It’s been said before but it bears repeating. The first rule of a traveling musician is, you go where the crowds are. For local country singer-songwriter, Zane Williams, those audiences can be found in some pretty remote locations.
“I’m living the honky-tonk dream," he says, using his bass player’s phone to call the Observer from a remote Nebraska town. "My phone didn’t quite pick up a signal. We’ve played here once before and had quite the fun, little crowd. I think tonight’s show will be a good one.”
But things are on an upswing for this seasoned artist. A new album, Bringing Country Back, is coming out this month. A release-accompanying headlining gig is scheduled for Oct. 20 at Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth. Though he’s called four other states home over the course of his 39 years, there’s certainly no other place he’d rather be at the moment.
A Texan by birth, Williams returned to his roots a few years ago, following a lengthy stint in Nashville that left him both commercially disappointed and creatively dispirited. “I felt out of place. People there refer to it as ‘finding your tribe,’" he says. "I tried, but I just never found my group to settle in with. I tried wearing a few different musical hats, but I preferred just putting on a fun show featuring well-written and hooky songs. There just wasn’t much of an audience for that.”
Settling with his wife in her hometown of McKinney, Williams resigned himself to packing up the guitar and getting a 9-to-5 job when suddenly his more nurturing surroundings beckoned forth with newfound inspiration. “I pretty quickly realized that Texas was a good fit for me," he says. "The people here valued authenticity more than what is currently being played on the radio.”
Finally, he was writing songs again. He assembled a band, an act that was appreciably easier to do here than in Nashville, and booked studio time in between road trips spent barnstorming the state to play for crowds in hamlets, cities and towns.
Lately, Williams’ songs have found an even more appreciative audience, due in no small part to his sturdy provincialism. One notable song in his repertoire, “Texas Like That” is a heartfelt paean; he’s both welcoming of the opportunities the state has given him and filled with the native pride his birthplace has bestowed upon him. It’s a song that should be included on state tourism soundtracks and one that could be played to wind down the evening at any of the countless roadside honky-tonks.
And, if the view count that accompanies the song's YouTube video is any indication, it’s also likely his most popular. In it, an assortment of Texans have contributed pictures of themselves out amongst the state’s various landmarks dancing, laughing and enjoying the company of friends and family.
Williams’ perspective is not solely sentimental, though. Another song, “Overnight Success” parodies the quick attention given to current country artists, while also going over the laundry list of hardships encountered by lesser lights.
Though difficult to navigate, the lean years were a worthy experience, whose perspective is not lost on Williams. “I spent so much time in Nashville trying to find a regular venue to play in. A place with maybe an outdoor rustic stage where people could kick back, drink beer and listen to good country music. I could not find a single one,” Williams says, frustration obvious in his voice. “It’s sort of a showcase town with a lot of rectangular, black-painted generic venues.”
Compare that to his experience in Texas, where he found a welcoming venues and fortuitous encounters with industry folks. "I go to one open-mic night and I discover a local radio representative who liked my music and things just built up,” he says.
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Williams is capable of expressing the cry-in-your-beer emotions of the lovelorn and lonely as much as he is in pulling out the dusty, roadhouse stompers. There’s genuine feeling in the songs, buoyed by subtle wit and keen observation. "I leave my mind open for inspiration and try to figure out how my ideas, titles and phrases might fit into a bigger picture," he says. "It’s like a dog catching a sniff of a good trail. I don’t really know where this trail may lead but I recognize that there’s something worth following.”
All of this is on display in Bringing Country Back, which he recorded in Denton. While the title makes his intentions plain, the remaining songs keep the mood in line with the classic country temperament. Dance-hall advice is doled out, politicians are lightly skewered, and a couple of revered country music songwriting techniques are employed, most notably the string of double-entendres that pepper the mid-album track, “The Church of Country Music.”
With a long country music career finally taking root, Williams has found a sweet spot among audiences appreciative of both his lyrical realness and his swaggering spirit. He’s a throwback to the days of Texas country, more George Jones, George Strait and Randy Travis and less of the Top-40 country heat-seeker.
“I’m forever grateful for Texas for welcoming me and giving me my first real, true fan base,” he says.