important moment in the singer's long journey to create a space for himself in the national country music scene.
I sat down with Zane Williams in Nashville to discuss everything from why he returned to Texas to who he'd love to create music with next.
You just made your debut at the Grand Ole Opry. What was that experience like for you?
It was pretty much perfect, it really was. There aren't too many gigs that all of my family and friends would hop on a plane or drive ten hours to come see me. It was already special because it was the Opry but it was even more special because they were all there. It was one of those opportunities for you to look back at how far you've come. It's one of those milestones where you start to feel like, "Oh man... maybe I am a real country artist. Maybe I've actually made it."
What do you want listeners to take from your latest album, Texas Like That?
Hopefully, it's an album that people will enjoy listening to and there will be a song or two on there that will affect somebody deeply. My favorite country songs are ones that give you chill-bumps or just hit in a deep place. If I can do that with a song or inspire an up and coming artist 10 or 15 years from now, that's when it starts to get really satisfying to see your music making a difference in people's lives.
What were the songs that gave you those chill-bumps and inspired you as an artist?
"The Dance" by Garth Brooks sticks out in my mind. I had just broken up with my first love when that song came out and probably sat there and bawled for ten minutes... I probably had to pull over. That's a good sign right there, when you have to pull over when you hear a song. That's what country music does.
Who are some up and coming artists right now that you hope make it big?
First on my list would be Cody Johnson, I think he's really great. He's a great singer and entertainer and is making it big in Texas. I would love to see him have some nationwide success as well because he's a young guy making real country music, and he's got all the ingredients of somebody who could really be big.
I've heard a song or two by Mo Pitney and I definitely like his voice. I'm a big Kacey Musgraves fan. Charlie Worsham's latest record sounds so beautiful and his songs are catchy but they've got depth to them, too. His song, "That's How I Learned to Pray," gives me chills.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of working the Texas circuit?
I've only really been doing it for three years because I lived in Nashville before that for nine years. To be honest, during my Nashville years I was a little unfocused. I was a man in search of a genre, and it wasn't until I moved to Texas that I found that fan base that loved the music that I do. So for me, Texas has been a supportive home base where I can be me and have enough support and success to keep doing it. I've done more than a thousand shows, and there's still some stuff that's just now getting comfortable. To me, that's what Texas enables you to do. You play every single weekend, get tight as a band and comfortable in your own skin.
What is it about Texas that offers such a unique musical environment for country artists?
It's a unique combination of things. It's a large amount of people that are all buying into Texas pride so there's that camaraderie and culture there. They value authenticity and self-reliance, which lends itself to independent artists. If you're an independent artist, they know you're not a puppet and you're putting out music that you genuinely love.
[Texas country fans] like their artists to be raw, real and authentic.
You're friends with fellow Texas country musician Aaron Watson. Has he given you any good career advice?
I can show you a conversation here (pulls out phone). He texted me and said, "I heard you're playing the Opry. Way to go, stud. You're one of the best." I said, "Haha, thanks bro, is there anything about the gig that you wish you'd known before hand?"
He said, "Just do your thing, amigo." As anyone that was there can attest, that's pretty much what I did.
You interact with your fans a lot on social media. How important is your relationship with them to you?
Interacting with the fans is a big part of it for me. I feel like I'm just a regular guy and my fans are just regular people and we get along... they are really just my friends. That's part of what makes this such a fun job for me. I check my Twitter, Facebook and Instagram all the time. I'm kind of addicted to it. It's not something I do because I have to... It's fun for me to have things to share and see how people respond. I've always been an open book. I hope I don't ever get too big that I can't go and have a beer with fans after the show.
Who is another artist that you'd love to collaborate with?
The first person that popped into my mind was Taylor Swift. She's pretty much a genius when it comes to songwriting. I'm amazed that she was able to write those multi-platinum selling country albums and then write as great of a pop album as 1989. That would be like me deciding to put out a John Mayer-style album and putting out a record that's just as good as John Mayer. I can't imagine pulling that off.
I'd also love to do something with my heroes like Garth Brooks, the Dixie Chicks or Alan Jackson. More realistically, it would be fun to do something with Kacey Musgraves or Will Hoge. I've also thought about Charlie Worsham. I'd love for him to co-produce my next album.
What's your favorite barbecue joint in Texas?
I'm going to sell out to the man and say Dickey's, because they have my picture up in all their new restaurants. I'm not sponsored by them, but I'd like to be. Other than that, the best barbecue I've had in Texas was home cooked from fans who had just won a big barbecue cook-off. They brought us some brisket and it was the best I've ever had.
What are your plans for the rest of 2015?
We are a hard-working honky-tonk band who play shows every weekend. I'll probably take one weekend off for the entire year. I've got ideas for an acoustic bluegrass, singer-songwriter type of album and I have some songs saved up for a mainstream country record. I just want to get into the studio soon and get started on it.