This article originally appeared in our 2021 November/December issue of Local Profile magazine.
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Zane Williams has been called one of the best storytellers in country music. He’s been slinging stories on stages all around the country and here locally at Cadillac Pizza for Zane’s night, which usually happens whenever he’s not touring with his new band, Wilder Blue. The Texas-based outfit is a five-man harmony-driven powerhouse in the borderland between musical genres, knocking down “gates that separate that country, bluegrass, folk and acoustic rock.”
But they’re more than just a country band. They’re self-appointed saviors of traditional country music. Texas troubadour Paul Eason, Houston-based drummer Lyndon Hughes, multi-instrumentalist and singer Andy Rogers and Austin’s Sean Rodriguez bring experience and passion to the group and create a sound that Williams likens to a cross between the Eagles and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Zane Williams himself is no novice to the stage. Country Weekly calls him a “Texas treasure, a modern-day troubadour.” His songs as a solo artist have ranked in first place on the Texas radio charts multiple times and landed him an invitation to the Grand Ole Opry in 2015. He’s opened for the likes of Alan Jackson and George Jones. Country music legend Ricky Skaggs once told Williams after hearing him play: “Man, songs like what you just sang is what it’s all about we need more like that. Keep doing what you’re doing.”
Since graduating from college in the late ’90s, Williams has kept doing what he was doing. Then, a few months after Wilder Blue started playing their first shows, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and did the impossible: killed the live-music industry. Several venues began canceling tour dates, and more were coming in. Williams and his bandmates had to cancel their big album release party for the debut album at Gruene Hall, followed by a two-week album tour and radio tour.
They had only played between 50 and 60 shows in 2020, about half of what they had originally slated. “It wasn’t like the whole year was canceled and we didn’t have any fun,” Williams says. “We did a lot of outside shows. We got by.”
Now, like other musicians around the country, they’ve been busy getting back to what they love and do best: bringing live music to the masses.
Since Local Profile’s conversation with Zane Williams in March, the McKinney music icon has been busy playing and booking shows for Wilder Blue all around Texas, nearby in Oklahoma and Missouri, and all the way up to Montana.
“My favorite thing about being a singer/songwriter is being people’s buddy,” Williams says. “It’s like when you’re a musician, they don’t treat you like a stranger. They treat you like they would treat their friends. To have that friend status with people who are actually complete strangers is probably my favorite thing about it. They want to buy you a drink. They want to talk.
“If you’re not a musician, it’s just strangers and there’s always that wall up. Music breaks that wall down. They feel like they already know you.”
Zane Williams: Honky Tonk Livin’
After graduation from Abilene Christian University, Zane Williams packed up his four-door Toyota Camry and headed to Nashville without a clue of the networking it would take to make it in Music City. He found a job as a landscaper and began playing open mic nights in the evening. His girlfriend, Jodi, moved in with him after six months, and they got married. About a year later, he met a booking agent and started scheduling gigs as a solo artist on the college circuit. He spent the next eight years touring the country with Jodi, selling CDs and other merchandise at his shows to help fuel his dream.
Life on the road, though, can be a struggle for aspiring artists. Finding ways to cut costs is a must. For Williams and Jodie, this meant camping instead of staying in hotel rooms. They traveled to 46 states together, playing at private universities and small state schools. He says they probably made more stops in Wisconsin than any other state.
But after eight years on the road, Williams knew it was time to shuffle the deck again.
Zane Williams: Lone Star State of Mind
In 2006, Zane Williams started thinking about family and the Lone Star State. He’d grown tired of Nashville’s music scene. He longed to return to family in Texas, possibly start one of his own, and reconnect with his love of playing live again. He heard about Texas’ music scene and figured he’d give it a shot. He landed in McKinney, put together a band and began playing honky tonks and writing songs.
“In Texas, all the middlemen standing between me and the fans were gone,” Williams says on his website. “I could just make records, play shows, and be myself. I found out it didn’t have to be complicated.”
No complications meant more albums. He followed up his first album, 2006’s Hurry Home, with four independent album releases–2010’s The Right Place, 2011’s Ride with Me, 2013’s Overnight Success, and 2015’s Texas Like That. He marked his first entry on the Texas music charts with “Ride with Me,” a song he created with the help of his songwriting hero Radney Foster. It became a No. 1 hit for country superstar Cody Jinks, who rerecorded it. Williams also became a featured artist on Troubadour Texas, a nationally syndicated documentary series that highlights singer-songwriters’ lives.
“I was redeemed a little bit when Cody recorded that song,” he says. “He was still relatively unknown at the time, but better known than I was. I saw him sing that song at the Houston Rodeo for 80,000 people and they were all singing it back to him. I was like, ‘I knew that song was good.’
“At the end of the day, it would be nice if some of these songs I had written had been hits for me, but since they weren’t, it is satisfying to see someone else get them out. I get a little bit of money for that as a songwriter.”
Zane Williams: Wild Blue Yonder
A year after COVID hit, Zane Williams and Wilder Blue have been busy lining up shows to promote their new album. They released their self-titled debut album in May 2020 and received some much-needed support from country music superstar Luke Combs two months later when he wrote on Twitter: “I just can’t stop listening to this album, it just strikes every chord that I want it to. The melodies, the harmonies, the instrumentation, and the songs. All just grade A. Y’all check this record out.”
Now that COVID is hopefully subsiding, music business people have been calling the band, more venues are scheduling their shows, and fans are stepping up to help finance their new records through monthly contributions as part of “The Hideout,” an online fan club and patron program that offers fans special access and content for $5 a month for Hideout members or $10 for True Supporters. There’s also the option of a $50 annual plan for those who don’t like monthly fees.
Zane Williams hopes by fall that things will be back to normal and they’ll have more gigs and festivals on their schedule. In the meantime, he continues to write music.
“If the ones I’ve written aren’t heard by anybody, it takes away my motivation to write anymore,” he says. “So I write them and enjoy writing a lot. We record them, I enjoy that a lot. We sing them for people, and I enjoy that a lot. When that comes full circle, I want to write again. The cycle keeps itself going. Without any of these elements I would eventually run out of steam.”
Visit thewilderblue.com/shows for an updated list of scheduled appearances.