Zach Williams, Grammy-Winning Artist, Talks About His New Album, A Hundred Highways, And Writing His Songs “Chain Breaker” And “There Was Jesus”

Zach Williams
Zach Williams

Since the release of his debut solo album, Chain Breaker, in 2016, singer/songwriter Zach Williams has been an acclaimed, Grammy-winning artist who’s had multi-platinum success. His music is a blend of southern rock and country, that has a lyrical message of hope and faith. He is now regarded as a leading artist in the Contemporary Christian music (CCM) genre.

Last September (2022), Williams released his third solo album, A Hundred Highways (on Essential Records), which is first album in three years. This album is a strong collection of songs that feature Williams’ powerful, soulful lead vocals and heartfelt, inspiring songs.

A Hundred Highways contains several highlights, such as Williams’ moving single “Heart of God,” which is currently in the Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot Christian Songs chart, and is still moving up. The album also includes the high-energy, boisterous song “Big Tent Revival,” and “Jesus’ Fault,” which is a duet with country star Walker Hayes. Other notable songs are the ballad “Lookin’ For You,” “Love is a Battleground,” the uptempo “Holy Rollin” and the uniquely titled, “Like a Billy Graham Revival.” The album has reached the #2 position on Billboard’s Top Christian Albums chart.

Here’s an excerpt of our interview with Zach Williams, who tells how he wrote his new songs, “Big Tent Revival” and “Heart of God.”

Williams was born in Pensacola, Florida, and he grew up in the town of Jonesboro, Arkansas. His father played in bands and was a worship leader in church, and Williams learned to play guitar and also played music in church.

During his high school and college years, Williams first had the goal of becoming a top college basketball player and possibly playing in the NBA. But in college, he suffered an injury that ended his basketball dreams, so he pursued his other love, playing music, singing and writing songs.

Williams initially formed a rock band called Zack Williams & The Reformation. However, after a few years, he decided to launch his solo career and focused on creating music that was more Contemporary Christian, with a message of hope, belief, faith and inspiration.

Here’s the video of Zach Williams’ hit, “Heart of God.”

It was in 2016 that Williams signed with Essential Records (part of the Provident Label  Group), and he began writing and recording his debut album, Chain Breaker. His powerful, emotional debut single, “Chain Breaker,” immediately had an impact and became a #1 single. Then for his follow-up single “Old Church Choir,” Williams had another #1 hit.

In 2019, Williams released his second album, Rescue Story, which was also a chart success and included the hit “There Was Jesus,” that featured a duet with country legend, Dolly Parton. The album also contained the title track hit, “Rescue Story.”

Besides his songs and recordings, Williams is also known for being a compelling, emotional live performer. He and his band have headlined several tours in the past few years. In addition, Williams is known for performing special concerts at prisons for both men and women. One of the best examples of Williams’ spirited performances is his live EP called Survivor – Live From Harding Prison, and there are videos of his concert on YouTube.

Notably, Williams has won two Grammy Awards, for Best Contemporary Christian Music Album (for Chain Breaker) and Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song (for “There Was Jesus” with Dolly Parton).

Zach Williams Interview

We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Zach Williams. He tells how he got started with music, and how he wrote his hits “Chain Breaker,” “There Was Jesus” and songs from his new album.

DK: I read that you were born in Florida and grew up in Arkansas. How did you get started with music?

Zach Williams: Our family moved to Arkansas when I was about three years old. My dad  had been in bands in his younger years, and he was a worship leader at church. I remember there was always music in the house, with guitars, chord charts and music stands. But early on, I didn’t have a desire to play music. I was into basketball and sports, and I lived in a small town. And I thought…Man, if I could get a college scholarship and maybe play in the NBA, it would get me out of this small town. So that was my dream.

Here’s the lyric video of Zach Williams’ song, “Big Tent Revival.”

[For a while], everything was great. I was excelling at basketball, and I had college scholarship offers. But in my senior year of high school, I got into drugs and alcohol and started running around with the wrong crowd. I ended up getting in trouble my senior year, and I lost my basketball scholarships. A year later, I went to a junior college and I made the basketball team and got a scholarship. But the first season I was there, I tore up my ankle. So I sat out that year and tried to do rehab. I taught myself how to play guitar, and I fell in love with poetry and songwriting. I’ve always loved the process of figuring out a chord or progression, and a melody, and then try to take a lyric and turn that into a song. I was 19 when I picked up the guitar and started playing, and from the second I touched the guitar and started writing songs, I knew this was what I was supposed to be doing in my life.

DK: Early on, you had a rock band called Zach Williams & The Reformation, but I read that you moved on from this band and decided to focus more on Christian music. Is that correct?

Williams: Yes. At the time when I quit the band, I didn’t have a focus yet. I was caught in the lifestyle of this rock band I was in, with partying and the excess of this lifestyle, and I knew I needed to make some changes in order to keep my family. I didn’t want to lose my wife and kids, but I was on the verge of a divorce. At the time I thought…I was done with music, I’m done with all of this. We’re gonna start going to church. We’re going to concentrate on getting our lives back in order. And while I was going to this church, I started having these lyrics come to me and writing new songs. The songs still had my Southern country and rock sound to it, but it was a different message now.

I recorded an EP, and it wasn’t long after that the church we were going to, hired me to become their worship leader. So I worked for the church for about four years, and that was my introduction into Christian music. I really didn’t know that I was writing Christian music. I was just writing new music that had a different message, and it found its lane.

DK: In 2016, you had success with your first solo album, Chain Breaker (on Essesntial Records). Can you talk about starting your solo career?

Here’s the video of Zach Williams performing his hit “Chain
Breaker” live at Harding Prison.

Williams: To be honest with you, it was kind of a shock to me. I wrote “Chain Breaker” when I was still working at the church. I didn’t have a record deal when I wrote the song. I was invited by (songwriter & producer) Jonathan Smith to come to Nashville and write, and we started writing some music together and developed this friendship. He ended up producing my first record, and when the record label heard “Chain Breaker” and thought it was a hit, they signed me to a record deal. So we had a hit, and then “Old Church Choir” was the next single from the album, and it surpassed “Chain Breaker.” And the album won a Grammy that year.

With that first album, we wrote it with no pressure and no agenda. What made it special, was there was nobody telling us what songs we needed and what songs we needed to write. We were just writing, and I was writing from the heart and from things that I was experiencing in my life. And that was the record that started my career.

DK: I like your song “Chain Breaker.” It’s a powerful song, and it has a unique song title. How did you come up with the idea for this song?

Williams: I was in Nashville for a week to write music, and we wrote “Chain Breaker” on a Friday, which was the last writing session of my trip. To be honest, I was ready to go home…I was tired and ready to see my family. I was sitting in a room with Jonathan Smith and (songwriter) Mia Fieldes, and I shared my story from the time I was a child up until where I was at that moment in my life. I told them that me and my wife were involved in a prison ministry at the church we were at. I talked for hours, and Mia then looked at me and said, “Zach, you’ve gotta write a song called Chain Breaker.” And I was like, “That’s a cool title.” We didn’t have a lyric or melody yet, but I remember Jonathan started to play piano, and I sang [the opening lines], which just came out of me. It was one of those songs where it felt like God showed up that day and took the pen and paper and wrote those lyrics for us. The song kind of wrote itself. Then I drove back to Arkansas that afternoon with a demo for the song, and the vocal that I recorded that day ended up being the vocal we used on the record.

Here’s the video of Zach Williams & Dolly Parton’s hit, “There
Was Jesus.”

DK: You and your band performed “Chain Breaker” and other songs at Harding Prison (in Tennessee), and it became a live EP. And on your new album, you have a song called “Praise Opens Prisons.” So what inspires you to play concerts at prisons?

Williams: When I see those men and women in prison, and I look back at the life that I’ve lived and the places I’ve been, I could have easily been in the same place and been in their shoes. I think a lot of times, they are forgotten. And the thing is…God hasn’t forgotten about them. That’s what I try to carry in with my message and let them know A lot of these men and women haven’t had a family…they didn’t have a father who was there for them. But they have a heavenly father, and He loves them. And He cares for them, and is willing to give them many chances. I think a lot of those men and women feel like they’re there (in prison) and they don’t have any more chances. So to go in and share songs with them, and to watch the room and atmosphere change, and to see them find freedom behind bars and realize that even though they’re in prison, you can still find freedom in Jesus, and that’s a special thing. So for me, taking that metaphor of prison into the real world, we can all find ourselves in our own prisons. Whether that’s drugs or alcohol or finances…you name it. They’re everywhere. And so with songs like “Chain Breaker,” and “Praise Opens Prisons,” I can let people know that this is how you can break free from those chains.

DK: On your second album, Rescue Story, you had a duet hit with Dolly Parton with your song, “There Was Jesus.” How did you write that song and connect with Dolly on it?

Williams: I wrote that song with my buddy, Jonathan Smith, and a friend named Casey Beathard, who’s a legendary country songwriter. I had this idea for the song, and we ended up writing it. Then we did a demo, and we got this girl to sing on it, and we were all proud of the song. Then I brought it home and played it for my wife, and she said, “You should get Dolly Parton to sing on it.” And I said, “You’re joking (laughs). You don’t just call Dolly Parton.” But she said, “You should really see if she wants to sing on it.”

When I called my record label and told them about this idea, they were like, “Wait a minute. You’re serious?” Then we tracked Dolly’s manager down, and she agreed to listen to the song. When she heard it, she told me, “I want to be a part of it; it’s one the best songs I’ve ever heard.” I was like, “Wow.” Then she sang on it and championed it.

Here’s the video of Zach Williams’song “Jesus’ Fault”
(feat. Walker Hayes).

DK: A few months ago, you released your latest album, A Hundred Highways. Can you talk about making this album?

Williams: It’s a record I’ve always wanted to make. Over the years, I’ve would be asked in interviews, “Who do you sound like, and who are your influences?” And I’d list my influences, from Bob Seger to Gregg Allman, and all the artists I’ve loved. But when I finished this new record, it was the first time I could say…I sound like Zach Williams. I feel like I’ve finally come into my own. For me, this record was a maturing process with my songwriting. It feels a little deeper, a little more storyteller. I tapped into more of my roots, and the music that I grew up on.

DK: Two of my favorite songs on your album are “Big Tent Revival” and “Heart of God.” Can you talk about writing these songs?

Williams: With “Big Tent Revival,” I’ve always loved songs that tug on nostalgia and heartstrings. Or when you hear a lyric or hear a a sound, it already puts you in that place. And whenever I hear this song, I’m transported to this picture of exactly what it looks like in my mind. You know, I grew up as this kid in Arkansas…my grandparents and parents were huge music lovers. We used to travel around and watch gospel groups and bluegrass groups, and we would go to these tent revivals, that might last all night long. And I thought…how do I tap into all the sights and sounds of the things I grew up as a kid, and put that in a song? And how do we make it fun and swampy…something that feels like you’re going to this tent revival.

With “Heart of God,” it’s one of my favorite songs, because I love the message in it. When I was growing up as a kid in church, I had this completely other idea who I thought God was. I thought He just sat on his throne all day with his arms crossed, like a judge and jury (laughs), shaking his head at everything I did wrong. I didn’t truly understand who God was, or what He had done for me, until I started having my own children. And you realize when you become a father, you think about how many chances you’re willing to give your child and how much you love them. And when you hear the stories and you know what God’s done for us and the love that He had for us, there’s no way I can send my son to go die for the sins of the world. But God loved us so much that He did that, and Jesus chose to do that because he loved us. And for me, when I think of God now, that’s the Heart of God. It’s one of those songs that everyone can relate to at some point in their life.

Here’s the link to Zach Williams’ site:

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima