Holler Country Music
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Introducing: Abby Hamilton

By Matt Wickstrom

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A modern-day country queen who you can find slinging bourbons at The Burl one night and lighting up its stage with her songs the next, Abby Hamilton is a force to be reckoned with.

Born and bred in Wilmore just southeast of Lexington, Hamilton is a rugged Kentucky gal and southern belle wrapped into one. Raised in a musical family that included great aunts in a southern gospel singer group called The Hamilton Family, she was introduced to music at an early age through family holiday gatherings and the church.

Although she’s grown to love it, Hamilton first got into music by force, not choice.

“There was a rule in our house that we had to take music lessons until we were 18,” Hamilton tells Holler. “My siblings and I all played piano and Suzuki violin for a while, but I quickly got tired of it. Before long I realized that if I took voice lessons I wouldn’t have to practice an instrument, so that became my focus in high school.”

Around the same time, her brother and lead guitarist in her band, Zach Hamilton, was first discovering the guitar - something she’d eventually do a few years later while attending college at her hometown Asbury University. It was that rabbit hole, along with discovering the writers behind her favorite songs, that encouraged her to take the plunge and start writing country songs herself.

“It was then I noticed that all of my favorite songs were written by different people than the one’s performing them,” says Hamilton. “It was that epiphany that ultimately inspired me to pick up a guitar and pursue my dream of being a country singer.”

Inspired by everyone from Miranda Lambert to Natalie Hemby, Lori McKenna, Luke Dick, Brandi Carlile, Bonnie Raitt, John Prine and others, Hamilton’s songs run deep with poetic wisdom, self-reflection and wit well beyond her years. This is best evidenced in songs like ‘Big Time’ (“You can’t make a living off of royalty checks if nobody’s cutting your songs”) and ‘Trailer Park Queen’ (“They never thought that I’d amount to anything / Well guess what, you’re looking at the trailer park queen”).

We sat down with Hamilton to discuss her newly released Afraid Of The Dark Live Sessions EP, how she found her way to songwriting, the Kentucky recording connection that took her to Atlanta to cut her latest project and more.

Growing up in a religious household, were you exposed to a variety of music or did you have to look elsewhere to find it?

When I was in high school my younger brother Zach, in middle school at the time, started discovering Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, The Beatles and loads of other music through YouTube. Living in a Christian house, rock music was never around before that. Around the same time he picked up the guitar himself, a few years before I followed suit in college.

I was still writing prior to that; I jokingly refer to it as my Sara Bareilles era. I enjoyed the songs I was writing on piano even though they were sad, but at the same time I could feel myself wanting to write country songs - I just couldn’t get that tone out of the piano. That’s what really inspired me to start playing guitar, and I have my brother to credit for most of it.

Considering you didn’t begin gigging until you were in college, what were your nerves like during those early shows?

In college I had a very type-A personality roommate named Angie, the complete opposite of me, who unannounced booked me my first show at Al’s Bar in Lexington when I only had five songs or so ready to go. It was two weeks away, but I was so nervous because I’d never performed in front of anyone.

My parents and most of my friends were at that show, which led to several more at Al’s. That’s a place where I really gained experience and confidence as a songwriter. I’ve also met so many other musical friends there like Buck The Taxidermist, Ryvoli and my drummer, Zach Martin.

How did the opportunity to record this new EP in Atlanta come about?

I grew up in Lexington with Jon Tsang, the director who filmed the EP. He’s an amazing cinematographer who’s worked in Atlanta as a freelancer for the last few years. He’s produced content for some of my favorite bands like Manchester Orchestra, along with some short films.

He had access to a place down there called The Goat Farm, which is literally a goat farm in the middle of downtown Atlanta that was used as the backdrop for AMC’s The Walking Dead. I remember heading down there to record it just after getting off the road with Wynonna Judd.

We finished everything in about five hours, and I’m thrilled with how it turned out. There’s nothing better than getting to work with friends I’ve known since childhood to help bring this project to life.

‘Trailer Park Queen’ is the only song not previously recorded that’s on the EP, and I understand it’s about an eccentric family member of yours. Care to elaborate?

It’s about a second cousin of mine who’s lived in a trailer park her entire life. As a kid I honestly thought she was Dolly Parton. She had this huge, blonde hair like a beehive, amazing makeup, super long nails and a cool as can be, tough as dirt attitude. The ultimate Kentucky woman, really, and she now runs that trailer park she calls home as well.

In college I wrote a lot with my friends including Kelsey Lycan, who I wrote this with in a quick 20-minute writing session. It’s one of the first songs I wrote and I’m so happy to have finally gotten around to recording it.

Earlier you mentioned falling in love with songwriting through hearing songs performed by people other than who wrote them. Is that what you’re touching on in ‘Big Time’?

Yes, and it’s another of those songs that just poured out of me. Judging those two songs only, it may seem like I have an easy time writing, but I don’t most of the time.

That’s a song about writing songs that came from looking at myself and saying, ‘Abby, you can’t make a living off royalty checks if nobody’s cutting your songs, so you’ve got to write better songs.’ From there I had my hook and the rest flowed out.

It’s about how we as artists sometimes idealize the future rather than just appreciating the journey and the groundwork that needs to be laid to reach those lofty dreams. It’s a reminder that I still have more work to do to be the best songwriter I can be.

In many ways the song sounds like a tale of self-discovery, which I feel is much of what ‘Fast’ is as well. Is that correct?

That’s spot on. It’s about the fear of getting stuck in my hometown and what would happen if I never left. I wrote it during my senior year of college in the same town I’d grown up in, so I really did have a strong fear and anxiety of being stuck here and never getting out.

Both of those songs also contain loads of vulnerability, something I feel like is at the center of ‘Afraid of the Dark’. But it’s also about coping with loss too, right?

It’s about a friend of mine who died from an overdose. I had dreams of him dying before he did. It’s a love letter to him and all of my family and friends suffering from addiction to let them know that they have my support and I’ll never forget them.

I wanted to give a voice to the people who might love someone that is an addict; to shine a light on how much of that is a grey area. It’s not like someone becomes an addict and you leave them - these are people that you love and desperately want to have a good life.

If you could give any advice to your younger self pushing through piano lessons and struggling to find your voice in those early days as a songwriter, what would you pass along?

I would tell myself to just be confident in who I am and the stories I want to tell. I struggled so much with timidity and insecurity about who I was, not only as a performer but as a person.

I’d also tell myself to always love and care for myself, because when I was younger, I was oftentimes too concerned with what others thought of me or how good I was. It’s something that took me a long time to get comfortable with. I’m continuing to learn and grow, but the breakthroughs I’ve had with loving and caring for myself has provided more for me in the art and creative space than any other practice.

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Abby Hamilton’s Afraid of the Dark Live Sessions EP is out now.

Photo by Elizabeth Withers