The name Tim Williams might not be familiar in country music circles—yet—but millions know his face and are already fans of the handsome, affable singer/actor they know from TV commercials as the Trivago Guy.
“Music has become my passion,” Williams tells Sounds Like Nashville calling from Germany to discuss his new collection, Magnolia City. “The album is being released on Sept. 28. Magnolia City is an old nickname for Houston because there were so many magnolia trees everywhere.”
Though currently residing in Berlin, Williams is a native of Houston, and grew up listening to Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Don Williams and the Urban Cowboy soundtrack. “My mom took me to see that movie and we lived in Houston so all that was happening around Houston and out at Gilley’s in Pasadena [Texas],” Williams says of the 1980 film starring John Travolta and Debra Winger that jump started a national love affair with country music, mechanical bull riding and line dancing.
“I urged my mom to take me to Gilley’s because I wanted to ride the mechanical bull that John Travolta rode in the movie,” Williams confesses with a laugh. “And then right outside of Houston, there’s a little town called Simonton. They have the Simonton Rodeo every Saturday night and my mom used to take me and my friends out there and we’d go two-stepping during my early teenage years. That’s when I really got involved with country music. Before that I was listening to Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Van Halen and ZZ Top and all those boys.
Like most young guys, he was attracted to the raucous energy in rock n roll, but it was country music’s ability to tell stories that made him fall in love with the genre. “I listened to the stories in country and I was like, ‘Wow! I love books and I love stories’ and country music is a story to me,” he says.
On Magnolia City, Williams shares his own stories, writing or co-writing every song on the album. He has a gift for penning songs rich in imagery and filled with unbridled emotion. He brings each song to life with a warm, whiskey-tinged voice that sounds like a man who has experienced much in life and is anxious to share a few tales. “The single, ‘Magnolia City,’ and album are about my longing for Houston, my family and the sixteen years I’ve spent living in Berlin,” he says. “It’s about missing Houston, missing my friends. There’s a line in ‘Magnolia City’ that says ‘I want to get stranded on James Coney Island.’ James Coney Island is a hot dog place in Houston. It’s my favorite hot dog place in the world and it’s only in Houston. [It says] ‘I want to have a night at the Hideout.’ The Hideout is a club that only exists during the livestock show and rodeo. There’s a bunch of little nuances in that song.”
The songs on the album cover a lot of emotional territory for Williams. “There are a few songs about an ex. There’s always ‘ex’ songs,” he acknowledges. “There’s a song about my father, which I think is probably going to be the next single. It’s called ‘If I’d Known You Then.’ I think it relates to everybody, men and women. If you knew your father back when he was in high school and you were the same age, would you have been his friend?”
“I found my niche of where I’m going and what fits my personality,” he says of the album’s direction. “What fits me more are these stories. They come easy if you sit back and relax and ponder life for a second—where you are at and how you got there.”
The way Williams got to where he is today involves talent, perseverance and a bit of wanderlust. He knew early on that he wanted to pursue a career in the entertainment industry and though music was his first love, he first found doors opening for him as an actor. He landed roles on My So-Called Life with Claire Danes, Law & Order, The Sopranos and other shows, as well as in films such as Valkyrie, Ninja Assassin, The Apparition and Labyrinth of Lies.
“Growing up I said, ‘I’m going to be some kind of an entertainer whether it was an actor or a musician,’ and acting came first,” says Williams. “I was living in New York City. I was offered a lead role shooting in Germany. I’d never been to Germany and I liked the part for the film. It was a romantic comedy. So I came over here and met a girl while I was shooting the film. She had nothing to do with the film, but she was an actress. She was a friend of a friend. I met her and fell in love so I decided to stay.”
Though the romance didn’t last, they remained good friends and he developed a thriving career in Germany on such shows as Samt und Seide & Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten. In 2013, he auditioned for a voiceover job for the German-based travel company Trivago that became a series of television spots. Soon his face was everywhere and Williams became the company’s popular spokesman. “It’s been 50+ commercials now. For me living over here in Germany I thought, ‘Okay I’m going to do one and then that’s it and nobody’s really going to see it,’ but then the thing took off and went viral and it was a wake-up call,” says Williams, who recently returned from shooting additional spots in South Africa. “I’m happy and I’m surprised. I can’t believe that it’s happened. Trivago has helped me tremendously and I hope I’ve helped them in one way or another by putting their name out there. I’m so happy and grateful to be that guy.”
He’s also grateful to have finally fulfilled his dream of recording a country album with Magnolia City. Williams worked with producer Norbert Hamm, known for producing Herbert Gronemeyer, Germany’s top-selling act with more than 13 million sold. They traveled to Nashville to record, marking Williams’ inaugural visit to Music City, and he fell in love with it. “I want to buy a house in Nashville. It’s an amazing city,” says Williams, who has two sons, Chase and Jack, that he’s hoping to bring to Nashville for a visit. “The people are so kind, generous and loving. It feels like I’m home when I’m there. Coming from Houston, I grew up with this whole southern hospitality. [People saying] ‘Yes and no ma’am’ and ‘thank you,’ and that’s all I got when I was there. Everybody treats everybody fairly and kind and the houses are beautiful.”
During his stay in Nashville, Williams loved soaking up the Music City nightlife. “I went to local restaurants around the area that I was staying,” he says. “We went down Broadway and I remember one particular moment. I was walking by this club and there was this woman. She was an older woman and she was jamming on that guitar like nobody’s business. I said, ‘Let’s go in here,’ and they just played some country like I’ve never heard before, some incredible old country music and original stuff as well. It just blew my socks off.”
Williams also had high praise for the musicians he worked with in recording the album, and were thrilled they enjoyed recording his songs. “I felt like that was Nashville was the place to get the roots feeling that I wanted and we found the right guys. The musicians were unbelievable! They literally listened to the song one time and went into the studio and played it. And one of the guys said to me, ‘This is the kind of country we need to be playing. This is country. This is the old school stuff,’ and I said, ‘That’s what I wanted to hear!’ That’s all I needed to hear from those guys.”
In releasing Magnolia City, Williams joins the ranks of other actors who are also musicians, such as Dennis Quaid, Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon and Billy Bob Thornton to name a few. He acknowledges there’s sometimes a bias against actors who make music. “It’s like there’s a boundary and there shouldn’t be a boundary,” he says. “We’re open and we’re entertainers. We have these passions we want to follow. It is difficult because people look at you one way of course. All these people in North America these days know me as the Trivago guy. Everybody sees me on their TV every day, so I have to cross that boundary of being that guy and then showing this other side I have. If they accept it, they accept and if they don’t, it’s like Dennis Quaid said, ‘At least I’m going to go out there and give them a hell of a good show,’ and I’m going to have fun doing it.”