Interview: H. Jack Williams

H. Jack Williams
H. Jack Williams

H. Jack Williams: “I don’t quit because good things keep coming”

We chat to the country-rock songwriter and take an exclusive look at the video for latest song ‘One More Day’

Listening to the noir-steeped country-rock of H. Jack Williams, as heard on recent album Halfway To Hell, it’s no surprise that his songs are increasingly featured on screens both small and large. The evocative sound he creates, augmented by the type of lived-in voice that will appeal to fans of Tom Waits and Mark Lanegan, has landed him placements on shows such as Renegades, Miracles From Heaven and Yellowstone. In fact, Yellowstone star and Hollywood icon Kevin Costner has even co-written with Williams and cut several of his songs with his band.

It’s just the latest stage in a fascinating career, one that started out as an opening act for the singer-songwriter Richie Havens in the early 1970s. Along the way he has been signed to the publishing company owned by Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, had stints writing for Uriah Heep and Gregg Allman, and a settled period coming up with commercial country tracks for the likes of Montgomery Gentry and Aaron Pritchett. When you throw in time as a marine, broiler chef and roadie, Williams has seen it all.

For our recent chat though it was his evolving songwriting process that we wanted to talk about. For an extra treat, you’ll also find the exclusive first look at the video for One More Day, co-written with Kevin Costner…

Jump to video exclusive

Do you write songs every day?

“I write a lot. I don’t think I write every single day anymore. I write less now, but when I do write, it’s the right song. When I was younger, I’d write every single day, I’d write eight songs a week. You know, twenty-five songs a month and maybe two songs, if I was lucky, would stand out. Honestly, looking back now, I would say it was even less than that. When I think about how many songs in my catalogue are top-level, well-written, extremely moving songs, it’s probably seven percent, maybe.

“Somebody once told me when I first got started, and it was the last thing I wanted to hear, you’ve got to write all the songs you can and then start all over again. It was like, ‘Oh, man. When will I know when to start all over again?’ You won’t know, but you will do it. It was in the last five years, probably, when I sat down and I wrote something and I went, ‘That’s really, really good,’ and I would play it to the people that counted in my life and then maybe a week would go by and I’d write another one.

“Then I would hear those things that you wish you heard many years ago, those words like, ‘I think you’re on a streak. I think you’re at the top of your game.’ When you start hearing that from people like your publisher, people like Kevin Costner, people like [Lynyrd Skynyrd’s] Gary Rossington, people that you admire so much, it’s amazing when they say, ’I think you’re at the top of your game.’”

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What kind of impact does that have?

“When I get up and I look at my guitar, or come into the studio, if I don’t have the inspiration to do any writing, I do something else. Maybe I’ll work on an old track, I’ll do something musical always, and then suddenly something comes up.

“This is an example of the way songs come to me now, and this happened just the other day… I was sitting down and I just said to myself, ‘The part that no one gets to see is everything we tend to leave behind and between both sides of the dream.’ I wrote that down and I said, ‘Both sides of the dream.’ Everybody’s around when we go, ‘Man, I wish that this would happen.’ And then everybody’s around when it does, if it does. But nobody’s in that ditch while you’re working hard, suffering, anguishing or worrying, everything that you go through to make that dream comes true. So, ‘In between both sides of the dream.’

“So I came in here and I wrote it. Then I worked on it all day long, kept editing and editing. So that’s how I do things. I’ll get up, I’ll get a moment from inside of me. The only way I can write a great song these days is that it has to be from something inside of me that I can feel.”

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Do you have another example of that process?

“I was watching a Clint Eastwood movie a couple of days ago, his last movie Cry Macho. There’s a scene where he does something to stop this little boy from getting hurt. I don’t remember what it was exactly, but the little boy said, ‘How did you know how to do that?’ And Clint said, ‘Just things you pick up along the way.’ And I wrote that down, that’ll be the next song. I’ll just list them out, things you pick up along the way. So that’s what I do now.”

And do you have an end destination in mind or are you just writing the best songs that you can?

“Oh no, I have a lot of targets out there. I have a couple friends making movies. I have a great publisher who can toss them out to TV and film people. I have a great team, my publicists Gayle and Ben for example, they’ve already connected me with a couple of great writers. I toss everything I write to everybody I know, the right song will land in the right place at the right time. There’s no more, ‘God I need this thing to get cut today!’ That doesn’t matter anymore because, as long as I keep showing up and feeding people with the best quality work that I can, it will land where it’s supposed to be.”

H. Jack Williams

H. Jack Williams: “I wish I could sing the melodies that are in my head”

Are you picturing particular types of TV shows or movies in your mind when you’re writing songs?

“I’ve learned that you can’t, I mean unless you get a brief from a music supervisor that says, ‘We are looking for a song with A, B, and C in it, to play behind A, B, and C,’ then that’s different. But to sit in a room, by myself or with anybody else and go, ‘Let’s write a song for Yellowstone.’ That’s so far from the truth. All you are doing then is taking a bow and arrow and shooting it up in the air.

“The best thing I can do, writing for TV, is I know all the stuff I like and I’ve got a pretty good idea of what TV and film is all about, so I just write in that genre and I try and produce it in that genre. For example, it’s rare that you ever hear twang in TV and film these days. Like a real twang that you would have heard on Rhinestone Cowboy. These days you hear meaty songs with honest gut feelings, a resonating voice and backing track that is minimalistic but has some ear candy in it.”

Please could you tell us about writing One More Day and working with Kevin Costner?

“I wrote the first draft of it. That was one of those songs, again. I was sitting one day and I had a piano groove going and I just started thinking about Him. And when I think about God, I think about God in a way of going, ‘What’s up, dude? What are you doing?’ My conversation with God is just like I’m talking to you. So if I’m mad, I go, ‘Why did you do that?’ In this situation, it was like, what would it be like if I got up there and I said, ‘Can you do a friend a favour? Can you just give me one more day?’

“I send everything I write to Kevin. He’s in the film business and, if he likes something, you never know where it might go. Plus, he’s got his own band and he likes my songwriting. So then it came back and he went, ‘Man, I think this is the best thing you’ve ever done. And I think that I think I can hear a few changes I’d like to put it in.’ And we did.

“He wanted the bridge to be about honour. He said, ‘Well, the key ingredient you’re missing here, I think in my book, is everything you do, you do with honour. Even if you fail, you fail with honour. You go down hard but at least you have honourable intentions. We need to put that in.’ So we put that in and that’s how that works.”

Are there other times that you’ve worked together?

“Another song on the record is the last song, Road To Hell. I had written the first two verses, where it’s acoustic, then I went over to Jim “Moose” Brown’s, who co-wrote It’s Five O’clock Somewhere and many other hits. He also produced In Color with Jamey Johnson and played keyboards with Bob Seger for 20 years. He’s a good friend and we’ve started writing together. I took it to him and then he wrote the third verse of that first part.

“I sent that to Kev and he came back and said, ‘Man, coming from a director’s point of view, you need to take this further, you need to tell the rest of the story.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s gonna go five minutes then.’ Then he went, ‘Do you think Elton John cared how long it was when he wrote Funeral For A Friend or Ronnie Van Zandt cared how long it was when he wrote Free Bird?’ He said, ‘Go tell the story.’ So we went back and we told the story.

“Then I happened to be out at Kevin’s house. I was sitting on a couch and Kevin was standing by his fireplace. We were listening to the song, he had his back to me and then he turned around in full character and went, ‘You need to tell him that if he stays on that road, he’s going to die. Does he want to die like Bonnie and Clyde? Does he want to die?’ He did this really magical scene and then he said, ‘That’s what you need to put into that last part.’”

Have you always enjoyed co-writing or is it something that you’ve had to grow into?

“When I came to Nashville, I always wrote everything by myself. Even the co-writes in England, the stuff that I did with Ken Hensley, for the Uriah Heep stuff, I wouldn’t call that what we call co-writing in town here. That was I wrote a song and then Ken went, ‘Let’s shift a few of these words around and do this and do this, for the sake of Uriah Heep.’

“Then I arrived here in the mid-80s and was introduced to co-writing where two people sat down in a room who didn’t know each other at all and you had to come up with something. That was hard for me. As time went on, like anything else, it became easier and easier. You have your friends, the people that you feel the most comfortable with and you guys write the best songs together. Everybody has that little clique. You sit down and pretty much know what the other guy is gonna do. You know his personality, he knows yours. Then every time you get together you turn out one.

“Now it’s probably 80 percent by myself and 20 percent co-writing because all the co-writes that I never enjoyed doing, for whatever reason, I don’t have to do anymore. I don’t have to put myself in a room with somebody I don’t want to spend three hours with. Now, I write with who I want to write with and we end up writing great stuff. In the end, I think two heads are always better than one, if they’re both on the same wavelength.”

H. Jack Williams

H. Jack Williams: “I think two heads are always better than one, if they’re both on the same wavelength”

You’ve said before that you don’t consider your singing voice to be your strongest instrument, is that still the case and does that influence your writing at all?

“That is my Achilles’ heel. I wish that I could sing like Roger Daltrey, I wish I could sing like my best friend Troy Johnson, I wish I could sing like Don Henley. I wish I could sing the melodies that are in my head. This new song I just wrote; I wish I could have sung it. My wife said, ‘You can sing it!’ Yeah, I can. But can I milk it the way I hear it in my head? No, I don’t have that kind of voice. I have a certain kind of voice, like Tom Waits.

“My point is, Tom Waits could never sing the way Glenn Frey and Don Henley do, but Don Henley and Glenn Frey could take a Tom Waits song and blow it up. The best I can do is interpret my songs. I wish I could sing real good, but I can’t. I know people like my voice and I know what they like about my voice. So when I do sing, I try to sing the songs that I can express the emotion that needs to be expressed, that no one else can.”

Is that hard to be in a constant battle with yourself or do you know what your strengths are and therefore write to those strengths?

“Yeah, I do now. I’ve always known. It’s only been in the last three or four years that I’ve even been singing, so it’s very easy for me to step back. I just wrote a really great song with David Gibson. He’s an award-winning songwriter and back in the day he was the number one demo singer in town, he’s just got a phenomenal voice. We wrote something not too long ago and he wanted me to sing it. I went ‘No, I want you to sing it!’ And he did, and he killed it. The only time I will push the button and say, ‘No, I need to sing this one,’ is if it’s a feeling that I feel that I can portray better than anybody or if I know that whoever’s listening would like to hear my voice on that song.”

Do you have a favourite version of a song of yours that has been cut by another singer?

Just Before The Bullets Fly, Gregg Almond.”

What’s your proudest moment as a songwriter?

“One of the proudest moments I’ve had as a songwriter is Duane Allen, who’s the lead singer of the Oak Ridge Boys and has been a friend for many years, but someone I’ve looked up to tremendously… he wrote me a note the other day telling me that he loved my voice and he loved what I was doing with my songs and that I shouldn’t leave the path I’m on. That made me proud.

“He said, ‘What you’re doing now with your voice is just truly authentic and great.’ And I got it on paper and it’s great. I told my wife, ‘When a guy like that tells you he loves your voice, that is really the best thing I could ever have heard.’”

And what are the big ambitions that you still have as a songwriter?

“I would love to get some more songs in movies and I would love to be part of a score. I would love to be invited to help write a score for a movie, with my sound. Like Nick Cage does and Steve Porcaro and songwriters like that who have been asked to write scores. I wish I was around some of those guys that are doing some of those big things. Maybe it will happen if I stay in the game long enough. I keep getting surprised and that’s why don’t quit. I don’t quit because good things keep coming.”

One More Day video exclusive

You’ve read about how it was written, so now it’s time to take an exclusive look at the video for One More Day.

Speaking of the song, co-writer Kevin Costner says, “We are all trying to live our lives the best we can. Sometimes we fall short, but we keep on trying to feel like we’ve done our best. When it comes to an end all too quickly & we meet our maker, I’ve always felt that if I’m standing there the question I would ask would be could you just give my good friend one more day to take care of anything that needed to be taken care of? I believe asking him that would be the greatest gift I could ever give my friend, and that was what I was feeling when we wrote One More Day.”

For us, the song is a perfect blend of country-rock made for driving to and Williams’ heartfelt vocal, delivered in his inimitable gravelly style. Enjoy!

Halfway To Hell is out now and you can find all the latest music and news over at hjackwilliamsmusic.com

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