Dallas Native Jess Williamson From Plains Comes Home Ahead of New Solo Release | Dallas Observer

Jess Williamson Goes the Extra Mile To Arrive After Leaving Dallas Behind

Singer-songwriter Jess Williamson, who was born in Lewisville, Texas, and grew up in the Dallas area, will be back in her hometown as a headliner at Sundown at Granada on June 8, the day before the release of her fifth solo studio album.
Singer-songwriter Jess Williamson poses with Nana, the rescue dog she found on the road in New Mexico a little over two years ago during one of her marathon trips.
Singer-songwriter Jess Williamson poses with Nana, the rescue dog she found on the road in New Mexico a little over two years ago during one of her marathon trips. Jackie Lee Young
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Jess Williamson waited until her senior year in college before learning how to write songs and play musical instruments. Although her major course of study was photojournalism, the true ambition of an only child of Dallas parents was to get educated in the art of music.

After 18 years, four solo albums and one very-high-profile collaborative project, Williamson is on the verge of stardom. As a sensitive singer-songwriter with a sparkling voice and multi-instrumentalist abilities that cover multiple genres, she possesses crossover potential that knows no boundaries.

For someone who once felt at times like “a little bit of an outsider” and could’ve been called the Mellow Rose of Texas, this late bloomer has grown patiently and gracefully in her quest to find the magical forces of nature that appeal to the senses — and the masses.

Her latest thing of beauty is Time Ain’t Accidental, an alluring 11-track album that covers love lost and found on a seemingly endless road trip to ultimate satisfaction. It will be released June 9 on the Mexican Summer label.

She sounded upbeat while dealing with spotty cellphone service on tour in Woodstock, New York, on May 26. Scheduled to play later that night for the first time at Levon Helm Studios, Williamson was pleased about the critical attention and fan praise her fifth solo studio album’s new songs were already getting two weeks before its release.
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Jess Williamson, who was born in Lewisville, Texas, will perform at Sundown at Granada on June 8, the day before her fifth solo album is released.
Jackie Lee Young
“It’s amazing. I’m so thankful,” she says, finally, over a Zoom connection. “I’m really happy that people like the singles, and it seems like they’re excited for the whole record to come out. It really means a lot to me.”

Returning to her hometown as a headliner at Sundown at Granada the day before the release, Williamson will be thrilled to see one special fan at the show, the person in Dallas she misses the most — “My Mom!”

While her music isn’t restricted to any particular genre, Williamson embraces the country side of herself. Yet she introduces sounds not usually heard in Nashville’s old-timey tunes.

“I love it and am honored to be associated with country,” she says. “I know I’m bringing my own flavor by using some non-traditional instrumentation, but some of the best ones doing it right now are also pushing those boundaries sonically. Sturgill Simpson and Kacey Musgraves, for example.”

One of her twists was utilizing drum programming for songs such as “God in Everything, “Topanga Two Step” and the title track from an iPhone app that was “this really amazing companion” during the pandemic.

“Using the drum machine was the biggest shift for me,” Williamson says when comparing this album to her previous work. “It helped me open up my songwriting and take it out of any specific genre box.”

In a website bio quote, Williamson says that being alone during lockdown was “a period of stillness and desperation that forced me to turn inward and find comfort in a power greater than myself.”

Asked to elaborate in a subsequent email, she replies, “It felt like a slow unfolding and subtle shift toward trusting and putting my faith in a Higher Power. It’s something I’m still working on and learning about but more than anything it’s really been about letting go and believing that I’m taken care of. ‘God in Everything’ is a song that speaks to finding my own definition of God and what that word means to me. It’s less big man in the sky and more of an energy, a feeling.”

The album was produced by Brad Cook, and Williamson confirmed a statement, made during my earlier Observer interview with Suki Waterhouse, that the Grammy-nominated North Carolinian is able to “bring out the best” in the artists he works with.

“Absolutely, Brad is a genius!” Williamson exclaims. “He has the ability to see things that you can’t always see within yourself.”

Cook also plays guitars, keys, bass and drum machine, while contributing background vocals on the album, which includes steel guitar on country-ish ballads like “God in Everything” and “I’d Come to Your Call.”

The latter tune also has a pop-soul vibe thanks to her vocals, which are reminiscent of Jenny Lewis.

“I love Jenny Lewis; it’s a huge compliment," Williamson says. "I love her music. Rilo Kiley, growing up, was one of my favorite bands.”

Williamson addresses her own transition from Lone Star State loyalist to exploratory LA woman in “Hunter,” a mid-tempo folk rocker from Time Ain’t Accidental: “Beautiful people, eternally young / City of Angels gets stuck in your lungs / So I don’t check the weather in Texas no more / I just close my eyes.”

“That was from a moment when I was feeling like I needed to let go of Texas for a little while because the relationship I had been in was over and it felt like I needed to really cut ties with Texas and lean all the way into being in LA,” says Williamson, who relocated there in 2016.

She began deleting iPhone weather information about her favorite towns back home, thinking, “I need to be in LA and focus on what’s right in front of me.”
Two numbers Williamson wrote were based somewhat on her inability to master the Texas Two Step – “a source of insecurity for me,” she says. “Tobacco Two Step” seems to question a soured relationship: “Did I miss my man? / Did he miss me too? / Did he just pass me by / When I was wasting my time waiting on you?” and “Topanga Two Step” lyrics — “Got my best boots on for ya babe / And I’m falling cross your dance floor” — go beyond her footloose failures.

“It’s like speaking to this feeling of, like, everybody else knows all the moves. But I don’t,” she says. “I’m kind of faking it and stumbling through it. It speaks to that feeling of being a little bit of an outsider in both places [Texas, LA] at a certain time in my life. … Trying to figure out where I fit in.”

Williamson, the daughter of Hal and Sarah Williamson, was born on Dec. 11, 1987, in Lewisville, and grew up in nearby Flower Mound before the family settled in Dallas to be closer to her high school, Trinity Christian Academy in Addison. Feeling more like a rebel than an athlete there, she has been in a moving mode ever since, initially leaving town at age 17 to attend the University of Texas at Austin. As a senior, she began writing songs after learning to play her first instrument, the banjo, at South Austin Music with instructor Eddie Collins.

“What’s really cool about the banjo is that not a lot of people know how to play it, so you can do things that are relatively simple, and it sounds pretty impressive. I kind of hit the ground running with it, started pretty early on to write songs,” says Williamson, who later learned guitar and piano but yearns to try the harp primarily because her No. 1 “hero” is Joanna Newsom.
After leaving Austin for graduate school in New York City, she formed the band Rattlesnake in 2009, manning the banjo while singing with a female guitarist and fellow Texan.

“Getting my feet wet playing shows for the first time” lasted about six months until her musical partner left New York. “That was when I realized, ‘This is all I want to do,'" she says. "I decided to move back to Austin to really get things going, with the intention of ‘I’m gonna have a solo project, just go under my name so I’m not at the mercy of anybody else’s schedule. And I can just do this for real.’”

Making music on her own, Williamson wasted little time in Texas getting her career off the ground. It started unofficially at about age 9, when she sang alongside her guitar-playing grandpa at a community event in Denton. Her first solo release was the 2011 EP Medicine Wheel/Death Songs, of which she says, “I recorded in my friend’s garage a few months after I moved back.”

Following her full-length debut Native State in 2014 was Heart Song in 2016, then 2018’s Cosmic Wink and 2020’s Sorceress. Last year, she collaborated with Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee, calling themselves Plains, to make I Walked With You a Ways, an album of country songs released in October. Williamson says that record was tracked in February 2021, followed “exactly a year later” by Time Ain’t Accidental.

“Brad told me I’m the only artist to make two albums in one year with him, which feels pretty cool,” Williamson adds. “It was great experience because I already had a foundation of trust with Brad going into making my album.”
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Jess Williamson (left) collaborated in 2022 with Katie Crutchfield for a side project they called Plains, releasing I Walked With You a Ways, an album of country songs, in October.
Molly Matalon

Apparently a one-off project that included a fall 2022 tour (and a Halloween date in Dallas), Plains gained quite a following, including former President Barack Obama, who put their rockin’ song “Problem With It” on his Favorite Music of 2022 list. On May 9, Plains received an Americana Music Awards nomination as best duo or group, with the winner to be announced at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on Sept. 20.

Williamson will rub elbows with many talented colleagues that week in Nashville as an AmericanaFest showcase performer, so earning an award is secondary. “To me, we’ve already won just by being nominated,” she says. “It’s such an honor to be in the same category as all of those amazing artists” that include Nickel Creek, The War and Treaty, 49 Winchester and Caamp.

These days, Williamson splits time between LA and the West Texas town of Marfa, a 14.5-hour drive away.

“It’s pretty inconvenient, right,” she concedes. “But I enjoy those drives. … Being alone in my car with my dog, listening to music. I have my little food co-ops that I hit and my little coffee shops. It’s just kind of my thing. It’s influenced my record, too. There’s a lot of songs about driving and the highway [with Texas locales in the lyrics]. … It’s just become part of who I am now.”

The dog she rescued a little over two years ago was left stranded on the road in New Mexico during one of her marathon trips. Nana, shown above with Williamson in a recent publicity photo, is a “total mutt, a mix of a bunch of different things,” she says. A DNA test revealed that result after everyone, including Williamson, thought her pooch might be a golden retriever. “Kind of crazy. But she looks just like one,” she says.

After odometer mileage and anxiety mounted while recovering from a previous painful split, Williamson may have found the partner she’s been looking for in a personal relationship.

“You know, it feels that way,” she says of the man in her life for almost two years. “The last song on the record is called ‘Roads,’ and it kind of sums up the whole story of this record, which is a lot of hope, a lot of joy and celebration. To me, this record ends with, like, we’re driving off to the clear skies ahead. We don’t really know where it’s going. We never know how the story ends. But there’s a lot of hope. And peace and love.”

The singer left many things behind on the road.

“Going through that breakup was kind of a rock-bottom moment," she says. "I did a lot of work on myself, a lot of soul-searching. Basically, when you get better on the inside, things in your life get better on the outside. That’s what I got to see happen, and things are feeling good these days.”

Williamson sounds like she can’t wait for the next chapter to begin.

“He’s gonna come to Austin and LA” to see her perform during the final days of the tour.

What better place than Texas for two real pardners to step up.

Homeward Bound: Jess Williamson Toasts Dallas (and Texas)

1. What do you love the most about Dallas (besides your Mom)?

JW: I think there is a really, like, cool merging of worlds in Dallas, where it’s a little fancy, a little ritzy, a little artsy, a little high-class, and then it’s also just so Texas and laid back. … I feel like people don’t take themselves too seriously. I think it’s grown and changed in some really cool ways. And because I haven’t lived there since I was 17, when I go, I feel a little bit like a tourist in a fun way. I go to the museums or the cool bars that have popped up.

2. What are some of your favorite haunts in Dallas?

JW, laughing: I go to the three restaurants my Mom goes to usually. So, I’m the wrong person to ask. It’s literally like chain steakhouses. … But I have one! My favorite restaurant in Dallas is called Prego Pasta House. It’s been there forever. I grew up going there.

3. With your tour including dates in Dallas and Austin (June 9–10 at the Continental Club), what can audiences expect when they see you perform?

JW: I’ve been really loving playing “God in Everything” and “Roads” on this tour. I am debuting a lot of never-before-heard songs from the new record. … I’m playing all the singles that are out [“Time Ain’t Accidental,” “Hunter,” “Chasing Spirits”], a couple songs from my last two records, a couple of Plains songs. … Yeah, it’s gonna be fun.

4. Will you have a backing band?

JW: Yes, Matt LaRocca (guitar), Owen Barrett (drums), and he actually whips out the banjo for one song, and Caleb Veazey (bass, keys).

5. What do you remember about your first professional show in Dallas?

JW: My word! … I remember that not a lot of people came, and I was a little embarrassed that all my family was there. Dallas is kind of a hard town to play. It was a place called Ruins in Deep Ellum. I think it was 2018.

6. How would you sum up your relationship with Texas, which you left to attend graduate school?

JW: It took leaving Texas to really appreciate Texas. I love it so much. … All my family is in Central or North Texas. … [Texas is] definitely the place I imagine myself ending up and putting roots down.
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