A Don Williams Sampler

by M.C. Antil on September 9, 2017

In the 1970’s, the traditional rhinestone country music the world had come to know and love for decades – a honky tonk/my-girl-left-me-and-stole-my-truck brand of popular music that relied as much on raw emotions and cheatin’ hearts as it did on rhyme, rhythm and twang – had become all but passé. What began replacing it was a sort of sugary, billowy country-sounding pop that was lush, richly produced and given to an almost epidemic level of pun-making, phrase-turning and contemporary pop culture references.

However, at the same time, even as this Kenny Rogers and Eddie Rabbitt-fueled wave of redneck pop was exploding on country stations across the U.S., there likewise began percolating, right there in Nashville, a relatively small but influential group of songwriters, musicians and singers who began trading heavily on such things as classic literary references, poetic imagery and tiny, calico-and-denim slices of working-class life; among them, Merle Haggard, Tom T. Hall and Don Williams.

Such artists had grown up listening to the obligatory Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb and Bill Monroe records as kids, but as teenagers had begun buying and finding themselves influenced by the rock ‘n roll of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly and the socially conscious, if not activist lyrics of folk pioneers like Phil Ochs, Tim Hardin and, of course, Bob Dylan. That’s why so many of them turned out cutting their teeth playing not just honky-tonks, barrooms and county fairs, but hootenannies, coffee houses and folk festivals.

So, as I was sitting here this morning, pounding away at my keyboard and reflecting on the remarkable Walter Becker, who died just days ago, I read of the passing of Williams, one of the most remarkable voices I’ve ever known. I was so moved that – and I mean this literally – I audibly gasped when I turned to the obits and saw his name atop the page.

Therefore, and given the fact that I’m chest deep in other projects, including my Becker tribute, rather than spelling out exactly why I feel Don Williams is an artist for the ages, or why I was so taken aback by his death, I figured I’d just led the man’s music speak for itself.

And – as an artist of such spare and such carefully chosen words – my guess is that’s exactly how he’d want it.

RIP, Mr. Williams. Godspeed. And thank you for the indelible imprint you left on my musical psyche, my musical consciousness and, especially, my musical heart.

To hear this one, a tune written by the then-boyfriend of the Pozo Seco Singers’ lead singer, Susan Taylor (a Texas high school girl from Corpus whose voice seemed custom-made for a well-crafted song of lament, and who Williams asked to join his new folk group immediately upon hearing her sing), is to understand, at least in part, from whence Williams’ relationship to lyrics arose, along with his stark and fiercely minimalistic approach to song interpretation.

Good Old Boys Like Me
Maybe the most literate country song ever written, bar none. In fact, once I heard this Bob McDill masterpiece in the hands of Williams – and, make no mistake, there is no other word to describe it – my relationship to country music as a whole, and my appreciation for Williams in particular, would never, ever be the same.

I Believe in You
Williams only crossover hit is, quite simply, an evocative and atmospheric ballad that, somehow and with passing of the years, only seems to grow in relevance, insight and meaning.

If I Needed You
The one and only time I ever sang in front of a paying crowd, for a country-tinged musical revue at the Landmark Theater in my hometown, this magnificent little Townes Van Zandt prayer of devotion is the one I chose to perform – mistakenly thinking that Williams’ harmony part would be a simple as he somehow made it seem. All I can say is, even now, thank God I chose to sing a duet.

Tulsa Time
One New Year’s morning, a friend of mine and I were sitting around nursing our hangovers. The Chicago radio station we had on at the time – a tiny, low-powered AM country station – was conducting a call-in vote to determine its Song of the Year. The competition came down to Kenny Rogers’ dog-eared Coward of the County and this throbbing little gem. I told my buddy that, as country fans, it was our damn duty to do whatever it took to make sure Kenny Rogers did not win. As a result, he and I spent the next hour or so drinking coffee, popping aspirin, eating runny eggs, redialing the station’s switchboard, and trying like hell to disguise our alcohol-ravaged voices. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Chicago radio station WJJD’s 1980 Song of the Year.

‘Til the Rivers All Run Dry
I first stumbled upon this stunningly lyrical composition when it showed up on Pete Townsend and Ronnie Lane’s wildly uneven, yet still fascinating 1977 collaboration, Rough Mix. I had no idea it was a country tune, much less that Don Williams co-wrote it. All I knew was that it was a raw, honest and deeply emotional pledge of eternal love, one Lane apparently chose to record as a solo artist just days after being told he’d developed a form of multiple sclerosis that would, in a few short years, end his life.

Another poetic and deeply visual moment of Bob McDill songwriting brilliance that Williams manages to instill with a level of humanity and decency that makes this marriage of song and singer seem as though ordained by the Almighty himself.
I’ve held it inward, Lord knows I’ve tried.
But it’s an awful awakening in a country boy’s life 
to look in the mirror in total surprise
at the hair on my shoulders and the age in my eyes. 

Maggie’s Dream
For my money, the single most under-appreciated song in the Don Williams canon; one in which form follows function and the medium, particularly in his hands, does indeed become the message. Because to hear Williams’ soothing baritone, and to behold the deep and abiding sense of peace that emanates from the record’s production, is to inhabit Maggie’s loving and giving heart and, if only for a few minutes or so, walk inside her shoes as she starts yet another day of tips, small talk, and returning home to an empty house. Because only then — and thanks to Williams’ deft touch, his empathy and the gentle kindness he conveys — can you begin to understand the delicate high-wire act that Maggie and millions like her are compelled to perform every day; balancing the reality of their solitary existence, the resignation they now wear like a faded shirt, and the eternal sense of hope that continues to compel them out of bed each morning, flickering like a candle in the half-light of their still-longing hearts.

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