“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.