Wildwood Smokehouse & Saloon — Saturday, May 11 at 8 p.m.
On the road, through the telephone, Alex Williams’ voice sounds like it’s coming from an ancient country 8-track. He’s not even 30 years old yet, but his voice, a rich baritone even when he’s just speaking, seems to come from the dusty rack of a since-shuttered record shop.
He plays and sings at the Wildwood Smokehouse & Saloon this Saturday, May 11. Tickets are $12.
Williams is originally from Pendleton, Indiana. Unlike many country musicians, he says country music came late into his life.
“I grew up on ’80s hair metal. My dad listened to Ratt and Cinderella and shit,” he says.
Then, his grandparents gave him two records that changed his life: Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger, and Waylon Jennings’ Dreaming My Dreams.
“They both came out in ’75. I had this record player, and my grandparents were like, ‘Take these with you,’ he says. “Once I heard those, I was like, ‘This is pretty badass, I want to play music for a living.’ I wasn’t trying to be those guys. I just liked their honest, raw approach to writing and recording.”
Williams’ debut, 2017’s Better Than Myself, is half homage to those trailblazers, and half new testaments to the modern country music, however you qualify it these days. Some of the song titles read like lost honky-tonk standards: “Pay No Mind,” “Old Tattoo,” “Little Too Stoned,” “Hellbent Hallelujah,” and “Week Without a Drink.”
One of Williams’ oldest originals, “Old Tattoo,” works as a fitting entryway to Williams young career, its chorus an exercise in country lyric tradition:
“You know time don’t heal
It’s just fading like the floors of an old saloon
You can hide the pain away
Even if it’s etched right into you
Like an old tattoo”
He did spend eight years living in Nashville, originally coming to the city to attend Belmont University.
“They actually had a songwriting major, but I didn’t really get much from that,” he says, laughing. “I went there for a little over a year and I started playing downtown on Broadway. That kind of withered away, so I ended up quitting school and playing downtown Nashville for a lot of years. I had a band, kinda like a jam band-y, country thing.”
It was the breakup of that band, Williams & Co., which gave Williams the lyric for the title track of his debut.
“My drummer from the old band said, ‘Man, your songs are better than you are,’ Williams says. “I thought, ‘I don’t even know what that means, but I’m gonna save it.’”
He’s been saving a lot more lines for another album, a self-admitted long-overdue one, which he hopes will be out by the first of next year. It is his hope that it will finally loosen those descriptions of him as a new troubadour of the outlaw country trade.
“There are some new songs that are straight ahead country, but I’m trying to go with a more [Tom] Petty, southern rock influence on this one. I’m just trying to get away from the hard country thing, or whatever that means,” he says. “It’s still there, but I want to be able to grow musically and express everything that I’ve been influenced by. I just want to evolve. I feel like that’s important for each album. It’s fine to do the same thing if that’s what you want to do, but hopefully this one will be a little more left field and a little less safe than the last one.”
With a voice like his, though, the comparisons will come, regardless of where he turns next. Half smoke and half whiskey-soaked, it is a voice that’s been earned like a Boy Scout badge.
“(My voice) just kind of naturally came. Merle and George … are obviously my influences, but I’m not trying to emulate anybody,” he says. “I used to have a really high voice when I started singing and it was pretty fucking terrible. I’m just trying to suck less over the years.”
Go and see him, if you can, and feel at ease knowing that the fate of country music isn’t only in the hands of those at the helm of the machines down on Music Row.