Rachel Williams likes her country music with a generous helping of Motor City-bred, rock-tinged rhythm and blues. The Michigan-born singer has the pipes to carry tunes that straddle the genre-bending territory between southern-fried melodies with a hint of twang and chugging, bottom-heavy B-3, bass and drums.
November 2004 saw the release of Williams’ sizzling debut, First Day of the Truth, on Regaltone Records. On the Bobby Terry/Bekka Bramlett-penned barnburner, “As Far As You Know,” a sultry soul swagger erupts into a fire-breathing declaration of fighting words. Music Row magazine’s Larry Wayne Clark says the song “finds Williams channeling her â€˜inner Aretha’ in a way that would make that soul empress grin approvingly.” William’s whispers then soars on the album’s anthemic title track, and dances nimbly through punchy melodic hooks on the one-foot-out-the-door tune “What If I’m Gone.” The album boasts William’s first Nashville co-write, the blues-inflected “Welcome To Love,” written with Kim Copeland and Bill Edwards.
This February, Williams followed with a trio of new tunes, two of which she co-wrote, leading off with the heart-wrenching single “Some Things Make Her Cry.” The tender, slow-burning ballad was born out of the singer’s own experiences of heartache. In the wake of a particularly painful parting of ways, she wrote a list of everything that reminded her of her former beau, and those vivid word pictures became the lyrical centerpiece of the chorus. The song’s sentimental reminiscences are tastefully cradled by spacious layers of piano and guitar.
For this project, Williams enlisted many of the same seasoned players who appeared on her first record, including drummer Owen Hale, bassist Larry Paxton, keyboardist Dennis Burnside and guitarists Danny Parks and Joe Spivey. Kim Copeland produced both projects. Renowned session singer and songwriter Bekka Bramlett, formerly of Fleetwood Mac, also lent her vocals to the new single and the uplifting track “Get Home.”
Williams’ solid musical foundation was laid early on in life. A native of Belleville, Mi., she grew up within shouting distance of the birthplace of the Motown sound. From the tender age of two, when her grandfather took her to her first Judds concert, Williams cultivated a devotion to Wynonna. Watching countless television appearances and reading every interview she could get her hands on, the aspiring singer admired the personal strength and career longevity that she herself would later strive for as an artist.
“At five years old I told everybody I was going to be the next Wynonna,” she recalls amusedly. “My mom would always ask if she could sing with me, and I would say, â€˜No, I don’t need a Naomi.’”
Williams had two significant things going for her from the startâ€"a strikingly full-bodied voice and the conviction that she was born to be a performer. Her passion and raw talent only became more apparent as she progressed from herding family members into the living room for her hairbrush/microphone mini-concerts to sweeping talent shows and choir competitions.
The budding siren conquered the club and fair circuits of Michigan and surrounding states in her teens, handling the bulk of booking responsibilities herself, but she finally gained national exposure as a top 15 finalist on the USA Network’s Nashville Star 2. Working as a waitress at the time the show aired, she soon became known to two million viewers as “that Cracker Barrel girl.”
“We would have tons of people call Cracker Barrel and come to see me while I was nasty and covered in coffee from waitressing,” she laughs. “I can’t even tell you how many menus I signed.”
Following Nashville Star, media attention and a string of noteworthy opening slots (including Williams’ crowing achievementâ€"a long-coveted show date with Wynonna) she decided it was time to up the ante and make the move to Music City. With the subsequent recording of her full-length debut, the singer solidified her heady mélange of country, R&B and rock. She succeeded in crafting a song cycle that was potent, soulful and compelling, determined to please herself and her fans first, without fretting over whether or not the end result would be radio-friendly. This remains her goal each time she enters the studio.
Since relocating to Nashville in late 2004, Williams has been burning up the road with her band, touring with Jason Aldean, Sammy Kershaw and other acts, as well as playing numerous showcases around town. The setlist and the venues may change from night to night, but one thing remains constantâ€"she’s dedicated to delivering a great stage show, the kind that wins over even the audience members who don’t typically like country music.
“Every time I perform on stage, as corny as it sounds, I really feel like I put myself out there,” she offers. “I leave nothing to the imagination. I’ll just tell you straight out. Sure it’s draining, but when you choose a career in music I don’t feel like you have a choice. You owe people 100 percent, or nothing at all. If you can’t give that, then you’re in the wrong field.”
Williams may be a Nashville newcomer, but she’s already set her sights on forging an enduring musical career. She’s too ambitious to aim for becoming country music’s latest flavor-of-the-moment.
“I look at Bonnie Raitt, Reba McEntire and Wynonna, who’ve been here for decadesâ€"they’re not just plaques on the wall in the Hall of Fame. They’re still doing their thing and getting loads of respect. It would be so easy to become whatever the labels are looking for at the moment to get a hit single on the radio, but those things have never been the end-all goal for me. I’m not going to apologize for my music. The way that we’re doing things might take a hell-of-a-lot longer, but in the end it’s going to last.”