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 1973–91, 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.”