Singer Hilary Williams On Her ‘Lucky Scars,’ Accident That Nearly Killed Her & Family Legacy

Photo: Jim White.
Women in country music are fighting for representation and airplay. A report from BuzzAngle found that women are a mere 5% of the genre’s consumption across radio, streaming, mobile, and all the ways fans listen to music. Hilary Williams is the daughter of Hank Williams, Jr. and granddaughter of Hank Williams, Sr., two men who helped create country as we know it and are icons in the genre. This is her story of attempting to launch a career as a woman in country, but being turned away by gatekeepers for over a decade, because she’s a woman.
I grew up in Nashville, TN. My parents, Hank Williams, Jr. and Becky White, divorced when I was 8 years old. I grew up with my younger sister, Holly, and my mom raised us. When we’d go over to my dad’s house, he wouldn’t have musicians around, but he would break out the guitar or the banjo and play. I didn’t know my grandmother, Audrey Mae Sheppard Williams, because she passed four years before I was born, but I heard she had these epic parties in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s that Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, and all these amazing artists would come. It’s how my dad learned to play the piano and guitar. He would later show me some great stuff on the guitar.
My mom is an amazing classical piano player, she majored in voice in college. It was fun; she would play the piano and we would sing along, or we’d play the guitar along with her. She sang backup on Willie Nelson’s song, “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” My mom said she didn’t know it was going to be an iconic song — she was just in the studio with dad one day, hanging out with Waylon Jennings and Willie.
My dad and half-brother Sam always said I had the voice in the family. But when shopping around a five-song EP I made in 2006, I saw a difference in the way I was treated by the music industry versus my half-brothers. Hank Williams III immediately signed a deal with Curb Records and put albums out. I was meeting with lots of labels who said they didn’t know what to do with me, or that if I was a man it would be a lot easier to get me played on the radio. Or that a man should be singing my songs. They suggested I become a songwriter for other artists or go to the pop world. I found it really interesting, with the legacy of musicians that I come from, to get that type of pushback.

People call us the Country Kennedys, because of all the trauma that has happened in the Williams family. We’re fighters and survivors.

Hilary Williams
A lot of people wanted Holly and me to be a duo, but we don’t have that natural harmony. It angered us, being told that if we sang certain songs and dressed a certain way we would get signed, without giving our individual artistic visions a chance.
Then, on March 15, 2006, my sister and I were in a car accident while driving from Nashville to our maternal grandfather’s funeral in Louisiana. While we were in Mississippi on Highway 61, I looked down for a second to change my iPod and hit one of the deep ruts on the road. The rut shifted my car into the gravel. I lost control and overcompensated by jerking the wheel hard. We did a 360 in the middle of the highway, and one of our tires popped off. We skidded across the road and flipped four times in a field, landing on the right side of the car. I remember that I couldn’t breathe because the seatbelt was so tight. It took 45 minutes for EMTs to arrive, and paramedics had to use the jaws of life to take me out of the car. They said I shouldn’t have survived, because I lost six pints of blood. I temporarily lost my vision, too, and thought I had permanently gone blind.
When I was on the stretcher to the helicopter, I went into cardiac arrest, and felt like I was drowning in a pool. I saw a faceless angel come and take my hand; it took me to heaven briefly. Everything became very peaceful, there was no more pain. I saw friends and family who had passed, and my grandparents Hank and Audrey gave me a big hug. Then I came right back to Earth. The life flight nurses gave me PolyHeme, a temporary oxygen-carrying blood substitute made from human hemoglobin, and it brought me back to life.
People call us the Country Kennedys, because of all the trauma that has happened in the Williams family. We’re fighters and survivors.
After the accident, I had 30 surgeries and nearly died from a blood clot. I had to relearn how to walk three different times. I had a hip replacement, and plates with screws were inserted into my right leg and ankle. I was in and out of a wheelchair, walker, crutches, and a cane for two and a half years. I did physical therapy for five years. During my recovery, I thought I had lost my voice permanently. The breathing tubes had dried my throat out, and I couldn’t sing for six months. My voice teacher would come over to play the piano and do vocal warm-ups with me while I was sitting in my wheelchair.
Still, I wanted to sing again.
My hands worked okay, but where my legs were broken it was painful for me to have a guitar sitting on them. Once that healed, I could play better. A girlfriend of mine pushed me to keep writing songs. The first one I wrote was “Sign of Life,” which is on my new album, with this amazing guy named Blu Sanders. I was still in the hospital bed at my mom’s house, recovering, when we wrote it. It’s one of my favorite songs to this day. While I was in the hospital I told my doctor I was in a lot of pain, and he looked at me and said “Hilary, pain is a sign of life.” That line was the catalyst; telling the story of my life almost ending through this song was emotional, but it was also the most cathartic thing I have ever done.
When I was hanging upside down in the car, I was praying to God, telling him all the things I still wanted to do: get married, have kids, travel, and make music. Throughout this healing process, I wanted — needed — to make an album and get back to my life. It took over four years to write the songs, find the right people to work with, and complete the project.

Country radio is behind the times, but it still so vital to an artist’s career; it’s the main medium of exposure that drives album sales, tour bookings, and endorsement deals. Right now, women who want to be country artists are better off doing it their own way.

Hilary Williams
I met with a label in 2017, when my record was complete, and a rep told me that if they signed me I’d have to change half the songs on my album to make them more suitable for radio. He said there wasn’t room for me or my songs as they were. He also told me that even if I were to change the songs, there was still a good chance country radio wouldn’t play me, because there are already so many women fighting for the few coveted slots. I told him no, I wasn’t going to change any of the songs. I couldn’t believe that there was still this much pushback, 12 years after my first EP. Nothing had changed, except me.
I got tired of waiting on a label to sign me and decided to do it myself. I put my own team together and am forging my own path.
Finally My Lucky Scars came out in May 2018 and I felt gratified by its critical reception. Now I can control what I’m going to sing, who I am going to hire, and what my brand is. No one is telling me what to do. At first, I was freaked out by the idea of going on my own without a label behind me. But I found my own strength and power. When I get frustrated or experience more pushback, I remember everything I have been through and why I am here: to empower and inspire.
All of this has made me hopeful that women will have more of a chance, and more of a voice in this industry. Country radio is behind the times, but it still so vital to an artist’s career; it’s the main medium of exposure that drives album sales, tour bookings, and endorsement deals. Right now, women who want to be country artists are better off doing it their own way— and supporting one another. There is a revolution happening right now in Nashville, and women are leading the charge.

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