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Nashville’s next generation forges own path

Emerging country artists have famous bloodlines
/ Source: The Associated Press

If anyone seems born to write and sing songs, it’s Holly Williams.

Her grandfather is American music icon Hank Williams, her father the country outlaw Hank Williams Jr.

She released her debut album last year in the long shadow of her family’s honky tonk history.

“People do compare, but on a healthy level,” she said. “I never feel that they look and say, ’You’re not as good,’ or whatever. I think my dad dealt with that more.”

Williams, 24, is among a handful of emerging Nashville artists with famous bloodlines. Shooter Jennings, son of Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, cracked the country charts this year with his single “4th of July.” The duo Hanna-McEuen, comprised of the sons of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band founders Jeff Hanna and John McEuen, release their self-titled debut album Aug. 16.

All say the upside of being raised in a musical family outweighs the pressure of trying to live up to the family name.

“There are things you get to see that other kids don’t,” said Williams, who remembers visiting recording studios with her dad and riding in limos to concerts.

She wasn’t as aware of her grandfather’s legacy until much later.

“It was always something that felt pretty far away from me. My dad would tell me about him, but I didn’t realize the impact he had on American music until I started writing songs and heard people like Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen talking about him.”

Tough act to followFollowing a famous elder is a tough act for some singers.

Early in his career, Hank Williams Jr. consistently reinterpreted his father’s songs and displayed some of the same self-destructive behavior that led to the elder Williams’ untimely death in 1953. Carlene Carter, who is the granddaughter of Maybelle Carter and the daughter of June Carter, has received more attention for her legal problems than her music in recent years.

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Others have had a smoother ride. Roseanne Cash successfully established her own identity despite her larger-than-life father, Johnny Cash. Ditto for Pam Tillis (daugher of Mel) and Lorrie Morgan (daughter of George).

Williams also is carving her own identity. While her hushed songs about addictions, affairs and abuse link her thematically to her grandfather, they’re in the vein of 1970s folk rock artists such as James Taylor and Joni Mitchell.

If she had wanted to, she could have recorded a rowdy honky tonk record and cashed in on the family name, Williams said.

“I knew I’d just be singing songs written on the row (Music Row), and I really loved being able to write what I wanted to write and talk about what I wanted to,” Williams said. “Nothing against that kind of music or anything, I just wanted to go a different way. If I had wanted to do the Nashville thing, doors could have been open.”

Similarly, the duo of Jamie Hanna, 32, and Jonathan McEuen, 29, take a different approach than their fathers, drawing more from the Western style of country music than the Appalachian strain that inspired the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Both groups, however, deftly blend elements of country and rock.

“Our sound is our own,” McEuen says. “But my hands are just like my dad’s hands, and I can’t change that. I’m lucky I can pick like that. I feel much obliged.”

Besides having famous fathers, the two also are first cousins and sons of identical twin sisters. Like most children of musicians, they were exposed to music very early. McEuen was performing at his Dad’s Rocky Mountain Opry show in Colorado by the time he was 7.

“It’s only natural for you to want to give it a stab,” he says of a music career, “and the rest is kind of like a joy ride.”

Hanna says there was never any pressure from his father to continue the family business, so to speak.

“If anything, it was, ’Are you sure you want to do this?’,” Hanna said. “I think the fans are the ones who expect more. But a lot of time they’re also saying, ’We’re so glad you guys are carrying the torch.”’

Jennings, 26, might be the most high-profile contemporary artist in Nashville with famous lineage. His late father is a country music legend, his mother a country singer who had a huge crossover hit in 1975 with “I’m Not Lisa.”

As a teenager, he rebelled against country music by moving to Los Angeles and forming a hard rock band, Stargunn. He said he felt freer to pursue his music in California than in Nashville.

“I think subconsciously I knew that it was like, being there, no one knew who Waylon Jennings was,” he says. “It kind of put me on the same level as everyone else. In Nashville, I kind of felt like there were a lot of eyes watching me and stuff.”

After four years, he returned to his roots with a sound that melds country’s lyrics and instrumentation with rock’s energy and rawness. Recorded in Los Angeles with frank lyrics about pot busts and broken relationships, his album “Put the O Back in Country” tows the country outlaw line forged by his father 30 years ago.

Jennings says he’s taken some knocks from critics.

“I get ragged on, and I read some things here and there. People think that I sold out because I went by my name, went to Nashville and got a deal. But I never thought that way because in Stargunn, nobody would hit us with a stick and I was still Waylon Jennings’ son. I didn’t change.”