Texas country singer and songwriter Zane Williams already had a steady gig as a revered and supported artist in the scene for years, releasing seven records, touring extensively throughout the region, and once being the catalyst for rolling up a Houston-based crime syndicate that had stolen countless instruments from traveling musicians. So why go off and start a band with as ambiguous of a name as “Hill Country” to hide yourself in?
The answer is found in the 12 songs of the self-titled debut from this semi-supergroup where the chemistry is just right for delivering good times and good vibes in a variety of ways. Zane Williams has always had a bit of a hard time sticking to country music exclusively, though he did dedicate himself to it in his 2016 record Bringin’ Country Back, but that’s not what Hill Country’s about. It’s about easing back and having a good time for both the band and the audience alike.
Teaming up with with Zane is fellow singer and songwriter Paul Eason who is also known for playing guitar with for Kevin Fowler, Houston drummer Lyndon Hughes, Austin bassist Sean Rodriguez, and multi-instrumentalist Andy Rogers who gives Hill Country the latitude to articulate just about whatever style of American music they choose, from classic rock to bluegrass, to country and folk. And they take full advantage of it.
Hill Country is unafraid of being labeled copycats. They’re just here to let the good times flow. Name checking “Sweet Baby James” in the first song on the album called “River Roll” let’s you know they don’t care if you throw out James Taylor comparisons. That’s kind of the point. When they get to “Hey Susanna” later in the record, the Tom Petty influence is clearly palpable. And if that doesn’t sound like it’s up your alley as a country fan, wait until you get to the mountain music musings of “Evergreen” and “Dixie Darlin'” where the banjo is hot, and the secret weapon of this sextet—multi-part harmonies—makes its presence most known.
Hill Country is kind of like a cover band playing original songs, if that makes sense, meaning you can plug them in at a corner stage anywhere, and the crowd will probably find favor in them with warm melodies and strong hooks. Don’t take that to mean the songwriting is secondary or unoriginal though. Quite the contrary. The more traditionally Texas country-styled song “The Eagle” is a great composition to really listen to and ponder on, while the twist in the story of “Dixie Darlin'” makes it much deeper than just a banjo jig. Songwriting is one of the best assets of the record.
You need a little bit of ego to get up on a stage in front of strangers and sing with a spotlight on you. The best know how to exploit that while simultaneously reigning it in so that the crowd senses your humility. Dale Watson has that quality where he walks into a room and feels like a superstar, but doesn’t give a damn about being famous and most certainly isn’t changing his style to get there. Zane Williams has that same aptitude. He’s a great frontman, whether solo or in this outfit, but he’ll be damned if he’s going to change what he does or how he does it to get ahead, which he articulates in the song “Company Man” found on the record.
The term “Hill Country” can imply a number of things, from notions of the Texas Hill Country that makes you think of Luckenbach and Jerry Jeff Walker, or the hills and hollers of Appalachia where the roots of country emerged, or the golden hills of Southern California that gave rise to the folk rock sounds of Laurel Canyon. All those influences are unabashedly exploited and re-interpreted with a fluidity on this record, but presented with strong a cohesiveness as well.
Whether Hill Country becomes a permanent home for Zane Williams, Paul Eason and the others, or a fun side project, the results speak for themselves, which is a full-bodied listening experience satisfying many cravings in country music and beyond, resulting in a warm feeling and a good vibe.
1 3/4 Guns Up (7.5/10)
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