If you’re a fan of Christian music and you haven’t heard of Arkansas native Zach Williams, then you may want to check your music sources. Seeming to appear out of nowhere, Williams has stormed the Christian Music charts with his songs “Chain Breaker” and “Old Church Choir,” but the road to success hasn’t always been an easy path. What could have ended as a sad story became a tale of redemption thanks to a simple book and a song on a radio. Worship Musician caught up with Williams at his home in Nashville, TN to hear the full story.
[Zach Williams] I grew up playing sports, and it was my dream to be a professional basketball player when I got older. I thought that would be my ticket to the big city. I moved off to college to play basketball, and ended up tearing five ligaments in my ankle. When I realized I wasn’t going to be able to play basketball I started looking for something else to do, and my roommate had a guitar. I started teaching myself how to play guitar, and picked it up easily and started writing songs. But I also fell away from the Lord. I look back now and feel that the Lord had been calling to me all my life. I think it scared me, and I ran from it and got involved in drugs and alcohol. I took the music into the secular world and played in a Southern rock band for several years. We toured all over the place, just living a reckless lifestyle. Then, in 2012, I gave my life to the Lord and turned everything around. I ended up in the Christian music business, and it honestly wasn’t something I set out to do, but it was definitely the plan that God had for my life.
[WM] Growing up, what kind of music did your family play around the house?
[Zach] Funny that you ask about that! My parents just came into town yesterday, and we got to talking. I have a bunch of my dad’s old records that I’ve had for the last several years. We were going through the records last night and he was pulling out Keith Green, Phil Driscoll, Russ Taff, Petra, Mylon Lefevre, and The Pat Terry band. They are all Christian bands from the 70’s and 80’s that my dad grew up listening to. I remember, as a kid, the record player was always playing one of these albums. I can put on some of the old Petra records and still sing those songs. Growing up working for dad’s construction company, he always listened to a Christian radio station at our job sites. Wherever we were working, whether in the country or the city, he would find a Christian station. It drove the construction guys crazy because they wanted to listen to Rock and Roll. It bothered me because people would make fun of my dad, and I thought, “Man, why are you making us listen to this?” He would always joke and tell everybody that if they got to work before he did, then they could pick the radio station. So, he always got to work before everybody.
I really feel like God used my dad and used that music. Even when I turned 20 years old and started running from the Lord and was living in the bars, playing Rock music and traveling around. My dad had me in church every day on the job site listening to KLove, Air One, or American Family Radio. For all these years, it was like God had this plan. When I had the opportunity to start working at a church about 5 years ago and led worship for the first time, these songs were ingrained into my DNA like the back of my hand. And now I’ve come full circle, getting to play that music and be part of that genre.
[Zach] In 2012 my wife and I had gotten to one of the low points in my life. My band was leaving on a month-long tour of Europe and Spain. My wife and I were about to get a divorce. She was pregnant with our daughter, and we had three other kids. I was living hard with the alcohol and drug problem. We had been invited to this church in our hometown and started going to it, and things started changing. I began thinking I could get straightened out. But I left for the tour, and as soon as the plane landed I was back into my old ways, just living this reckless lifestyle.
While I was in Spain we were in a sprinter bus, and our bus driver was scanning radio stations one day. I was reading a book about Greg Allman called “My Cross to Bear,” the story of the Allman Brothers Band. It is about his struggle through the years with drugs and alcohol while being the front man for a Rock and Roll band, and about finding spirituality. He believed in the Lord, and it was a cool book. It’s funny how God uses things that you don’t even know He’s using. He used that book, and a song by Big Daddy Weave.
Our driver was scanning radio stations while I was reading. I took my headphones off to talk to the band guys, and then “Redeemed” by Big Daddy Weave comes across the radio. We were in Spain. I remember thinking, “What is this?” I knew it was a Christian band and a Christian song, but I had never heard it before. I remember stopping, and it was like God spoke to me in that moment and told me there was a way out if I would turn over these gifts that He had given me and use them for Him. It was like He was telling me, “I see you in a different way than you see yourself.” It was a glimmer of hope for me, and I called my wife that day from the hotel in Spain and told her I was coming home after the tour, and that I was quitting my band. And that’s exactly what I did.
I came home from the tour and asked my wife to forgive me. I hit the ground for the first time and fell on my hands and knees and asked God to come live in my heart. It was the first time in my life I could really breathe and not feel this weight of having to live up to things I had created for myself. I put music down and didn’t play for six months while we started going to church.
Then, I started getting the itch again to play music and started writing Christian music. I went into a studio and recorded songs I had written on my own, just to know that I could still write and play music. Not long after that the church that we were attending invited me to start singing there. I remember the first time I stepped on stage and led worship on a Sunday. It was the first time I ever felt that I wasn’t a phony, faking it, or trying to be somebody else. I told my wife, “I think this is what I’m supposed to do.”
Soon after that we got involved in prison ministry through our church. I played some songs I had written at a prison one day, and we shared our testimony. About 25 women gave their lives to the Lord. It was just this “Ah ha” moment where everything clicked, and I felt like this was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I felt God saying, “This is what I’ve called you to do. This is the gift I’ve given you, and therefore I let you live and gave you a story to tell.”
Our church then invited me and my wife to help launch a campus and I worked there about three years. Then I had the opportunity to come to Nashville and start writing music. A little while after coming to Nashville, Jonathan Smith and Mia Fieldes and I wrote “Chain Breaker” together. A few months later, when the record label heard “Chain Breaker,” they offered me a record deal. It was one of those life changing moments. That was a little over a year and half ago now, and we moved to Nashville in May of last year. God has orchestrated every little thing, from the release of “Chain Breaker,” to “Old Church Choir,” and the places He’s put me in. It’s all just Him. God is doing what God does. A lot of times we get in the way of that. I wanted to be a Rock Star and was coming to Nashville playing clubs and bars trying to kick the doors in and get a record deal. The second I stopped and started living for the Lord and allowing him to do his thing. It was almost like he said, “Are you ready because I’m ready now and we’re going to do this?”
[WM] Has the success of “Chain Breaker” on the Christian music charts surprised you?
[Zach] Yes it has. I just got off the phone a while ago with Jonathan, the guy I wrote “Chain Breaker” with, and we’re preparing to start writing the new record next week. When we wrote “Chain Breaker,” I remember the day that we wrote it thinking it was a special song. I started praying that God would use this song all over the world. But honestly, in the back of my head, there was doubt. I thought that the song might be too simple, too country, or too rock. I thought there was no way Christian music was going to accept this song, and a new artist that they had never heard of. To see fans and people get behind this song and rally around it, that’s what God does. He is a Chain Breaker. When you have something to say that everybody needs to hear and they and get behind, it just makes it so much better. Even though I’ve been surprised, blown away, humbled, and honored to be a part of it, at the same time I know it’s just God, doing what He does.
[WM] When do you think the new album will come out?
[Zach] We’re hoping for this fall. But also, if we get to the fall and don’t feel it’s ready, then we’ll push it back. That’s one of the cool things about the label. They know I want it to be good, and if it’s not ready they’re going to allow me to make that decision. I have a lot of respect for them for that.
[WM] What guitars and music gear are you playing now?
[Zach] I play several different Gibsons. I’ve got an old Gibson Blue Ridge acoustic that I’ll write on that my dad gave me it’s a 1967. It’s the one on the cover of “Chain Breaker” that says Grace on the back of it. I take that with me a lot because it’s the old beater guitar and I’ve written a lot of songs on that over the years. I’ve got a Gibson True Vintage J45, a True Vintage Hummingbird, and then I just recently bought a Gibson Dove. I’ve played Gibsons most of my life.
I don’t use any special amps or gear. I’ve got a DI and a tuner, and that’s about it. I’ve always wanted a Hummingbird, and I was able to get one of those this year. When I found out this past year we were opening the Dove Awards, I had been wanting a new guitar, and my wife said, “You should get a Gibson Dove because you’re playing at the Dove Awards.” I was like, “Okay! If you’re giving me permission to buy another guitar, I’m definitely buying it.” We got that guitar, and honestly, it sounds so good! The sustain on the Dove is so great, you can hit a chord, walk away and come back, and it’s still ringing. It’s crazy how different models and woods sound unique, even though they may look the same. I play my Hummingbird when I’m with the full band because it cuts through more. The J45 and Dove sound great acoustically because the J45 has more low end and the Dove is more evenly balanced. But then my old Gibson is great for writing because the wood is so old and seasoned. . . it’s just got that old tone.
When I was growing up we would always change strings and put the best strings on before we went to the studio. On this last record, for a lot of the acoustic parts, we wanted the strings to be just as old and dead sounding as possible. It gave so much more of the texture and character on this record that we were looking for.
[WM] “Old Church Choir” has over 12 million views online, and “Chain Breaker” has over 18 million views. Did you ever expect to achieve something like this?
[Zach] No, I really didn’t. It’s nuts. I recently found out “Old Church Choir” was going into its 20th week at number one. The only other artist with a longer song at number one was Mercy Me with “Word of God Speak” in 2003, and it went twenty-three weeks. But this is the longest number one of any solo artist, ever. It blows my mind to think that it’s possible. For one, “Chain Breaker” went fifteen weeks, and I just remember thinking there is no way I’ll ever write another song that will do what “Chain Breaker” did. When “Old Church Choir” came out we were hoping that the song would get number one and connect with people. It felt like a big summer song and it just had a fun, upbeat message in it. Then, to see that it’s surpassed “Chain Breaker”. . . we’ve been watching this and saying, “Is this really happening?” The song that is going to radio this month will be the third single off our record. It’s my favorite song on the entire record, and I’m so excited about it. I just can’t wait to see what God has planned for it.
[WM] Any stories from the GRAMMYs® or Dove Awards?
[Zach] The Dove Awards were so cool! I had the opportunity to play with The Oak Ridge Boys and Travis Greene. When they asked me to open the Dove Awards, the first band I ever remember seeing as a kid was The Oak Ridge Boys. My grandparents would take us to Gospel/Bluegrass festivals through the hills of Arkansas, and I remember seeing The Oak Ridge Boys at a theater called The Arkansas Traveler. One of my favorite songs as a kid was “Elvira.”
I wanted to unite all of these genres of music together at the Dove Awards. With Travis Greene being an up and coming Gospel guy, and The Oak Ridge Boys being an older Country/Gospel act, I wanted to merge those acts together and re-write “Chain Breaker.” We invited them, and it all came together. Joe Bonsall, one of the head guys for The Oak Ridge Boys, told me a story. He said, “I’ll be honest. I was a little late to the party. I didn’t hear “Chain Breaker” until it had been out for several months. I was in a hotel in Dallas one day and I was listening to CMT, and they had your video on rotation on a Gospel Sunday Countdown. I just remember hearing this song, and I called Bill Gaither and said, “Have you heard this song?” and Bill was like, “Yeah, we’re fixin’ to record it.”
Joe said it was the first time he had been excited about a song in a long time, and to hear someone like that tell you that story when you’ve been a fan of theirs as a kid is amazing!
[Zach] When I was in my Southern rock band I sang “Midnight Rider” every night for seven years. We did a lot of Allman Brothers songs, and they heavily influenced our music. My dad had two younger brothers that were big Bob Seeger, Bad Company, Greg Allman, and Steve Miller band fans. Greg Allman was a huge influence for me as a songwriter and singer. Reading that book while I was in Spain was a turning point.
For a lot of people, they don’t understand how a Christian artist can put out a cover of a secular song, but for me it was more than that. God used a book I was reading about Greg Allman to put me in this place where He had my attention, and He put a band on this radio station that I didn’t know with a song that spoke to me. Had I not been in the mindset I was, in reading about the devastation of Greg Allman’s life and what drugs and alcohol had done to him, I don’t think I would have been in the place where I was ready to accept what the Lord had for me to hear.
When we were preparing to cut this deluxe record, I said I really want to record “Midnight Rider” as a tribute after Greg Allman passed away, and the label was like, “Okay, let’s do it.” I put a story on the inside sleeve of the record to let people know why I did it. I knew there would be a lot of people in Christian music that didn’t get it. I believe that giving myself the opportunity to explain why I did it has made people more accepting, because that’s who I am and that’s who I was. I’m still the same guy with this southern sound that’s never going to change. But God has changed my heart, changed my desires, and changed the things I like and love. I wanted to pay respect to someone that was a big influence on my early music. It was a highlight to record an iconic southern rock song. I was thrilled!
[WM] Can you speak about the Haiti Mission that you and your wife recently returned from?
[Zach] We went over with an organization called Hands and Feet Project, started by Mark Stuart and Will McGinnis from Audio Adrenaline. I met Mark about a year ago, and he invited me over to Haiti to check it out. We were finally able to put something together and called it the Chain Breaker Mission Trip, and we had a bunch of people sign up. It’s totally different than any mission trip I had ever heard of. You’re not going over there and working all day until dark and giving a handout, money, and then leaving. What you’re doing is going over, and the money you’re spending seeds their organization to build more orphanages. They have what they call Econdos, where it’s basically a resort that they’ve built in the mountains of Haiti, and they’re employing Haitian people. They’re giving them jobs and creating opportunities to go to work and provide for themselves. Will has started a company called Haiti Made where, after a certain age, these kids in orphanages can go to work and are taught a trade. Currently, they have about thirty people employed at the resort, and approximately fifty people employed at their company. It was neat to be a part of and go over there and be in that world to see what they’re doing.
[WM] What are your plans for 2018?
[Zach] I’m excited to see what God has planned for this year. We’re out on The Road Show tour, starting the 16th of February. After that tour is over I’ll be doing my very first headline tour, taking out a band by the name of Carrollton, and a new guy named Jamie Kennett. We’re super excited about it, and I think it’s going to be a big year.
Truly it has been an astonishing year and a half for Zach Williams as he turned his life around with the help of God. From his music, to he and his wife’s prison ministry and Chain Breaker Mission Trip to Haiti, Williams is ministering to others in need. Through his upcoming tours this year, new singles, and a new album later in the year, I’m hopeful we will see even more outreach from Zach. God is a Chain Breaker, and Zach Williams is a living example of this.