Don Williams, 1939–2017

DonWlms-HitsI have been remiss in not acknowledging the life and work of Don Williams, who died in September. Don had literally dozens of hits on the country charts in the 1970s and early ’80s, many of which crossed over onto the pop charts, all the more remarkable for their spare, simple production (in contradistinction to the lush ‘countrypolitan’ heritage of Nashville in the ’60s).

One is tempted to wonder if the political turmoil of the 1960s had something to do with the success of the ‘Gentle Giant’, as he was labeled, and his laid-back balladry and sentimentality. But then the ’60s were also notable for the ‘Folk Boom’ and the soft sounds of folk-derived popular music, and in fact that’s where Don Williams got his start: he was part of a trio called The Poco Seco Singers, with Lofton Cline and Susan Taylor:

The trio made records for Columbia, two of which – I Can Make It With You and Look What You’ve Done – became top 40 pop hits in the US.  But the group failed to build on that success and returned to playing in noisy dance halls and bars, which were anathema to Williams. He said later that “I swore I’d never paint myself into that corner again”, and the trio disbanded in 1971. (Dave Laing, The Guardian)

Don Williams ended up in Nashville, where he was signed as a writer by Allen Reynolds for Cowboy Jack’s publishing company. I would guess that it was Allen Reyolds (and likely Don himself) who was responsible for the tasteful, laconic style of production that illuminated Don’s gentle voice without overwhelming it, placing the emphasis on the lyrics, which Bill Friskics-Warren of The New York Times describes as “plain-spoken material extolling the virtues of romantic commitment.” He continues,

Singing in a warm, undulating baritone, [Don Williams] made marital fidelity not just appealing but sexy — as exciting, in its way, as the themes of cheating and running around that defined the classic honky-tonk music of the 1950s and ’60s. . .

“I Believe in You,” a gently cantering ballad in a similarly intimate vein written by Roger Cook and Sam Hogin, spent two weeks at the top of the country chart and crossed over to the pop Top 40 in 1980. In the song’s chorus, after cataloging a series of ephemera in which he professed little or no faith, Mr. Williams, with unabashed sincerity, sang:

But I believe in love

I believe in babies

I believe in Mom and Dad

And I believe in you.

His unfussy aesthetic — at once simple and, in its elemental way, profound — would go on to influence, among others, the country singer-songwriters Alan Jackson, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Brad Paisley and Kathy Mattea.

Dave Laing in The Guardian adds,

He once described his music as “intensely simple”, but while his love songs were charming and often sentimental and his warm baritone voice was compared to that of [Jim] Reeves, he also found admirers among the rock music fraternity: both Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend recorded versions of his songs. . .

And, quoted by Kristin M. Hall in The Washington Post,

“Don Williams offered calm, beauty, and a sense of wistful peace that is in short supply these days,” Kyle Young, chief executive of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, said in a statement. “Everyone who makes country music with grace, intelligence, and ageless intent will do so while standing on the shoulders of this gentle giant.”

Don Williams was not an exciting performer. It was said that he did not really enjoy the roadwork that consumes so many country singers. I remember hearing from someone who had heard Don sing live (it might have been John Lincoln Wright), that he was meticulous at reproducing the style and sound of his records in concert, to the point that you could close your eyes and hear no difference. But the songs he chose, and the sincerity of his voice, still captivated listeners, both on record and live. Here he is only a few years ago, in 2013, singing “I Believe in You,” sounding appealingly just like the Don Williams of 1980:

/CL

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One Response to Don Williams, 1939–2017

  1. Stephen Kilbride says:

    The turbulence and cultural upheaval of the 1960’s/70s caused many to seek solace in music that trumpeted simple values. Same reason for the popularity of the many ‘rural sit-coms’ on TV. RIP Don Williams

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