Holly Williams: Indefinable Spirit
The thing one runs into, trying to define “creatives” is…. none will be. Their vision darts uptown; their curiosity dashes downtown, even their meanderings produce more enterprises, mediums and outlets than a Southerner can shake a stick at! Holly Williams is our case in point.
She is a singer-songwriter by legacy (Hank Williams, Sr – her granddad; Hank Williams, Jr - her daddy) but also by individual rights (The Ones We Never Knew, Here With Me, The Highway). She started writing at 17, booked her own club gigs all over Nashville, and with gutsy touring went from alone-with-guitar to headlining in 10 countries. Big name artists sing back-up on her latest album. USA Today says well their awe by acknowledging “the purity and potency of her “milk-and-whiskey-kissed singing”.
Recently Holly channeled her style and business drive together, and one of Nashville’s most well curated clothing boutiques (H. Audrey) was born. Her passion for yummy, down-to-earth objects for home, ballooned into crazy, popular White’s Merchantile, times four. And her wandering in the Tennessee countryside has her hands now transforming neglected farmhouses into perfectly appointed guest cottages for rent.
We asked her some poking questions. And found out that that indefinable spirit has her thinking of herself as mother, wife, daughter and friend first, more than some title attached to calculable measures … which is likely the freedom allowing her to continue to create. And we hope she never stops.
When did you come to believe you were an artist. Was there a pivotal moment in your life when that became clear to you?
I was writing songs as a very young girl; writing lyrics and telling stories was my favorite thing to do starting at around seven. I wanted to write poetry and, once I picked up a guitar it all became clear! On the curating/retail side, I always loved searching out the best products in the cities I was touring and learning about shops and merchandise everywhere I could! Hank and Audrey (grandparents) owned a clothing store besides his booming music career, and mom's side of the family owned a mercantile. Retail was also in the blood!
How did your family heritage and environment mold you as an artist?
Most importantly, it was seeing my Dad do the music he loved no matter what happened and no matter who told him he would never make it. Same with Hank Williams-they both defied industry standards and were bold to write and sing the music they wanted. They helped me to see that no matter what someone else wants me to be, I should always pursue my personal goals and passions as an artist.
How do the threads in your music, influence the sound of your fashion, if you will, and vice versa? And which came first for you as an artist?
I think the way it all forms a congruence is that everything is pretty simple. No crazy fancy music chords - just usually three chords and the truth, ha! And in my retail clothing and gift shops, I love to sell the quality essential everyday luxury items.
Quality over quantity is always my motto!
Did you pick a goal and strategize to get there? Or did your brand develop more organically?
100% TOTALLY unplanned and organic. A car accident led to the H. Audrey clothing store, so I could be near my sister when she was bed-ridden. Then a random gas station came up for lease down the street from my house, and I wanted to put in a gift shop for the locals to \carry the items that I was passionate about besides clothing. White's Mercantile came out of that and is named after my maternal grandparents. It's a general store for the modern day tastemaker, and we now have 4 locations!
Then I was sleepless one night and searched "White Farmhouse" on Craigslist and found a crazy-cheap, falling-apart farmhouse an hour from town. My husband and I couldn't pay for a 2nd home just to be sitting there, so White's Room and Board was born, to offset mortgages and for us to have a place to escape and take our little ones. "Where history meets luxury" is our motto. We've got a farmhouse in Cornersville ,TN available for nightly rentals, along with a cottage in Leipers Fork and cabins on Centerhill Lake 90 minutes from Nashville. This was ALL organic and just slowly came along bit by bit! I've taken time off the road recently to not miss out on these precious baby ages, but looking forward to getting back to music soon!
Who do you have in mind when you envision who your customers will be?
People who love simple luxury, down-to-earth folks who appreciate history and quality (are my dream customers)!
Your stores feel filled with ‘Holly's favorite things’ and as though you want to share them with us. Is it scary to welcome people into that private, creative world of yours?
Not at all. I am a 100% open book!!!! I let strangers hold my babies and will tell anyone my life story, ha!
What draws you to particular fashion designers? Is there a similar inspiration behind your choices of art and objects for home? Does this relate to what your music communicates … or is it a needed respite and diversion?
I love well made things that convey a sense of style and confidence,
- nothing too trendy or in the moment. I love clothing that will take you from season to season, items for your home that you truly love, family heirlooms and new practical items, all mixed together! I hope I'm writing songs that make people feel something, that are universal, that help people in hard times, and that will stand the test of time and trends.
What's the hardest part about being a private business owner?
What's not, ha! Staffing, endless accounting, constant decision making, managing customers requests and staying on top of their satisfaction, growth planning, plumbing problems, haha, that list goes on! In the last few year we have ironed out SO many kinks, and my managers are truly amazing!! I don't get calls anymore that there are rats in the storage room. And, I don't have to drive over in pj's at 11pm to take out trash, because someone forgot to. WOW the beginning was hard, hard, hard! But it's worth the hard work and commitment if you are doing something you love. I LOVE curating. I LOVE customers. I LOVE renovating houses with room and board, and I LOVE being in the stores. I am so lucky to get to be doing this day in and day out!
When you walk into one of your own stores, what do you do for the first 10 minutes ?
I speak with the managers; what are the updates? Any employee issues at the moment? Any big news from recent days in terms of sales or customers? Any vendor issues around an order? Inventory checks? It's truly different every time depending on what time of year it is. Oh, and I go straight to the snack area and chow down usually while getting one of my babies settled in to run wild in the store.
What's your favorite part in the businesses to touch with your own hands?
I love buying inventory, choosing items, searching for unique things, merchandising when I have the time, and designing the store overall with great antique furniture pieces, etc. My husband’s amazing art hangs on our walls, so I love working on those walls also!
What are the good expectations you feel challenging you, as a business woman and artist, which you've been able to embrace?
Hmmmm hard question! I guess it would be staying on top of store planning and a certain expectation of quality and attention from our customers. Some days i'm really good at it, and some days I am horrible!
AND, what are the expectations you feel on your life, as artist and entrepreneur, out from which you really want to break free?
People assume I feel all of this pressure from being Hank Jr's daughter, but I have never felt that! My world of singer/songwriters is very different from the mainstream country world! So I don't feel any certain pressure as a retailer or musician to live up to something certain. I really enjoy seasons of time with my family and of time for music and for work. Most people including employees seem to understand that!
What cogs of your business turn in your own creative wheelhouse and, which parts do you like to delegate?
I try to delegate as much as humanly possible that isn't creative, and my awesome managers are in charge of that! I don't do schedules or plumber calls anymore. I am super busy focusing on growth and creative plans, so I let them deal with smaller stuff. They are great with finding new brands also, so they work with me collaboratively. I prefer all marketing/branding/website/publicity planning, and let them deal with the other stuff!
How do you scale your business as an entrepreneur so that it can grow beyond your capacity as a single proprietor?
I don't have a written long term plan It's really just praying for the right opportunities and seeking out partnerships or potential new store openings in locations that make sense with what I am trying to achieve. Looking at a few different growth opportunities right now in and around Nashville, nothing I can mention yet, but I have such a great team now that can help me logistically handle out of state openings. And with White's Room and Board I would love to continue buying and rehabbing historic properties, as long as we continue renting these, and people come back to get the very curated feel! They are my guests when they comes stay, and I want it to feel like home!
How do you balance the demand and passion of your work with your personal life and mental health?
My favorite questions for busy people! The biggest misconception about me is that I am running ragged all over town to every property and every store. It is quite the opposite! Right now I am working from the beach answering these questions with baby boy sleeping next to me and girls in the pool. Sadly this is very rare though, haha! But I do try to make get-aways for the family, since these days ALL of my work can be done on email or phone. Thank GOD for FaceTime! I can talk to stores, contractors, managers, everything. Some days I take off the whole day and do playhouse time with kids, and some days I work 8 hours straight if my husband or our part time nanny has them.
Chris, my husband, is an amazing freelance artist and musician, so we are able to juggle MUCH easier than if I was stuck at home with kids all day while my husband was busting out 10 hours of work away. Also, I just hired house cleaners once a week. It didn't make sense for me to do 4 hour cleanings with everything else going. AND online grocery shopping has truly changed my life. I've started paying for convenience I guess you could say. My mama lives a mile away, so if my mental health is draining from kiddos she helps. My husband helps, and even the sitter from my childhood helps some, too!
When do you listen to music, and what music do you listen to?
Literally, I NEVER seem to have time for this anymore sadly. But t he other night ALL 3 kids were asleep in the car, and I listened to an entire album of Patty Griffin - one of my faves. One day I will listen again, ha!
I am really intentional about playtime and family time so not much time in between for music, but I try and get a massage once every couple of months and that spa music is pretty rad. Neil Young, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty are my other faves.
How do you keep fueling your creativity while cultivating the endurance to maintain your brands?
An everyday challenge but since I truly love everything I do so much, even when it's buttloads of emails and phone calls, it keeps me going.
I love saving the old, and making people feel good and happy, whether in stores or at one of the rentals. I want people to create a memory when they experience the brand! I love opportunity! As long as I schedule off- days for myself, (by no means do I work literally all day every day) then I keep going!
Do you view your stores and music as individual entities or as a unified brand?
I haven't really thought about it in that way, but I hope if people encounter the music or the stores or the houses, they feel a sense of authenticity and heart, more than anything! … and that they see the thread of passion and personalization through all of it.
With one sentence or phrase for each, describe these in your own words:
White’s Mercantile - A general store for the modern day tastemaker
White’s Room and Board - A collection of unique and historic TN
properties designed to inspire you and yours, fully curated!
H Audrey Boutique - A passionate boutique that survives on the
Motto: “Fashions Fade, Style is Eternal”
Holly Williams - Mama of 3, wife, retailer, songwriter, historic house
How do you think your art and business is different as a woman, than if you were a man doing the same thing?
Never thought about that one! I think women are so emotionally charged. So I think a great deal about what my customers are experiencing and how I am making them feel at the shops, at my shows, or at a rental, verses only thinking about the business side of it.
We know you've often shared your talents for philanthropic efforts, what's your favorite way to do so?
I love doggies, have a passion for children, and I think everyone deserves kindness and generosity in this life no matter who you are or where you came from! There is a multitude of ways to help out there. I can't do as much now that I have little ones, but playing at benefits, sharing our profits with my favorite local charities and supporting vendors that support everything from local orphanages to local addicts, are all really important to me!
If you could have a bird eye's view of your endeavors, what would you hope the effect of it’s sum may be?
Hmmmmm - a southern girl with heart who, slowly but surely, fell
into actually getting to work inside of her creative passions on a daily basis…….and who loves family madly.