"I describe my sound as country music. As a glimpse of the present day moment captured with the sounds and influences of yesteryear", Zach Willdee explains. "There are so many niches that it can be pushed into, whether I like it or not. But for me, at its roots, my music and my sound is just country music".
Amen to that. If you happened to have passed through the Holler offices these past couple of months you’d already be familiar with the creamy country tones of Zach Willdee; his debut LP Heart That Ain’t Tame is a record that’s been on heavy rotation here since we first heard it.
Mixing the outlaw swagger of Waylon Jennings with the smooth-as-custard Bakersfield creaminess of golden age Merle Haggard, Willdee is classic in that same only-in-America way that Wranglers, Coca Cola and Easy Cheese are. Like eating hot dogs and drinking Blue Ribbon beer in the back of a pickup truck that's been filled with water to make a makeshift pool, some things are so perfect just as they are they don’t need tinkering with.
Growing up in Massachusetts, inspired by writers like Steve Earle, John Prine and Haggard, he began his musical career busking on the street corners of Provincetown, Massachusetts and writing his own songs at just 14 years old. He soon apprenticed under Darrell Scott - songwriter for The Chicks, Travis Tritt, Beyoncé and Zac Brown Band - which ultimately sparked him to move to Nashville to pursue his own career singing and writing country music.
“I write and perform my music to help myself mentally,” he says. “As a form of therapy, you could say - and hope that I can help someone relate and know there’s someone else out there sharing their experience.”
It’s these deep soulful country songs that have kept us coming back to them time and time again. From the self-deprecating barroom shuffle of ‘Climbing The Ladder’ to the ghostly Western ballad ‘Shadow Riders’, Willdee’s voice carries the weight of a life well lived as he ruminates on all its ups and occasional downs.
We spoke to him about his influences, his dream duet and whether or not he'd like to go to space. All bases covered here at Holler.
Where do you come from and how has that influenced you?
I’m from Massachusetts originally and was raised and grew up there, moving to Nashville in 2016. There’s a lot of history in the north and I was heavily influenced by the old music rooted in that area. A lot of Irish folk music and American folk music that was carried to the U.S. via immigration over the centuries has embedded itself in the north, and that old music and revivalist folk music heavily influenced my formative years of learning music.
What did you grow up listening to?
I grew up with my father showing me bluegrass and the Grateful Dead while my mom was showing me 70s and 80s rock ‘n’ roll. And to top it off my grandfather was a huge Hee Haw and WSM Grand Ole Opry fan; loved Buck Owens. So growing up, there was always a wide spread of different music constantly surrounding me.
What lessons did you learn from busking when you were a teenager?
I learned the value of being able to earn money off the street, and I’ve felt that cross over into my performing, even now. If you can learn to convince someone to donate to you solely based on their enjoyment and entertainment of your music then you'll grow to know how to handle and perform to larger audiences.
Some of the best performers that I know all started or spent a significant amount of time on a street corner trying to earn a few dollars. Also, I never sang with a microphone or any amplification when I was busking, so I believe I developed a stronger singing voice and the sound I currently have from years of singing from the top of my lungs on street corners.
What inspired you when you were making Heart That Ain’t Tame?
I drew many inspirations from many different mediums and people in the making of Heart That Ain't Tame. In retrospect, it was many small moments of inspiration that led to the record. I wrote one of my songs based on a long-forgotten movie from the 80s, and when I saw the movie I felt the urge to tell its story from my own perspective.
Also, I spent time with Robby Turner (who played pedal steel in Waylon Jennings’ band as well as the Highwaymen) and he gave me so many stories and peeks into the past that truly shaped the way I thought about the genre and how I approached it. Robby also showed me so much more music that opened doors into new worlds for me.
What’s the most unexpected place music has taken you?
I found myself in 2016 street performing in Old Havana, Cuba, while visiting the country before I moved to Nashville. I'd say that moment in time was transformative as well. I met several street performers who invited me to play with them and we would spend entire afternoons and evenings playing for passersby. It was a beautiful moment of connection between people that would otherwise never have met if it weren't literally just for music.
Who would be your dream duet?
My dream duet would be with my friend Sierra Ferrell. In my humble opinion she's one of the greatest singers alive right now with one of the best sounds and writing that I’ve ever heard. Her impeccable timeless voice and writing could bring any person sheer raw emotion on both ends of the spectrum and for me, there’s nothing greater that a writer and singer can accomplish then what she does with her music.
What time do you wake up in the morning?
I wake up between 6:30am and 7:00am every morning regardless of how late I was up the night before. I feel most productive in the mornings and have always been a morning person; I try to practice and rehearse my music before 10am while my mind is at its sharpest.
Would you like to go to space?
No, I have enough to worry about here on Earth without having to strap myself to a bomb and shoot myself into the ether. Also I can't imagine the pollution that sending me to space would cause the environment.
If you could time travel back to any time when would you go back to?
A few friends were just debating this with me several days ago. If I could go back to one moment it would be October 26, 1939, to see Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys make history playing the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium for the first time. That era of music is the foundation of most of my influences, and I would give anything to sit in for that greatness.
Which person from history would you most like to meet?
I would want to meet Waylon Jennings. From all the stories my friend Robby Turner told me, Waylon was a father figure and patriarch and took care of many people out of his sheer goodness. He seemed like the kind of man who could and would dine with a president as well as a wandering homeless cowboy, and that mentality is extraordinary to me.
What advice would you give to the younger you?
Keep doing what you're doing even if the road gets rough, because someday it's all going to culminate into exactly who you're supposed to be for this world.
What’s next for you?
Making more music and trying to grow more each day as a writer/performer, but more so as a person. Music is important to me but personal growth and mental well being are the most important, and if you don't grow as a person then nothing else in your life will follow. So what's next is living my life to its fullest and seeing where that personal growth will carry me on my journey.
Zach Willdee's debut album Heart That Ain't Tame is out now