Zach Williams knows what it’s like to fail. But he also knows how it feels to be rescued.
Prior to the success of 2017 breakout hit “Chain Breaker”, the Grammy Award-winning artist spent the better part of two decades toiling in musical obscurity. Real and honest in his failings, Williams had a “come to Jesus” moment in 2012 that completely altered and shifted his life. Through God’s abundant grace, He had found his true calling.
Williams remembers those troubled days well. So much so, that his latest album Rescue Story serves as a reflection of where his life was 20 years ago to now. He hopes his story will speak to the hearts of those who are struggling to get through each day.
I recently spoke to Williams about his road to deliverance, the pressure to keep recording hit songs, and how God can use anything to write your ‘rescue story.’
You have an interesting story in that you were raised in the church amongst a warm and loving community but like so many young, inspired musicians you set out on a journey to become a rock star. Can you share a bit about that?
Yeah, I grew up in a very Christian home. My dad led worship and my mom sang on the worship team with him. We were in church every Sunday and every Wednesday. My parents really planted that seed and that foundation in me at an early age in my life. Honestly, I get to talk about it a lot, but I know I had it not been for that I wouldn’t be here. I hear people talk about it all the time, train your child up in the ways of the Lord. And that was it. Had it not been for their relationship with God and just serving as the example that they were to myself and to others, just the example for Christ that they were, I wouldn’t be here and wouldn’t have these opportunities.
I wouldn’t have known that there was a God or anything to come back home to. But like most kids, we’ve all got to find our way. We think we know more than our parents. And that was the case for me. When I turned 15 or 16 years old, everything that I’d been taught, everything I knew about who God was, the world kind of creeps into everything. I started experimenting with drugs and alcohol. I started running around with the wrong crowd. By my senior year of high school, I was making some really bad decisions. I lost a basketball scholarship and I found myself jumping out of high school the last semester of my senior year. I got a GED and I went to work for my dad’s construction company.
I thought, well, here it is, my life’s over. What am I going to do now? I just remember that my parents never judged me. There were never ultimatums from them. They always supported and prayed for me. I can look back and say, man, how hard was that for my dad and mom to see me live this other life. How can they stay strong in their faith? They continued to pray for me, and they knew God had a plan for my life.
They used to pray Jeremiah 29:11 over me. And I remember, trying to understand what that actually meant. Just recently, I really discovered that they spoke this over me as I was growing up. So, in my late twenties and early thirties, here I am, I’ve been trying to be this rock star and live this new lifestyle that I had created for myself. All I’ve ever done is fail, stumble, fall and hit dead end road after dead end road. Here I was, 30 years old, walking through some of my darkest times because I was trying to figure out what was I doing with my life. I just found myself at the end of my rope.
The only thing left was to just cry out to God. And that was it. I remember coming home from a tour in 2012 when I was 33 years old. My wife had just had our second child together. It was our fourth child as a family. And we were in the middle of deciding whether to make this work or to get a divorce? Are we going to try to salvage this marriage and this relationship? And I just remember that God really showed himself to me on that tour. I came home and I remember falling on my hands and knees on my bedroom floor, not even knowing what I was praying. I didn’t know what I was saying, but I just knew that I was sick and tired of this life.
I was asking God to just come and save me from this life I had created. I just remember feeling this immediate relief and for the first time, not feeling like I had somebody sitting on my chest. It was like this breath that I could breathe. And I realized that I don’t have to go back to that life anymore. I can do anything I want to in life. I never turned back and wanted to go backwards. God started revealing Himself to me and showing me this plan that He has had for my life all along. Part of that was I’m going to live through some dark days and I’m going to see some things that a lot of people don’t see. But now that I’ve gone through it, I’m realizing there’s a lot of us that do live through that and they go through that. Here’s a cool thing. He’s allowed my story to be something that I can share with people and to show people the goodness of who God is and what He can do with somebody’s life.
Your first faith-based album Chain Breaker was a resounding success as it won a Grammy Award. That’s a tough act to follow. In fact, many artists struggle from the pressure of trying to follow up a highly successful debut. What was the catalyst for your second album Rescue Story?
I think if it would have been up to me, I would have probably put so much pressure on myself that I would have totally messed this whole thing up. But I remember very early in the process the guy who produced my first record, Jonathan Smith, he produced this second record as well. We became really good friends. He really gets me and understands who I am as an artist, especially the sound that I want to have. I remember the very beginning of the writing process for this record. I had all these expectations that I put on myself and felt that we have to do this, we have to do that. It’s got to be this, and it’s got to be that. And I remember just talking with Jonathan one day and he was saying, ‘Here’s the deal man. Just come in here every day and write the best songs for that day, what’s on your heart. What God’s sharing with you? What is God doing in your life? This season that you’re in, if we do that enough times, you’re going to have enough songs for this next record.’
That took a lot of pressure off of me and I stopped trying to make something that I had made before. I didn’t want to record a duplicate of “Chain Breaker” or “Old Church Choir.” I just wanted to write the best songs for that day. And I remember I was really in a season of reflecting on what God had done in my life. I think sometimes as a songwriter it’s easy to rewrite the same song over and over. There are some songs on this record that really just kind of go back to years ago when I wasn’t living for God, but God was in the moment and I didn’t even see it.
All these songs are stories, situations that I have lived through. I tried to write songs that are just as raw and honest as I am. I just want to be on a real level with people, where everybody knows that I’m not a perfect person. I struggle just like the next person and it’s only through God that I am where I’m at today. Hopefully there will be people out there that want to listen to my music and want to hear these songs. My hope is that God will continue to use me as a vessel to get those songs out.
For me, Rescue Story is a concept album in that each song works together as if it’s a chapter from a book. Was it your intention to do that?
It became my intention as the songs were developing. We wrote close to 40 songs for this album. I kind of had a goal in mind when we started on the record. I decided I wanted to write 50 songs. And out of those 50 songs I’m sure that there’s going to be a handful that are good. There’s a bunch more that I still feel like are pretty solid. But these 10 that we chose felt, like you just said, they felt like they belonged. This is a season of life that I wanted to share and talk about. These all feel like they could book end off of each other. There were some others that I felt were pretty good songs, but it just didn’t feel like you fit with the 10 that we chose. Hopefully, I’ll save the ones that didn’t make the record and maybe put on another some day.
Is there any one song on Rescue Story that you feel is the cornerstone or the key song on the album?
I feel like it is “There Was Jesus,” the one that I did the duet with Dolly Parton. I felt like that song was strong before it had her voice on it. I feel like her voice just added something that felt almost like a heartstrings part to her voice. I think we can all relate to that song because everybody has been at some place in their life where they’re looking back on a moment that they didn’t see God in, but there was somebody out there praying for them. Through all of these things, all these broken times, God used that to become this thing that now you can talk about in your life. For me, “There was Jesus” is that song. In all the waiting, in all the searching, through all of the things I that I have done, there was Jesus. When I didn’t know He was there, there was Jesus.
After people have listened to Rescue Story or perhaps they have seen you out on tour, what is the one thing you would like audiences to get out of the experience? What is your greatest hope for the album?
In general, my message for people that come to my show is the freedom that there is in Christ. The freedom to be who you are and who God made you to be. There’s nothing that you can do that’s going to earn or win your salvation and there’s nothing that can ever be done to take that away. For me, God knew who Zach Williams was when He made me. He knew who I was. He knew the things I was going to struggle with, and He knew I couldn’t be perfect. So, He sent Jesus to die on that Cross for me. And I think it’s the same for everybody else out there that’s coming to my shows. When they see that, my hope is that realize that it’s all right to mess up, it’s alright to not have it all together. There’s so much freedom in living and just knowing that no matter what you do God still loves and forgives you. If your life has not been changed yet, tonight can be the night that your rescue story starts.
Watch a video of Zach Williams and Dolly Parton performing “There Was Jesus” at the 2019 Country Music Association (CMA) Awards: