Don Williams - Hank, Tennessee, and Don
by Geoffrey Himes
** Editor's Note: Don Williams passed away this week after a short illness. To honor his legacy, we're re-running this article from Issue #19 of the original No Depression print magazine. It originally appeared in 1999.
In most cases, when you drain all the energy and tension from a song, you end up with easy-listening, middle-of-the-road pabulum, or perhaps pretentious, artsy twaddle. When Don Williams removes all the strain from a song, however, you get something else entirely.
When Williams strips away the "look-at-me, see-how-hard-I'm-working" ego from the vocal, the song becomes utterly transparent. Suddenly you can gaze right through all the vocal technique and studio production and see the song's characters as clearly as if they were sitting in the kitchen with you. Call it Zen country.
Listen to the way Williams sings "Till The Rivers All Run Dry", a #1 country hit in 1976. Over Lloyd Green's dobro and his own acoustic guitar, Williams murmurs, "Till life on earth is through, I'll be needing you," in his drawling Texas baritone. It's a plea of desperation, but it's delivered in an eerie calm, as if Williams were simply recognizing a law of nature as inevitable as water running downhill.
There's no hint that Williams wants to make the woman need him back, nor is their any hint that he's trying to rein in his own desires. The vocal has none of the slow-moving smugness you'd hear from, say, Kenny Rogers, or from Rogers' alter(native)-ego, Richard Buckner. Instead, there's a selflessness, a willingness to face up to things the way they are without puffing up one's own importance. And, paradoxically, Williams' very selflessness, his refusal to strike a pose, allows the inner core of his personality to come through more powerfully than it does in the music of more extroverted singers.
"It all has to do with honesty," Williams says. "If somebody's saying something to me in real life and it's too over-the-top, I feel like it's a put-on; it doesn't ring true. The same thing's true in music; if the singer's trying too hard, I'm suspicious.
"Even if the song is well-stated and the emotion is definitely real, it still doesn't work for me if it's too over-the-top. They're dealing with it in a way that I would never address it. I can take the same thing and find another way of saying it that's not over-the-top, that's more comfortable. To me, that's more honest, but bear in mind, I'm just going by my own barometer."
Williams owes his unique style to a mix of folk and country. From his early days on the folk circuit, Williams draws the understated, quiet style of personal confession that avoids country's barroom bluster. From his childhood love for country, he draws the plain, direct talk of working-class folks and thus avoids the pretensions of singer-songwriter folk.
This uncanny fusion helped pave the way for such folk-country stars as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Emmylou Harris, Kathy Mattea, Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett, but by the time Carpenter was having her early-'90s hits, Williams had fallen from the charts, and then off the major-label rosters. After 52 top-40 country hits (including 17 that went to #1) from 197391, Williams found himself in the wilderness of indie labels.
Now he's back in the major-label ranks with I Turn The Page, which came out Oct. 27 on Giant Records. Working with songwriter-producer Doug Johnson (Giant's Nashville label chief) and his road band, Williams started recording the album on his 59th birthday last May. The results are not much of a departure from what Williams has been doing for the past three decades; once again the country-folk arrangements frame a voice so relaxed, so guileless that resistance seems pointless.
"I think my style is all a result of my voice," Williams admits reluctantly. "There are times I cut something and give it everything I've got. I think I'm going way over the top with it, but when I listen to it a month later, it still sounds laid-back. That's just the way I am; I can't help myself. I'm not one way one place and another way some place else. I'm pretty much the same wherever I am. And that's the way I like to be."
On Harmony, the 1976 album that contained "Till The Rivers All Run Dry", the cover photo shows Williams' long sideburns fanning out like bell bottoms on his already weathered Gulf Coast face. The tan, felt brim on his Stetson cowboy hat is curled up at the sides, and two hatband tassels lie on the front brim. Today, those sideburns have spread down the jaw into a bristly dark beard marked by a stripe of white hair on each side of his chin. But he still sports the same style Stetson hat and the same rumpled face.
Williams' sound hasn't changed that much either. "For me," he insists, "there's not much difference. I still go through the same procedure, the same approach; I believe in the same principles as when I started. It's not something I contrived. Whatever the song calls for, I try to give it a performance within the boundaries of my abilities that is believable and that I can feel good about. I can feel it inside when I'm there."
Williams co-wrote just one of the dozen songs on the new album, and he says he listened to 200 songs for every one that was chosen. He wound up with one by alt-country writer Kevin Welch ("Something 'Bout You"), three written or co-written by producer Johnson, two from Dave Hanner (one co-written with his longtime duo partner Bob Corbin), and two co-written by Music Row giant Gary Burr. The one tune Williams had a hand in writing, "I Sing For Joy" (a collaboration with Johnson and Burr), is a very personal dedication to his wife of 38 years, Joy Bucher.
As always, Williams has the best luck with songs that wrap common-sense advice up in a folksy aphorism and a childlike melody. A Tony Arata song suggests that only love distinguishes us from the "Handful Of Dust" we were once and will soon be again; a Burr/Don Schlitz tune advises us to let go of the past and focus on what happens "From Now On". And "Take It Easy On Yourself" could be a personal manifesto for Williams, the most laid-back of troubadours.
"I don't think anyone's really come up with a new thought in a long time," he claims, "so you can just rule that out. The best anyone can do is come up with a melody that's in keeping with what people are interested in at the time and lyrics that say whatever you have to say in today's terms. Beyond that, it's really just whether the music and the lyrics are making the same emotional statement. As far as what's being said, is it direct enough? I don't like to decipher anything. I like it to be very precise, very clear and very direct."
If the music hasn't changed much, the music industry has. "Oh, the business has changed tremendously," he laments. "When I started, the artist and the producer picked the singles and the songs on the album, and the label had little to say about it. They promoted whatever the artist and the producer picked, and that was the end of the story.
"But now it seems the record labels consult with radio people about what songs to promote, which is completely foreign to me. It affects the music a great deal. You have people out there who have a preconceived idea of what kind of things are successful. They get themselves into that kind of mentality where they're only looking for what fits those criteria, and they're afraid to even fool with the rest of it.
"I think it's very unfortunate, because I would like to see the day again when radio stations would have enough faith in their local market that they'll play something if the audience responds to it, whether or not it does anything nationally. I'd like radio to pay more attention to their local market rather than the national charts.
"I grew up in Texas, and we heard songs all the time that weren't hits anywhere else but they were huge hits in Texas. I think that's great. If radio opens up to the local audience, that audience will definitely tell radio what they think. But when you have just a handful of people programming stations all across the country with little feel for what those local markets are all about, you cut the heart out of it."
Williams was born in Floydada, Texas, and grew up in Portland, near Corpus Christi on the Gulf Coast. He grew up loving music, not just the honky-tonk sounds of inland Texas but also the rock 'n' roll coming from New Orleans up around the coast. He was singing as a little kid and got his first guitar as a teenager.
"I never patterned myself after any one artist," he insists, "because there aren't many artists that I'm a fan of everything they do. I've always been more of a song person. I love good songs, and I don't care who does them. But I can tell you who I was a fan of growing up: Johnny Horton, Buddy Holly, Brook Benton, Fats Domino, and Little Richard."
Williams had vocal groups in high school and in the Army, and he got some encouragement from Holly's producer, Norman Petty. But it wasn't until he had moved back to Portland after the Army, married his first and still current wife and worked several years as an oil rigger and truck driver that he got back into music.
He hooked up with Portland singer Lofton Kline in a country-folk duo called the Strangers Two. Williams and Kline met Susan Taylor at a local hootenanny, and the three harmonizers became the Pozo-Seco Singers. They cut a single in Houston, got picked up by Columbia and scored a hit with "Time" in 1965.
"The original concept for the Pozo-Seco Singers was we were going to be more folk-country," he explains. "Susan was the big folk fan. I appreciated Dylan, Ian & Sylvia and Gordon Lightfoot, but I wasn't into the real get-down folk like Susan was. Even then I was coming more from a rock 'n' roll and country standpoint. I loved the energy of rock 'n' roll, but at the same time, I was listening to the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride. The first time I heard Elvis was on the Opry.
"Our first single, 'Time', was not accepted that well by country radio. It wound up being far more successful in the pop world. That was where our first hit was, so that's where everybody expected us to stay. I'd say 99 percent of what we did was college concerts. We had about a five-year run of it. I personally wasn't interested in getting it down to working clubs and putting up with all that -- people drinking and talking about the little gal onstage. So when our success had gotten down to that point, we just decided to let it go."
Williams went back to his day jobs for a year and a half, but the music itch soon got the best of him. He moved his family up to Nashville and got a job working for rockabilly pioneer Cowboy Jack Clement, who had a studio, a publishing company and an indie label. Allen Reynolds was Clement's right-hand man, and Williams got a job running the office and screening tapes for the publishing arm. Even though the label, JMI Records, was doing mostly rock 'n' roll, Reynolds agreed to cut some of the country material Williams was writing.
JMI released Williams' first solo single, "Don't You Believe", in 1972 and scored his first hit with "The Shelter Of Your Eyes" in 1973. When Williams broke into the top five with "We Should Be Together" in 1974, it was obvious he needed a bigger record company, and he signed with ABC/Dot. Reynolds stayed involved for awhile, but soon Williams was producing himself and then co-producing with Garth Fundis, an engineer from the JMI days.
The key creative figure in those early days, though, was Bob McDill, a songwriter who was tuned into exactly what Williams wanted. Though Williams wrote a handful of songs for every album, it was McDill who came up with such memorable hits as "Come Early Morning", "Amanda", "(Turn Out The Lights And) Love Me Tonight", "She Never Knew Me", "Say It Again", and "Good Ole Boys Like Me". His melodies as well as his words seemed as unassuming and plain-spoken as the singer.
"Bob and I are basically from the same neck of the woods," Williams points out. "He grew up around Beaumont and I grew up down the coast near Corpus Christi. A lot of the music we listened to was exclusive to Texas, because a lot of hits in Texas weren't hits anywhere else. We listened to B.J. Thomas, for example, for years and years before he became a national artist. Plus there's a strong Mexican influence in Texas and a strong German influence, too.
"When we first got together, he really didn't want to hear anything about country music; he was going to be a pop-rock writer and artist and was very dedicated to that. When I started recording some of his songs and having country hits, he softened a lot on that. But neither of us grew up just listening to country music. We loved the Platters, the Diamonds, Teresa Brewer and all those pre-rock 'n' roll people. We loved Johnny Horton and Johnny Cash. When Fats Domino and Chuck Berry started doing their thing, we were right in there.
"When Bob writes one that really hits me, it really hits me. He has a different way of saying things that appealed to me, and the way he put chords together was real different for country music at that time. I dare say I would not have had very much of a career without Bob McDill."
"The Band's Music From Big Pink really turned me around," McDill told New Country magazine in 1995. "Any fusion between country and rock before that had been taking the worst of both genres, making a double-dumb record. But The Band took the funkiest great grooves with country melodies, harmonies and lyrics about rural life, which I understood perfectly. So I said, 'This is something I need to be doing.' If you look at a lot of the early Nashville things I did -- the early Don Williams songs -- they had a lot of Band influence on them."
Williams hit his stride in the mid and late-'70s, making some of the greatest records of that much-maligned era. His professions of romantic love ("Lay Down Beside Me"), pastoral simplicity ("I'm Just A Country Boy") and romantic pain ("Some Broken Hearts Never Mend") seemed all the more genuine for never trying too hard to win us over. And though he belonged to neither the Urban Cowboys, the Outlaws nor the Countrypolitan camp in Nashville, Williams consistently hit the top of the charts.
"Around the time of my third album," Williams recalls, "I started getting wind that I was really having a lot of success in the UK. We didn't have any distribution over there at all, but my records were selling great just as imports. So I went over and played a show at a country festival at Wembley. Shortly after that, Anchor Records took over the distribution for us and they really drove it home."
England's Country Music People magazine voted Williams Artist of the Decade in 1980, and he remained so popular there that he recorded An Evening With Don Williams before large, appreciative audiences in England and Wales in 1993. Among the fans who had gushed their admiration backstage were Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend. Clapton, in fact, recorded Williams' composition "We're All The Way", and had a top-30 hit in 1980 with Williams' 1978 country chart-topper "Tulsa Time" (penned by Danny Flowers, who played guitar in Williams' band at the time the song was written). Townshend, meanwhile, recorded "Till All The Rivers Run Dry".
Williams' name also has surface on occasion amidst the careers of many of America's finest country and folk artists. John Prine and Kevin Welch have each written a couple of songs for him, and Williams has sung duets with both Kathy Mattea and Emmylou Harris. The latter duet, an incandescent version of Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed You", is one of the peak moments in Williams' career.
"I was on tour in Texas with Waylon Jennings and Emmylou," he remembers. "I watched Emmy's show one night in Houston and it inspired me to write a song called 'Crying Eyes'. It wasn't about her, but it was her approach. I wrote it on the way up to Fort Worth and played it for her in the dressing room. She loved it and said we ought to do that as a duet, so that's how that started. So we recorded my song, the Townes song and a couple of McDill songs, but we only released 'If I Needed You'. It's just a great song."
Mattea owes a special debt to Williams, for two of her top-20 hits, "Come From The Heart" and "Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying of Thirst)", were originally non-single album tracks for Williams.
"Don Williams was the first major artist I ever opened a show for," Mattea remembers, "and I learned a lot from him. He has great taste in songs, and he has a real sense of integrity. He knows who he is and hasn't wavered from that. I love that his style is really honest and simple. That appeals to me, because I'm not about vocal acrobatics; I'm about a song well-phrased and well-framed. As with Emmy, the whole country-folk thing seemed very natural to him; it wasn't forced, it was just where he fit."
After a dozen years with the ABC/Dot/MCA combine, Williams moved to Capitol Records in 1986 for two albums, and then to RCA in 1989 for three discs. He continued to have top-10 hits, but after 1991 the hits dried up, and in 1993 Williams found himself without a major-label deal for the first time in 20 years. He signed with the independent American Harvest label and released a live album, a collection of cover tunes and a disc of new songs. Finally another Nashville major label decided to take a chance on Williams.
"They were inducting Roger Cook into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame," Williams recounts, "and I agreed to sing 'I Believe In You', which Roger wrote. It's the biggest record I ever had, and it's one of the finest songs I've ever had. Later I found out that Doug Johnson from Giant Records had been at the ceremony and decided he wanted to sign me. I was actually negotiating another record deal, but we had a meeting with him, and his enthusiasm just captivated me."
Williams' appearance at the Hall of Fame induction was a very rare social event for him. In a town where hobnobbing at industry cocktail parties is a way of life, the bearded singer is a notorious recluse, preferring to stay home on his Ashland City ranch with his wife of 38 years whenever he's not actually singing or recording. Apparently, his shy, soft-spoken character is not just a stage persona; he's even more that way offstage. That's quickly obvious in an interview situation, where one has to patiently coax answers out of a man reluctant to talk about himself.
"I've always taken the attitude that I don't have to know enough about Henry to buy a Ford," Williams says. "If I like the car, that's enough. It should be the same way in music. It has never been my number-one priority to get on TV or on magazine covers. If I had to choose between having a good, solid home life and running after all the glitz, it's pretty easy for me to say what I would choose.
"I'm not going to name names, but it becomes very evident when people get to a point in their career where they'll sacrifice everything and anything to be the biggest, to be a household name everywhere. I always think that's a bit unfortunate when that happens. There's no doubt in my mind that I've made the right decision. I tell you one thing, if I'd approached it any differently, I'd have had a much shorter career, because I'd have burned out."
Geoffrey Himes has contributed to both the Country Music Foundation's Encyclopedia of Country Music and the Rolling Stone Guide to Jazz & Blues Albums.