Zach Williams’ basketball dreams faded but music career bloomed – Orlando Sentinel

Singer Zach Williams will be back on stage at Rock the Universe, the Christian-music festival at Universal Studios, this year, and he’ll have company in the form of an 11-piece band.

“I’ve got a horn section and backup singers and kind of everything that I’ve always wanted in a band, and, so, it’s a lot of fun. It’s high-energy,” Williams said. “Obviously, it’ll be a night of worship and I’ll share my story and there’ll be ministry involved, but it’s also a lot of fun.”

Rock the Universe is a three-day annual event with multiple in-park concerts split over Friday and Saturday evenings.

Williams’ set will be a little different from last year in order to incorporate songs from his “A Hundred Highways” album, which was released in September. He’ll spend much of 2023 touring with dozens of stops ranging from Seattle to Syracuse, New York.

“I love playing music,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t know what I’d be doing if I couldn’t play music.”

Being a musician was not his ambition as a child, Williams said. He wasn’t drawn to the guitar until he was 19 years old. He didn’t sign a record deal until he was 38.

“My dreams were to play pro basketball, I thought I was going to be in the NBA,” said Williams, now 41.

“I made some poor decisions in high school and got in trouble and ended up losing a couple of Division I scholarships to play basketball,” he said. He dropped out of school, got his GED certificate, then worked for his dad’s construction company for a while. Next up: junior college, where he was set to play basketball again.

“Then I tore my ankle up and didn’t play my first season,” he said. “While I was sitting out that first season of basketball, I taught myself how to play my roommate’s guitar and took a creative- writing class in college and kind of fell in love with music and songwriting.”

That began his musical journey on a bumpy road that included a 10-year stint with a Southern rock band, he said.

“I had just gotten really caught up in a pretty rough lifestyle, just kind of a cycle, every day, kind of living for the moment and for yourself. … Drugs and alcohol and just excess of partying, and I got to a place where I knew if I didn’t change, I was going to lose my family,” Williams said. “I ended up giving my life to the Lord in 2012.”

Williams, a native of Pensacola, grew up in Arkansas, where he started working at a church.

“I kind of decided I was done with the touring and that life. And then when I started working at church, you know, God had other plans for it,” he said. “It’s been kind of a whirlwind for the last six years.”

That includes meeting a producer, moving to Tennessee, signing that record deal and writing a song that Dolly Parton agreed to sing on with him. “There Was Jesus” was released in 2019 and won a Grammy for best contemporary Christian music performance/song. Jonathan Smith and Casey Beathard were also writers on the song, which was certified as platinum and topped Billboard charts for Christian airplay and Christian adult contemporary.

After hearing a demo of “There Was Jesus,” Williams’ wife suggested that Dolly Parton would be a good person for the record.

“Everybody kind of was like, ‘Are you serious? Like, you can’t just call Dolly Parton.’ And I was like, well, find out who manages or find out how we could get the song to her,” Williams said.

“It was about a two-month process of finding out how to get her the song. … Once we finally found the right person, she agreed to listen to it,” he said.

“She told me that the day she got a song and heard it for the first time, she said, ‘I never even finished the song. I got about halfway through the chorus and knew that the song was special,’ and she wanted to be a part of it,” Williams said.

Parton and Williams performed “There Was Jesus” during the 2019 CMA Awards, and the duo made a music video together.

“I just felt like the song was a good song. And I thought what she brought to it really took it to the next level,” Williams said.

Friday’s Rock the Universe concert lineup includes performances by Skillet, Tauren Wells, Rend Collective, Bethel Music, Evan Craft and Katy Nichole.

Saturday’s lineup features Matthew West, Anne Wilson, Dante Bowe, We Are Messengers, Cain and Williams.

Rock the Universe is an after-hours, separate-ticket event. There are several ticket options, ranging from a one-night admission to a three-park Rock Your Weekend Ticket with park-to-park powers that includes days at Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and Volcano Bay. Any ticket includes one of the event’s Sunday morning worship services. For tickets or more information, go to

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