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Maxim chats to Zane Williams about The Wilder Blue, sticking to his own path…and why you should treat your problems like aliens
Hey Zane, thank you for taking the time to talk today! One of my favourite songs of the past few years is ‘Dixie Darlin’ - that song epitomises everything I love about Country music. The storytelling, the harmonies, the steel guitar, the bittersweet feel of it. It’s also particularly interesting because it tells that classic story of love lost to the rodeo, but flips the traditional tale around so that it’s the woman leaving the man, rather than the other way around. What inspired this song?
Well, it wasn’t my life, for sure…
I’m glad, because it’s a pretty tragic tale!
…It is a tragic tale, isn’t it! I came up with the chorus first, and then wrote this story to go with it. I’ve always felt like rodeo women that ride the horses seem very independent and capable, like if you can control an animal that big and take care of it, then you don’t need a man, you don’t need somebody telling you what to do! They got it all on their own. Like you said, a lot of times it’s the other way around, but there are just as many women in rodeos as there are men. I’m sure that some of them are free-spirited travellers that don’t want to settle down, so I just went down the rabbit hole of imagining what kind of story would go along with that, and thinking what real-life situations I hadn’t really heard too many songs about.
Nature is a big inspiration on The Wilder Blue’s debut album. I think, personally, there’s something spiritual about just being in the great outdoors, away from all the noise. What draws you to nature in your songwriting?
When I was a kid, we moved around a lot, but for a little while I lived in West Virginia, and I had a friend who lived in a wooded area with lots of trails. I remember one time I was by myself, I must’ve been 12, and I was hiking on this trail all alone, and I just remember being still and listening to the hills, the trees, the noises of the woods and forests, it just seemed so meaningful to me. I felt such a connection to the land and living things, and that stuck with me. I’m not a guy that gets out all the time in nature, but I definitely feel like it’s in my genes - in my nature! - to connect with all of it. Nature can pull you out of yourself and make you realise it’s not all about you, and make you think of the bigger picture. It’s like there are those woods, there are the ducks doing their ducky thing today, and this woodpecker’s over here doing his thing, and it’s all going on whether you’re happy or sad.
I have to ask you about another of my favourites from the album, ‘The Eagle’. When I listen, it sounds like an epitaph dedicated to rural, small-town living, which is perhaps being crowded out by the hustle and bustle of cities. But it also feels like there’s something more going on, especially in the hook - “Does an eagle feel when he’s flying, that his way of living is dying? Does he wish that western wind would blow him far away? If it could, would it matter anyway?” What’s the meaning behind this?
Well, it seems to me that the onward rolling of technological progress is unstoppable. I live in a city called McKinney, and it used to be 15,000 people that lived far away from Dallas, with just fields in-between. Now, McKinney has 200,000 people and it’s completely connected to Dallas, with suburbs and shops the whole way. So I was stuck in traffic one day here and I was seeing condos and apartments going up and I was feeling a little left behind by the frantic pace of change in the world. Then a hawk swooped over my hood and went up and landed on a telegraph pole, and I watched him looking down on the Sam’s Club parking lot and the plastic bags floating in the breeze. I thought, ‘Surely he feels the same way I do’, and I just wondered what the hawk was thinking as it looked down at all that concrete and all those cars. He was probably just looking for a rat! But I think that even if you could escape to some far-off place in nature, the change is still going to come for you no matter what.
A couple of The Wilder Blue songs are criticisms of the modern obsession with work and productivity, particular ‘Work to Do’ and ‘Company Man’. There’s a great lyric in ‘Work to Do’ - “If I had a minute, well I might be blue, but I ain’t got time, I got work to do”. Being a professional artist is in itself a rejection of this way of life. Was it difficult to take this decision to choose this more creative but perhaps less traditionally ‘stable’ career path?
Yeah, it has had its challenges, but I honestly think it would be harder for me to have a real job! Whatever challenges come my way doing my own thing, at least I have this feeling that I’m proud of what I’m doing and I’m free to make my own decisions. My success or failure is up to me, it’s not up to somebody in some office somewhere to decide whether I get the opportunity or not. The few ‘real jobs’ I’ve had - for a while I was a staff songwriter in Nashville, for example - I just had a very low tolerance for being part of any kind of corporate machine where it’s political and there are all these rules… That ‘Company Man’ song, that’s me being real, I can’t handle it! I can’t be told how to dress and how to cut my hair and how to talk and all that stuff. I’m not even that much of an outlaw or anything - I want to do the right thing, but I want to do it because I want to do it, not because somebody told me to! I’m willing to put up with the uncertainty and the long hours in return for not having to deal with some lame boss telling me what to do.
Hill Country dropped in 2020, and since then the band has released a handful of singles. What’s the next step for The Wilder Blue?
We are dropping our second album on March 25th! The first album came out right around the time when the pandemic kicked off, and all of our gigs got cancelled, so we didn’t know how we were going to pay any of our bills. We didn’t spend any money promoting the album, we just put it out there. Even so, it did pretty well - Luke Combs tweeted about it, some Zane Williams fans got a hold of it, and some Texas radio stations played it. The new album is just as good, if not better, and we have a budget now to spend on promoting it - and hopefully our gigs won’t all get cancelled!
The other thing too is, compared to where we were in 2020, we’ve had a couple of years to get our live show tight, and so the silver lining and the blessing is that in this two year period we’ve been touring together we’ve gotten a lot better. Because our music is pretty ambitious!
You’ve also released a lot of awesome solo work, and I was curious as to what inspired you to take a step back from this and form The Wilder Blue?
I think I should’ve done it a long time ago. It’s the band I’ve always wanted to have, but when I was young I was mainly doing solo stuff, just me and a guitar. Then later, when I moved to Texas, I was playing honky-tonks and dance-halls, I put together a band - so I didn’t have a band until I was thirty. Over time I kind of felt like I’d hit a ceiling as far as how good I could be by doing it all myself. I was doing all I could just to not get worse, and I needed to get better. So the band thing solves a lot of those issues for me, because basically what I did was I went and found exceptional people and then offered them equal ownership of it with me. Everybody has equal creative input.
I definitely lucked into getting the right guys, we get along great - knock on wood - and we don’t have the ego issues that a lot of the guys have when they’re young. We just want to make great music and make it sustainable, so I’m pretty excited about our future!
(Without changing his expression) This is my excited face. (Laughing) I’m a pretty laid-back dude, but trust me, I am excited!
Both in your solo work and in The Wilder Blue’s material, there’s a classic Texas feel to it, and being a huge fan of the King of Country myself, would you say George Strait and his neo-traditional Texas sound has been an influence on your own style?
Oh yeah, for sure. I moved to Nashville in 1999 because I wanted to make 90’s Country - I wanted to be like Alan Jackson, George Strait, Garth Brooks, Randy Travis, Travis Tritt, Clint Black, Trisha Yearwood, The Chicks, Reba McEntire… that was my jam! But I found out as I went through the process that I’m just not quite as Country as all those people. Sometimes I write songs and they don’t come out sounding very Country, and then sometimes they do. That’s one thing I do love about The Wilder Blue, there’s room for all kinds of diversity in our sound. Those guys all bring their own tastes, and it’s definitely less traditional Country than George or Garth - it’s kind of its own thing. I love all genres of music and I like to experiment around, but I do think at the end of the day the thing I keep coming back to is just trying to write a great Country song. I definitely think George is one of the best, if not the best ever, at that - I listen to him all the time.
Your solo song, 'The Circle of Life' is so poetic and there’s so much wisdom carried through it. I love the lyric - “Now Darlin’ when I’m gone it’s ok to cry, Time is the friend that will dry your eyes, you’ll write brand new words to the same old songs, ‘Cause the circle of life goes on.” When I hear these philosophical songs, I often think the artist sounds like they have it all figured out, which is reassuring to listen to - it’s like you’re giving the listener advice on how to live. But do you ever find it difficult to follow your own song’s advice?
I think I’m pretty in sync with the message that’s in my songs, as far as the big picture goes. The way I think about my kids or my wife or my life or my career, I really am just thankful for whatever I have, and I understand that I could lose it at any time. I’m middle-aged, my grandparents are gone, my parents are getting old, and my kids are growing up, and when you get to that phase you start to realise that you’re living out your story, but then your kids have their own story, and then their kids will have their story, and the cycle continues. That’s what I was thinking when I wrote the lyrics, “You’ll write brand new words to the same old songs”. My little girl just got a hamster - well, I had a hamster when I was in fourth grade, and when you see her holding it and cuddling it, you think, ‘I know what it feels like to have that connection for the first time with an animal’. It’s different because they’re a different person and it’s a different time, but we do go through a lot of the same stuff.
Sometimes in specific short-term situations, I find myself getting frustrated, and I’m not very proud of that. On my song, ‘The Big Picture’, I say, “I take it out on the people who love me, it's easy to do when you lose sight of the big picture”. I do find that I’m not as kind or as patient as I wish that I were in those moments. But I’m working on that!
I read a book a while back called The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F***. Well, in a nutshell, what the author says is that happiness is not a lack of problems, happiness is the feeling that you get when you’re making progress on your problems. I thought that was interesting, he was basically saying that even if you become rich and get all the things you ever thought you wanted, there are still going to be problems. Stuff’s still going to break down, you’ll still have health problems, you’re still going to struggle with your weight, you’ll have an argument with your beautiful supermodel wife…! The point is, you’re never going to get to the stage where you have no problems. But when you make progress on a problem, and you know that it’s a little bit better today than it was yesterday, that gives you a feeling of satisfaction and a good solid self-image that is sustainable.
Sometimes when we’re on the road, I’ll play some Halo on the Xbox on our bus. You’re killing aliens, and as soon as you kill all the goddamn aliens, the spaceship comes in and drops down a whole bunch more aliens - and then you’ve got to kill all those aliens! And then, when you’ve killed literally all the aliens, the game is over, and you get another game… so that you can kill more aliens! The point is, that having zero aliens to kill is no fun. What’s fun is making it to the next level. That’s what those video games give you, it’s that sense of accomplishment that you did something. Sometimes I look at my to-do list as aliens to kill. You’re always going to have struggles, but those are all aliens to kill. And it’s actually kind of fun, because when you’ve killed them all it's boring and there’s nothing left to do!
What are your favourite three songs with a theme of mental health?
1. The Dance - Garth Brooks
2. Feeling Good Again - Robert Earl Keen
3. I Hate Everything - George Strait
The Wilder Blue is out on March 25th and available to pre-order now!
Buy print editions of Mindful Melody Issue 12 below!