Rachel Williams: Lonely At the Bottom
Rachel Williams likes her country music with generous helpings of straight-ahead slow-burners, big rock hooks and Motor City-bred rhythm and blues. And it just so happens that the Michigan-born singer has the pipes to straddle the genre-bending territory between southern-fried twang, heartbroken balladry and chugging, bottom-heavy grooves. With Lonely At the Bottom—her second full-length album—Williams unites the styles she loves in a potent and mature artistic statement. In a day when most albums average twelve tracks or less, Lonely boasts a lavish sixteen songs.
“I was writing so much that I just couldn't bear to part with any of the songs—they were all significant to me for one reason or another,” Williams explains. “I felt that the only way to get a true representation of who I am right now and the music that I'm doing these days was to include them all. It definitely ended up being better this way, because instead of the token ‘one acoustic song, one power ballad, one party song, etc.,’ we got to put together an album with no limitations.”
Songwriting is a relatively new addition to the twenty-one-year-old artists’ already formidable arsenal. Just a few years back she was relying on others for material (her debut, First Day Of The Truth featured her first Nashville co-write, “Welcome To Love”), but she wrote or co-wrote twelve of the sixteen songs on Lonely. “It feels like I’ve been writing since I’ve been singing. I just never thought of myself as a strong songwriter until I moved down here and started working at it, constantly. I never thought that I’d be able to write as much as I have and to have the songs stand up against the stuff that we were being pitched by other songwriters,” she says. “I just couldn’t find anything that was beating what I was writing at the time. A lot of times, nobody knows what I want to say better than me.”
In another significant first, Williams took part in every aspect of the record-making process this time around, from presiding over artwork design to co-producing the album’s sixteen tracks with Kim Copeland. “The first album, I basically went in there and did my thing, sang my leads, did some background vocals and then I went back to Michigan,” she says. “With this album I wanted to be completely involved in everything that was happening.”
As the album title suggests, the songs are earthy, accessible narratives about life’s ups and downs. “This new CD just kind of follows me through some of the disappointments that I was experiencing in relationships and my career,” says Williams. “I basically tore out my journal and put it on a CD. It’s a very scary, vulnerable place to be. But I’d rather put it all out on the line then hold back and be unsure. That’s my release, how I keep sane. I always tell people, ‘Don’t ever break my heart, because you will hear it in a song at some point down the road.’ Guaranteed.”
“There’s a lot of dark songs on here,” she adds. “I know that a lot of people are going to say, ‘What does she know about that?’, but they’d be surprised. I have felt these things and I have watched people I love dearly go through them as well. There’s absolutely nothing on this album that I can’t relate to one hundred percent.”
The title track—a driving pop-rock anthem with an infectious hook—is a declaration of independence from a controlling lover. Against the meaty blues-rock riffs of “Firestarter,” Williams struts, belts and dares a tease to “finish what he started.” With “How Does It Feel”—a Williams solo write—she turns the tables on a guy who’s cut and run. Her honeyed drawl hovers above the searing guitars and swelling B-3 of melancholic rocker “Rain On the Windshield,” while aching acoustic ballad “Kill Me In the Morning” has Williams seeking a salve at the bottom of a shot glass and in a stranger’s bed. “World Famous”—a gorgeous acoustic ballad sweetened with plaintive, lyrical guitar and piano—tells a story that she knows all too well—the small town star chases her dreams to the big city, only to find herself lost in the crowd, working for her big break.
Assembling the album piece by piece, they enlisted a revolving crew of ace studio musicians, including several of Nashville’s most in-demand drummers, from Nick Buda (Taylor Swift, Mindy Smith) to Wayne Killius (Big and Rich, Steve Forbert), Brian Pruitt (Mark Chesnutt, LeAnn Rimes) and Owen Hale (Lynyrd Skynyrd, George Strait, Patty Loveless).
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 Wynonna 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, ‘No, I don’t need a Naomi.’”
Williams had two significant things going for her from the start—a strikingly full-bodied voice and the conviction that she was born to be a performer. Her passion and raw talent only became clearer as she progressed from herding family members into the living room to witness 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 in to see me, and I’d be 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 achievement—a long-coveted show date with Wynonna) she decided it was time to up the ante and leave the restaurant job behind. With the subsequent recording of her full-length debut—2004’s First Day of the Truth—the singer solidified her heady mélange of country, R&B and rock.
After relocating to Nashville in late 2004, Williams began burning up the road with her band every chance she could get, 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 constant—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 one hundred percent, or nothing at all. If not, then you’re in the wrong field.”
Williams’ focus on songwriting has begun to pay off in a big way as she’s logged co-writes with a host of well-respected writers, from Dave Berg, who scored number hits with Reba McEntire (“Somebody”) and Rodney Atkins (“If You’re Going Through Hell”), to Stewart Harris, who topped the charts with the Wynonna Judd smash “No One Else On Earth” and Travis Tritt’s “Can I Trust You With My Heart,” and Lisa Carver, who has had cuts with Sugarland, Tim McGraw, Reba McEntire, and Julie Roberts.. Many industry insiders are starting to take notice of Rachel’s songwriting talents as material for other country music stars as well, as several of her songs are currently being held for numerous major country recording artists.
In 2007 alone, this petite brunette can credit a pair of showcases, a handful of performances in the prestigious late night songwriters’ rounds at Nashville’s famed Bluebird Café—including her hosting debut—and a booth at Fan Fair—an important long-running feature of the CMA Music Festival—for having raised Williams’ profile in Music City. Her latest album promises to turn even more heads her way.
Williams may be still be considered 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 decades—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 what the labels are looking for at this moment just to have 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.”