Singer-songwriter Julie Williams blazes her own trails in country music

‘I write about family and love, two themes that always make me think of my childhood’

Singer-songwriter Julie Williams blazes her own trails in country music
photo by Mackenzie Ryan

Julie Williams is a bold new voice in country music, and Orlando will see why when she plays the Blue Bamboo. The Nashville-based singer-songwriter is currently on tour, trying out new music in front of audiences around the country. Williams has received critical plaudits from the likes of PBS, CMT and Billboard for her song "Southern Curls," and it's well-deserved. In the same way that Lavender Country and Charley Pride spoke their personal truths through country, so does Williams. Welcome her back to where her musical journey started on Friday, Feb. 24.

You grew up in Central Florida. Was that formative to your musical life?

Growing up in Central Florida was extremely formative to my music life. I first started performing professionally when I was fifteen, singing Jimmy Buffet, Tom Petty, and other covers at beach bars and restaurants in the Tampa and St. Petersburg area.

Performing every weekend to a crowd that often listened, but many times cared a bit more about their margaritas than the band, helped me to grow a tough skin, work a stage and refine my craft. While I was singing covers, I stil made the songs my own, honing in on my soft, yet powerful acoustic sound that you can still find in my original songs to this day.

You can hear the influences of growing up mixed in Central Florida in my songwriting. I talk about racism that I encountered when I was in elementary and middle school, due to my hair and the color of my skin, in my song "Southern Curls."

In my song "Take Me Home," I write about leaving a complicated place, yet longing for it always, and learning to forgive the things that made me want to leave in the first place. But I also write about family and love, two themes that always make me think of my childhood in Florida and feel grateful to have grown up in such a diverse, vibrant and resilient state.

What is it about country music that satisfies you creatively?

Country music is a genre rooted in storytelling, and I am a storyteller at heart. My music uses imagery and strong hooks to evoke emotion from its listeners and speaks to everything that I am: Black, white, Southern, a woman, hopeful, truthful. While you might not think of country music when you hear some of those words, country music was heavily influenced by the Black musical tradition — from Negro spirituals that were the oldest American folk songs or the banjo that was created by enslaved Africans and their descendants.

It feels spiritual and honorable to play a genre that was so heavily influenced by my ancestors and to bring attention to their legacy through my music.

Country music brought me to the Black Opry, a collective of Black artists in the country, Americana, blues and roots genre that fight for racial equity in country music. Through this group, I have had the incredible honor of touring the country, playing shows in 26 states and performing on legendary stages, such as CMA Fest, The Troubadour, Country Music Hall of Fam, the Cayamo music festival, and more.

Lastly, country and Americana music feels cathartic to write and sing because it allows you to be extremely vulnerable and honest through your lyrics in ways that other genres do not. Songwriting is my way of processing my life and the world around me, and to connect with others who have either shared similar life journeys or are curious to learn more. It is through country and Americana music that I find the most connection with my listeners and with myself.

Tell us about "Southern Curls."

"Southern Curls" is a song about growing up mixed and learning to love myself, through the metaphor of my hair. When I was younger, I hated my hair. It was difficult for me to style by myself and was often the subject of taunts by bullies in elementary and middle school. As soon as my mom let me, I began to relax and straighten my hair. I wanted to blend in and maybe then I would feel "normal."

But after many years of destroying my hair with harsh chemicals, my tattered curls began to fall out. I had to stop putting chemicals and heat on my hair and slowly grew out the curls that had caused me so much grief growing up. In learning to love my curls, on their good and bad days, I began to learn to love myself, as myself, in all of my good and bad days. "Southern Curls" speaks of that journey from past to present and acknowledges that not all girls, especially girls of color, grow up feeling beautiful in their own skin.

A song that poured out of me in less than 30 minutes, I had never written a song before that was so vulnerable, honest, and authentically myself. It has now become my favorite song to perform at shows because I can see in real time its impact on people. When I played with the Black Opry Revue in Evanston, IL, a young Black girl watched our show with wide eyes and drew a picture of me on the stage. She handed me the picture afterwards and said, “you have curls just like me.” She reminded me of who I am doing this all for, and that makes me proud.

In 2020, my fans helped me raise $5000 in only one week to fund the song's music video that was brought to life by an all Black creative team. It showed me that people want to hear Black voices, Black stories. I was originally nervous about how my songs would be received by Nashville, but people want honesty and songs about real life. And for me, this song is about as real as it g

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