With his sophomore record Waging Peace, Alex Williams confirms an artistic truth: Eventually, you have to kill your idols. As a student at Nashville’s Belmont University, he was seduced by the music and accompanying myth of the outlaw country movement, dropping everything when he was introduced to Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Billy Joe Shaver. The grit and gristle desperado sneer provided a no-nonsense alternative to the Ratt and Cinderella soundtrack of his youth. “I had just recently discovered and fell in love with all of the records from the ’70s Progressive Country era,” Williams says, “It just sounded so fresh and real and really struck a chord with me like it has with a lot of musicians.”
In 2017, he released his debut, Better than Myself, a good time of a record that captures the young traditionalist at his most headstrong and hellraising. “Little Too Stoned,” the album’s rowdiest, most unapologetic bacchanal, affirms Williams as the life of the party, but as time and tours took their toll, he began to understand what Waylon had in mind when he asked, “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out Of Hand?”
Music histories are littered with Icarus-types whose epitaphs read “Too much, too soon.” Williams was wise enough to shake the anxiety of influence, a struggle that he chronicles in Waging Peace: “It was that typical rock-star thing, traveling around and thinking ‘cool’ is the same as being reckless. I did it for a lot of years … Until one night, and I’m still trying to process. I wasn’t that person then– and I’m definitely not now– and Waging Peace is just about trying to make peace with yourself.”
Make no mistake– Waging Peace isn’t a come-to-Jesus feel-good affair or the fragile, insular pandemic record we’ve come to expect. Williams is still making music for armadillo types and much of the album kicks. Outlaw country is rife with manifestos, with tough opener “No Reservations” giving the genre another classic headstrong declaration. He’s still the badass wayfarer, but he’s also at the wheel, calling the shots, acting as his own compass. Williams is further down the road in the seat-of-your-pants “Double Nickel”, another sonic travelogue that finds Williams and his band, again and again, pulling off the impossible– making it to the next show in the nick of time. It’s an impossible way to live, but Williams has found his home on the open road.
Elsewhere, Williams reminds us that the best progressive country doesn’t succeed because of its brawn or bluster. Instead, there’s a substance at its core, a lyrical sophistication that deserves attention. It’s this heft and honesty, after all, that separated the original outlaws from their more polished counterparts. In the album’s more tender moments, Alex stands front and center, acknowledging his transgressions. These are songs of accountability. Consider “Rock Bottom”, where he wonders, “I don’t know why the darkest roads are the easy ones to follow”; or “Higher Road”, where he’s been “stoned and alone” with the realization that change isn’t instantaneous, that healing takes time. In “The Struggle”, Williams dismisses one-hit-wonder complacency as he celebrates the value of hard-won victories. At his most self-aware, Alex confronts his biggest enemy—himself—on the title track. There is ownership, but also a search for closure: “It’s a long hard lesson to remember what’s done is done.” And while it’s difficult to forgive ourselves, he reminds us that “the chance to change is never lost.”
With Waging Peace, Williams pulls himself back from the precipice, understanding that renegade autonomy requires integrity; otherwise, you’re fulfilling Behind the Music cliches. He’s lived under the sway of his heroes and history, as he sings on “Old Before My Time”, the album’s standout track, but he’s come to understand that outlaw doesn’t have to mean outlandish. It’s easy to romanticize the myth of the tortured artist and even its trappings– the substance abuse, the death wish– but Alex Williams has managed to escape the burden of history and avoid the spring break freeze-frame of his debut.