The late great Loretta Lynn proudly declared herself a coal miner’s daughter, expressing pride over her parents’ hard work and nostalgia for their simple but sufficient upbringing. Tiffany Williams, a coal miner’s daughter herself, feels that pride, but used her song about the topic to express something a little different.
“You’re always worried about them and you always wish they didn’t have to do it,” Williams said. “It’s just that constant fear. But there’s also a pride. You’re proud that they’re brave enough and capable enough and hard working to go and do that.”
Her title track, “All Those Days of Drinking Dust,” is complex. There’s gratitude for the hard work generations of men in her family performed, but also a sense of survivor’s guilt that she went on to live a more comfortable life. Instead of Lynn’s sweet memories, Williams sings about her fear during a cave in and her pondering if God has jurisdiction underground. She also mentions having to watch her father suffer through health issues.
“He has black lung, so he struggles with his breathing sometimes,” Williams explained. “He coughs a lot. One time he hit the roof with his head, but my dad is the kind who if he hurt himself he’d just put black electrical tape over it and be done.”
The sacrifices made by the Williams men on the first track and the expectations of a woman named “Carletta” on the second track create a great tension between sacrifice and self agency that Williams returns to repeatedly. “Harder Heart,” “Know Your Worth” and “No Bottom” all express regret over being too forgiving, too generous, too eager to please. “Know Your Worth” is motivational and tries to inspire others to stand up for themselves, but “No Bottom” opens with with the sort of line that summarizes Williams’ struggles in a defiant and humorous way: “If I had to do it different/I’d have pissed more people off.”
“I sometimes looked back on my younger self and thought I wasn’t empowered and that I was meek or soft spoken, which I was to some degree,” Williams said. “But I always went after what I wanted and I always followed through on the dreams and desires I’ve had.”
Those desires have led Williams through an interesting life including studying in Germany, working at a school for the deaf and the Tennessee State Legislature, and going to graduate school to study Appalachian language. And that doesn’t even touch on her launching a musical career in Nashville at age 31. Despite having some of the better vocals I’ve heard on an album this year, Williams originally wanted to just be a songwriter.
“If you don’t do something you don’t know if you can do it or not,” Williams, who sang in church and a high school choir, said. “That’s why it’s good to try everything.”
Williams explained that she wrote the songs on this album individually and not as a package. Still, it can be hard to reconcile her stories of wanting more self agency with the deep devotion and longing “The Sea” and “Wanted It To Be” present. “The Sea” in particular is haunting and powerful, but in metaphorically offering up her life for love, Williams seems to go back on her desire to know her worth and have a harder heart. While Williams chose to end her album on the careful love song “The Waiting,” it’s a more patient love that really combines the themes of this album correctly for me.
“When I Come Back Around,” a duet with Silas House, features two people working on their own dreams. They leave open the possibility of a relationship if the timing works out. They pretty clearly hope for it. But it’s not their first priority right now. Instead of sacrificing dreams for a mundane life, this song is about sacrificing that mundane life for the dream. Making friendships and a relationship work through a busy life has been all about choosing the right people, Williams explains.
“It’s good when you trust a relationship and know you can go back to that relationship and it’s still there; it’s not damaged because you weren’t tending to it,” she said. “I met my current partner on tour. I went to an open mic and he was hosting. But because he does music too, he understands I’m going to be depleted. I think the thing is to choose good people to have in your life and they will understand you can’t always be there.”
Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with Tiffany Williams and the songs we discussed, starting with the title track, which presents a much more complex picture than a similar Loretta Lynn song. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit http://www.WUSB.fm and https://tiffanymwilliams.com for more.
Photo by Danielle Shields, courtesy of Tiffany Williams.