The new self-titled record steps out with dance-hall-ready country tunes.
Cowboys & Indians: What’s the backstory behind the new record? How did it come together?
Tessy Lou Williams: Me going “solo” was always in the cards, and after honing my skills over the last several years, it was time for me to make the solo album. I’ve been so blessed to have the band I’ve had over the years and am eternally grateful for their faith and support in me thus far. It really started when I began my trips to Nashville a few years ago. It was pushing me to do things on my own and really opened my eyes to what I wanted for myself in my career. I began writing different songs with an array of incredibly talented writers and the album practically created itself. Once the new songs started piling up, it was just a matter of having enough for a full album. I played several of the songs with the band in Texas before we recorded them, but some of them came to life right in the studio with Luke and the musicians who played on the record.
C&I: What are your sources of inspiration?
Williams: I mean, the shortest answer for that question is simple: life. Whether I’m writing from personal experience or about the experiences of those around me, country music has always and will always be based on the realness of the heart and mind. Life can be hard and emotional, for everyone! I’ve always felt songs that people are able to relate to are so important. We’ve all had our hearts broken — no one is alone in that. So I’ve always found writing from things I can personally relate to is very important.
C&I: Do you have a favorite song on the new record?
Williams: That will always be a tough question, mainly because it’s ever-changing! There are songs I can relate to better at different times. That goes for my own as well as songs written by others. I think my favorite from the album, if I had to choose one, would be “Mountain Time in Memphis.” After thinking about it for a while, I realize there are a few reasons for that. I wrote this song with Jerry Salley during my first Nashville co-write. The experience itself was amazing. Jerry and I had such a blast writing this song. I love how it paints a picture of the struggle of battling the choices you need to make for yourself in your life and the love you may leave behind while doing so. It’s a hard choice, but sometimes it needs to be made. I really love the melody of the song — it gets stuck in my head quite often! It was also one of the first songs we recorded for this project. We hadn’t been playing it beforehand, so I had no idea what it was going to be like with a full band. The second the band started playing in the studio I was shocked in the best way possible. I was so excited about what they were playing that I forgot to start singing! It was so much fun to hear this song come to life.
C&I: What makes these songs “dancehall-ready”? Did you write them with that in mind?
Williams: Every single song on the record is danceable. Whether it’s a waltz, a two-step, or a shuffle, each and every song is something you can dance to. I guess I always keep that in mind when I’m writing a song. So much of my musical journey has been playing for people in dancehalls and honky tonks that it’s just kind of second nature in my writing process. I love getting the chance to dance, but it tends to be a little more difficult when you’re usually the one on the stage!
C&I: What was it like to head to Nashville from Austin, and originally from rural Montana to enter the music machine of Music City?
Williams: Leaving Montana will forever be one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It will always hold my heart and every chance I get to go back I’m thrilled. Austin was very intimidating at first. Though it’s not a big city in comparison to many others, it was huge to me. It took me two years before I even drove in Austin! The music scene was overwhelming in the most positive way. No matter where you went, you were surrounded by incredibly talented people and I realized how much I had to learn from each of them.
My parents raised me in the music world, so I wasn’t completely blind to the music business. They met in Nashville back in the ’80s, started their band, Montana Rose, then moved to Montana after my older sister was born to raise their kids. They continued the band for over 20 years up in Montana, solely playing music and never having day jobs. So I was already accustomed to the world of a musician, even having grown up in rural Montana.
When I made the choice to pursue my music career, I knew I would have to leave Montana. After having spent several years in the Texas music scene, I knew there was much more I needed to explore. I started visiting Nashville regularly, usually for about a week a month. This was also extremely overwhelming. Up until this point, I’d always had my dad (bass) and Bryan (fiddle) with me everywhere I went, but every trip I took to Nashville was by myself. It was scary and I had to pump myself up to take on introductions and meetings by myself. It forced me to become more confident and less afraid of doing things alone. I was very fortunate in that a lot of the people my parents had worked with and knew from the ‘80s were still in Nashville, so I was able to make some connections through them. It was fun to be kind of following in their footsteps decades later. I realized over time that I knew more than I thought I did.
C&I: Tell us about your one-time debilitating stage fright. How do you manage your nerves when it comes to playing live these days?
Williams: Man, it would get so bad! Serious butterflies in my stomach, my hands would shake, and I couldn’t hold a breath, which made singing really difficult at times. I rarely would sing or play in front of anyone, but when I would, it would take every ounce of energy I had to pull it off. I still have my moments of stage fright and nervousness, almost every show! Having a band on stage with me definitely helps, because, at least in my mind, it takes all of the attention off of me. Whenever I have to do a solo show or the band steps back for certain songs, the nerves creep back in. I guess over time I’ve just learned to manage them within myself a bit or use them to my advantage. Letting the crowd know that I’m nervous in certain instances makes me feel slightly better for some reason. I think it will always be something I fight, and I’m OK with that. I feel like that means I care about the show I put on, no matter how long I’ve been in the business.
C&I: Where and how have you been spending lockdown?
Williams: I live in Spicewood, Texas, outside of Austin and have been working at The Ranch Nature School just down the road from my house, which I’m very grateful for. So many people are out of work these days, and I know how blessed I am to have an essential job. Our house is a block from Lake Travis, so any free time we have is spent on the lake fishing and swimming. Plus, we’ve been trying to keep up our usual Sunday show by doing a livestream from our living room every Sunday afternoon. I’m extraordinarily blessed to be where I’m at during this quarantine.
C&I: What has this period meant for you as a musician who is used to being out there playing live in public?
Williams: It’s been a very strange time. I am usually playing several live shows a week and only working part time at either of my day jobs (the Nature School, and I also bartend at Poodie’s Hilltop). I’ve obviously not been able to play any live shows other than livestreaming from our house. It’s really weird playing to people I can’t see! I feel like it’s been good practice for me, but I really miss playing for people in person. The reactions and interactions with the crowd are one of the best parts of being a performer.
C&I: As lockdown is lifting, what are you most looking forward to being able to do?
Williams: I cannot wait to play for people in person again! It’s been hard not being able to have those interactions with the fans, especially with this new album coming out. Plus, traveling is such a huge part of my world, and not being able to see new places while touring really bums me out. I can’t wait to get back on the road and play for crowds again, no matter how big!
C&I: What are some things we should definitely experience in your Montana hometown and in the Spicewood, Texas, area?
Williams: As far as my hometown of Willow Creek, Montana, goes, if you can find it, you definitely need to visit the restaurant in town. You can’t miss it — it’s practically the only thing there — Woolzie’s Willow Creek Cafe. It’s changed hands a few times since I was little, but the food and people have always maintained greatness! The Jefferson River runs on either end of town, so fishing is a must! Spicewood, Texas, where I live now, is right on Lake Travis, so any lake activities are a great idea. The fishing, boating, and swimming are always fun, but be sure to grab yourself a Poodie Burger and catch some live music at Poodie’s Hilltop Roadhouse after you get yourself some sun!
C&I: What’s next for you?
Williams: I hope this album finds new fans. I’d love to do some larger-scale tours and share more of my music with the world. I love playing, I love traveling, I love meeting new people and sharing my experiences with others out there. Music to me is more than just a career. It’s a lifestyle, one I’ve lived my entire life. The experiences I’ve gotten to have and the people I’ve gotten to meet have been entirely because of music and I’ll forever be grateful for what this pursuit has brought to my life. I’m so blessed that I’ve gotten to and continue to live this dream, no matter the hardships that come with it.
Tessy Lou Williams’ Dance It Out Playlist
“Liza Jane” — Vince Gill
“In My Arms Instead” — Randy Rogers Band
“Rose Colored Glasses” — John Conlee
“Nobody’s Girl” — Reckless Kelly
“The Girl Just Loves to Dance” — Gary P. Nunn
“From a Table Away” — Sunny Sweeney
“Distracted” — Brennen Leigh
“Husbands and Wives” — Roger Miller
“Blame It on Your Heart” — Patty Loveless
“Goodbye to Old Missoula” — Willis Alan Ramsey
“I’ll Think of a Reason Later” — Lee Ann Womack
“Seven Year Ache” — Rosanne Cash
“Leaving Montana” — Tessy Lou and the Shotgun Stars
“Busy Counting Bridges” — Tessy Lou Williams
For a track-by-track listing of Williams' new record, click here.