"Bringin' Country Back" is more than a catchphrase for Zane Williams. It is a rallying cry for a return to authenticity and substance in mainstream country music, and a fitting title for his sixth studio album. "I think of country music as poetry for the common man," he says reflectively. "The stories that draw you in, the simple truth stated in a way you wish you could've said...there's an honesty to country music that totally grabbed me the first time I heard it."
That plain-spoken, down-home honesty has now become the calling card for Zane's own career, landing him four #1 songs on the Texas radio charts, opening gigs with heroes like George Jones and Alan Jackson, and even an invitation to perform at the Grand Ole Opry in 2015. The genuine quality of his music is no fluke. In a world where most popular music is created by committee, Zane writes the vast majority of his songs alone, whenever the inspiration strikes. "I get a lot of ideas while I'm busy doing other tasks," he says, "say driving down the road, or doing dishes, or mowing the yard. My wife can always tell when I'm working on a song because my toe is tapping, my lips are moving, and I can't hear a word she's saying."
Taking the reins for the first time as sole producer on this project, Williams says that being an independent artist has its advantages. "We didn't have any hoops to jump through for this record, and no one to please but ourselves. I just went into the studio with my favorite players, most of whom play with me on the road, and I did my best to create a record that sounds like the music I love." For Zane, that means lots of harmonies, fiddle, and steel guitar wrapped around songs that, while carefully crafted, lean more toward good-natured showmanship than gloomy introspection.
Unsurprisingly, most of the subject matter draws its inspiration from Zane's current life experiences. He offers the listener some road-tested dancehall advice in the rollicking "Honkytonk Situation," while "Slow Roller" and "That's Just Me" celebrate his traditional values against a backdrop of easy-going, mid-tempo grooves. Only twice on the record does Zane break from his real life situation to play a character role...first as a cowboy down on love in "I Don't Have the Heart," and second as a recent divorcÃ© in the heartbroken "Goodbye Love." He closes with an homage to country music legend Willie Nelson, whose discovery of musical independence in Texas has many parallels with Zane's own.
Early on, neither Zane nor his family would've guessed he one day would become the standard-bearer for traditional country music that he is today. Born in Abilene, TX, to a pair of college professors, Zane was moved as a child first to Kentucky, then West Virginia, and then California as his parents pursued their academic careers. While he enjoyed singing harmony in church and composing his own instrumental pieces on the family piano, it wasn't until he turned sixteen and got the car keys (and control of the radio inside) that he had his first transformative experience with country music.
"I'm flipping stations and I land on Bob Kingsley's Country Countdown one Sunday morning after church, and I hear this guy Garth Brooks singing "The Dance." I had just broken up with my first girlfriend, and that song wrecked me; it cut right through me like no song ever had." Not long after, his parents bought him a used guitar as a reward for good test scores, and Zane began trying his hand at writing his own songs. He was as surprised as anyone to find he had a knack for turning a phrase and telling a story in song. Still, a career in country music seemed far-fetched, so he followed his parents' advice and enrolled as a math major at Abilene Christian University. By the time he walked across the stage four years later to accept his diploma, his hobby had blossomed into a passion, and he moved to Nashville in 1999 to pursue music full time.
Music City, where co-writing was like shaking hands and pop influences dominated the trends, proved to be a poor fit for a tradition-loving young man who did his best work independently. In 2006, Zane released his first studio album Hurry Home, the title track of which later became a top-20 Billboard hit for then-Sony artist Jason Michael Carroll. Despite this success, his nine years in Nashville left Zane disillusioned with the state of the country music industry and dissatisfied with simply writing songs for other artists. So in 2008 Zane left a staff-writer publishing deal to move back to his wife's hometown of McKinney, TX, start a family, and start his career over as an independent artist. "I remember turning my office keys in to my publisher, sitting there in the car, and feeling so frustrated. They liked my music, but they just didn't know what to do with it. It felt like I was giving up on my dream."
However it didn't take long for that dream to be reborn, as he quickly found in Texas a welcome home for his brand of honest, traditional country music. "In Texas, all the middlemen standing between me and the fans were gone. I could just make records, play shows, and be myself. I found out it didn't have to be complicated." Four more independent records followed, each attracting a wider audience than the last. When Zane put together his first band at age 33, he was a decade older than most of the new artists on the scene, and much more experienced as a songwriter, yet his obvious love of performing and connecting with his fans infused his shows with a youthful passion. Bringin' Country Back melds that passion with his hard-earned experience as a performer and producer to create his most confident work yet. "I just love country music, and I don't want to see it fall by the wayside," he says. "I wanted to create a laid-back, old-school country album that folks could listen to on the back porch with the sun going down. It's nothing fancy, but it's real." And isn't that what country music should be?