Nashville, Tenn. — If anyone seems born to write and sing songs, it's Holly Williams.
Her grandfather is American music icon Hank Williams, her father the country outlaw Hank Williams Jr.
She released her debut album last year in the long shadow of her family's honky-tonk history.
"People do compare, but on a healthy level," she says. "I never feel that they look and say, 'You're not as good,' or whatever. I think my dad dealt with that more."
Williams, 24, is among a handful of emerging Nashville artists with famous bloodlines. Shooter Jennings, son of Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, cracked the country charts this year with his single "4th of July." The duo of Jamie Hanna, 32, and Jonathan McEuen, 29, comprised of the sons of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band founders Jeff Hanna and John McEuen, release their self-titled debut album Aug. 16.
All say the upside of being raised in a musical family outweighs the pressure of trying to live up to the family name.
"There are things you get to see that other kids don't," says Williams, who remembers visiting recording studios with her dad and riding in limos to concerts.
She wasn't as aware of her grandfather's legacy until much later.
"It was always something that felt pretty far away from me. My dad would tell me about him, but I didn't realize the impact he had on American music until I started writing songs and heard people like Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen talking about him."
Following a famous elder is a tough act for some singers.
Early in his career, Hank Williams Jr. consistently reinterpreted his father's songs and displayed some of the same self-destructive behavior that led to the elder Williams' untimely death in 1953. Carlene Carter, who is the granddaughter of Maybelle Carter and the daughter of June Carter, has received more attention for her legal problems than her music in recent years.
Others have had a smoother ride. Roseanne Cash successfully established her own identity despite her larger-than-life father, Johnny Cash. Ditto for Pam Tillis (daughter of Mel) and Lorrie Morgan (daughter of George).
Williams also is carving her own identity. While her hushed songs about addictions, affairs and abuse link her thematically to her grandfather, they're in the vein of 1970s folk rock artists such as James Taylor and Joni Mitchell.
If she had wanted to, she could have recorded a rowdy honky-tonk record and cashed in on the family name, Williams says.
"I knew I'd just be singing songs written on the row (Music Row), and I really loved being able to write what I wanted to write and talk about what I wanted to," Williams says. "Nothing against that kind of music or anything, I just wanted to go a different way. If I had wanted to do the Nashville thing, doors could have been open."
Jennings, 26, might be the most high-profile contemporary artist in Nashville with famous lineage. His late father is a country music legend, his mother a country singer who had a huge crossover hit in 1975 with "I'm Not Lisa."
As a teenager, he rebelled against country music by moving to Los Angeles and forming a hard rock band, Stargunn. He says he felt freer to pursue his music in California than in Nashville.
"I think subconsciously I knew that it was like, being there, no one knew who Waylon Jennings was," he says. "It kind of put me on the same level as everyone else. In Nashville, I kind of felt like there were a lot of eyes watching me and stuff."
After four years, he returned to his roots with a sound that melds country's lyrics and instrumentation with rock's energy and rawness. Recorded in Los Angeles with frank lyrics about pot busts and broken relationships, his album "Put the O Back in Country" tows the country outlaw line forged by his father 30 years ago.
Jennings says he's taken some knocks from critics.
"I get ragged on, and I read some things here and there," he says. "People think that I sold out because I went by my name, went to Nashville and got a deal. But I never thought that way because in Stargunn, nobody would hit us with a stick and I was still Waylon Jennings' son. I didn't change."