Overnight Success, the title of McKinney's Zane Williams' new album, is meant to be ironic — he spent years getting to this point. But the time has been worth it. Success is one of the year's strongest statements from a masterful country songwriter hitting his stride.
His music career almost came to an end in 2008, when he decided to quit chasing neon rainbows in Nashville after working there for almost a decade. He began a (slightly) more stable existence as a real estate agent.
It's not that Williams was a bust in Music City. He moved there just days after graduating from Abilene Christian University in 1999, and his talents eventually earned him a publishing deal. His songs garnered interest from big-name producers and talents. But those nuggets of success weren't enough to keep him going. So he prepared to leave his life as a full-time musician behind and entered a course to become a real estate agent. But he didn't get very far away from music: Some of his classmates convinced him to take his guitar out of its case.
That impromptu unplugged set proved revelatory for the troubadour. At that moment, the disparity between the passion he felt for creating music and the prospect of life as a salesman rekindled the artistic fire within him and he moved to North Texas with his wife to genuinely kick-start his music career. Williams was intent on making some dreams come true, even though he only had a few dollars in his bank account with which to get rolling.
Then, in a twist made for the silver screen, "Hurry Home," a beautiful song Williams had written in Nashville, was recorded by Jason Michael Carroll, a regular Top 40 hit-maker at the time. It ascended the Billboard Country Chart, peaking at No. 14 in early 2009 and heard all over the country-loving world. A very short time after Williams and his wife moved to McKinney, Williams, who had strived so hard to live the honky-tonk dream, received a life-changing six-figure royalty check for his hit tune.
With a bit of financial security and a child on the way, Williams knew it was time to record an album and to string together some shows. He had also pinpointed the person needed to help him begin his leap into the Texas country scene. Radney Foster, a Nashville success story himself, is a native Texan who produced the breakout albums for several notable Texas-based acts. There was one minor issue: The highly sought-after Foster had no clue who Williams was.
Williams is on the phone as he drives his band's 15-passenger van to Lubbock for a gig, just two days before he'll play a packed hometown CD-release show in McKinney. "When I moved back to Texas in 2008," he says, "I did some research and knew that Radney had produced Randy Rogers and Brandon Rhyder. I love his writing and I could tell he clearly understood Texas guys, since he was a Texas guy that happened to be living in Nashville.
"So basically, I bugged him for four months. I contacted him on MySpace and through his publishing company. I was determined to get confirmation that he had at least listened to my music, and to also get a 'yes' or 'no' from him. I finally got a call from Radney, and he told me he loved my four-song sampler and that he wanted to write with me and produce my record."
The Right Place, the 2009 album Foster helped Williams with so tremendously, is a gem, and immediately grabbed the ears of radio programmers from all over the state, especially in the Texas country-intensive market of Dallas-Fort Worth. Another well-produced, impeccably written record, Ride With Me, came along in 2011. That album coincided with Williams' star turn in the syndicated television show Troubadour, TX.
Which brings us to that van ride to Lubbock. On the eve of releasing the most important album of his already eventful career, Williams finally feels like his music career has some stability. Still, he's ready to do his part to make sure that Overnight Success gets into as many hands as possible. It's time for the next step.
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"I'm not going to lie," admits Williams. "There's pressure, but it's more from a feeling of how I think now is the time for things to really happen. My management and I really want to give this album the great push it deserves. It's not a make-or-break scenario, because I'll make music after this no matter what. Timing and even luck play such a big part in how things become successful in the music industry, so I like to take a long-term approach to how I view my career moving forward. In a couple of years, I'll hopefully make a record, and a couple of years after that, I'll make another. I'll never quit playing music."
And with this album, at this point in his life and with the team he has around him, Williams is confident he's struck a balance that will hopefully boost things up a notch or two. A quest for balance, both artistically and professionally, is perhaps as vital as anything to whether Williams will find the larger-scale success he seeks. His songs, especially the carefully curated set on the new album, display a skillful blend of Music Row polish and gritty, Texan sincerity. That combination isn't present by accident.
"My goal when I write a song is for there to be a balance of styles," he says. "When I was in college, I didn't know about the Texas scene, Pat Green or Jack Ingram. I listened to Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson. But, when I moved to Nashville, I eventually realized that I didn't fit the typical mold. I favored the rootsier stuff with honest lyrics from the heart. The skills of the players in Nashville and the craft of making music is the best there. But in Texas, whether it's rock or country, there's a B.S. detector that most Nashville artists can't escape from. It has to be real here. So I shoot for the best of both worlds."
Williams still lives in McKinney, but now works for a label that's based in Nashville and owned by a Texan. The irony of it all is certainly not lost on him, and in fact, he thinks everything's in its rightful place at this time. After all of these years, it's a simple equation: "It's pretty much like Nashville decided it likes me when I live in Texas and only come to visit."