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.