May 27, 1939
September 8, 2017
Known as country music’s “Gentle Giant” for his warm baritone and laid-back ways, Don Williams was a major country hitmaker and international ambassador.
Scoring at least one major hit every year between 1974 and 1991, Williams had an impressive fifty-six chart records. Fifty of these reached the country Top Twenty, and forty-five made the Top Ten; seventeen went to #1. In 1978 he was the Country Music Association’s (CMA) Male Vocalist of the Year, and his recording of “Tulsa Time” was the Academy of Country Music (ACM) Single of the Year. In 1980, readers of London’s Country Music People magazine named him Artist of the Decade.
“In giving voice to songs like ‘Good Ole Boys Like Me,’ ‘Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good,’ and ‘Amanda,’ Don Williams offered calm, beauty, and a sense of wistful peace that is in short supply these days. His music will forever be a balm in troublesome times. Everyone who makes country music with grace, intelligence, and ageless intent will do so while standing on the shoulders of this gentle giant.”
— Kyle Young, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum CEO
Born May 27, 1939, in Floydada, Texas, Don Williams learned guitar from his mother and performed in various country, folk, and rock & roll bands as a teenager. He first found success in the 1960s as a member of folk-pop trio the Pozo-Seco Singers. The group had six pop chart-making records during 1966-67, the best known being the hauntingly nostalgic “Time.” The act broke up in 1969, and Williams tried several nonmusical jobs before traveling to Nashville to make another stab at music.
There Williams found an ally in Jack Clement, who signed the lanky Texan to his Jack Music publishing company as a writer. Working with Clement and songwriter-producer Allen Reynolds, then new to Nashville, Williams recorded publisher’s demo recordings. When other artists proved reluctant to record his songs, the three men decided that Williams should record them himself.
Don Williams, Volume One, his first album, appeared in 1972 on Clement’s JMI Records. It contained several chart singles, including Williams’s self-penned “The Shelter of Your Eyes” (#14, 1972) and Bob McDill’s “Come Early Morning” (#12, 1973) and “Amanda” (#33, 1973). Don Williams, Volume Two included Williams’s own “Atta Way to Go” (#13, 1973-74) and Reynolds’s “We Should Be Together” (1974), the singer’s first Top Five hit. Recordings like these established his style, noted for its mellow yet masculine vocals and often pensive song material.
In 1974, Williams scored his first chart-topping record, Al Turney’s “I Wouldn’t Want to Live If You Didn’t Love Me.” It launched a string of fifteen straight Top Ten hits, including songs by numerous top-tier writers: Wayland Holyfield’s “You’re My Best Friend” and “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend”; McDill’s “(Turn Out the Light and) Love Me Tonight,” “Say It Again,” and “It Must Be Love”; and Danny Flowers’s “Tulsa Time.” The singer’s winning streak also included the Holyfield-Williams composition “Till the Rivers All Run Dry” and the Williams originals “Lay Down Beside Me” and “Love Me Over Again.”
During the eighties and early nineties, Bob McDill continued to supply Williams with first-rate material, most notably the literary and evocative “Good Ole Boys Like Me.” Other hits came from leading songwriters such as Roger Cook (“I Believe in You” with Sam Hogin; “Love Is on a Roll” with John Prine), Dave Loggins (“We Got a Good Fire Goin’”), Rory Bourke and Mike Reid (“I Wouldn’t Be a Man”), and Dennis Linde (“Then It’s Love”; “Heartbeat in the Darkness” with Russell Smith).
Williams’s hits helped establish Allen Reynolds not only as a songwriter but also as a producer who would go on to guide talents such as Crystal Gayle and Garth Brooks. Williams eventually co-produced his own albums with Garth Fundis, also destined for success with a wide range of artists.
As of 2010 the prolific Williams had released more than thirty-five albums. The Best of Don Williams, Volume II and The Best of Don Williams Vol. III have been certified gold, and I Believe in You has been certified platinum. His video collection Don Williams Live has attained gold status. After switching from JMI to ABC-Dot (1974-78), Williams moved in succession to MCA (1979-85), Capitol (1985-89), and RCA (1989-92). Later releases appeared on American Harvest, Giant, RMG, and Intersound/Compendia. Williams was one of the first country artists to make a music video, for 1973’s “Come Early Morning.”
From the outset, country radio embraced Williams warmly. Former MCA Nashville president Jim Foglesong vividly remembered his promotion director calling to say, “You know, we have an artist that we almost don’t even have to promote to radio. We just shipped Don Williams’s new single, and we’re calling stations this morning to make sure they received it. . . . Everybody is already playing it! It’s that way with all of his releases!”
Onstage, Williams steadily built a large and loyal following. In addition to his domestic audience, he won fans worldwide, selling records in the British Isles, Europe, Latin America, and Australia. He is one of the few country stars who has toured in Africa; his DVD Into Africa draws upon his performances on that continent.
Among country’s major acts, Don Williams was perhaps the least enamored of his success. Commenting on his reputation as a superstar, he said, “The only way that I would be comfortable with that sort of title is when people tell me that my music has helped them through some stage in their life. . . . But as far as that whole approach to special treatment and people carrying on over you, I never have been too big on that.” Avoiding music industry parties, he gave few interviews and deliberately limited his tour schedule so he could spend time on his farm with his family. Williams was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010. He died in Mobile, Alabama, on September 8, 2017, from emphysema. — John Lomax III and John Rumble
— Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press.