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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Don Williams--An appreciation

Don Williams' hit "Amanda"

A tall man (six-feet, one-inch) with a soft singing voice, Country Music Hall of Famer Don Williams, who died yesterday at 78, further lived up to his moniker “the Gentle Giant” with a long list of major country hits mostly spanning the mid-1970s through the mid-‘90s.

Chart-toppers like “’Til the Rivers All Run Dry,” “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend” and “Tulsa Time” were marked by Williams’ signature vocal intimacy on top of clean, understated arrangements, and as music historian John Alexander notes, “did not follow trends.”

“Don Williams knew that his strength was in simply performing a song without any bells or whistles,” says Alexander, who bought every album Williams ever recorded.

“He was truly a song’s best friend. He knew how to pick a great song. He had some incredible hits that other artists may not have taken a chance on like ‘Good Ole Boys Like Me,’ ‘Maggie’s Dream,’ and ‘I’m Just a Country Boy.’ And some of his album cuts, like Mickey Newbury’s ‘I Don’t Think About Her No More’ and the buried gem ‘Where the Arkansas River Meets Oklahoma’ by Wayland Holyfield, are definitive versions of incredible songs. And Don's version of Bob McDill’s ‘Amanda’ is a bona fide country classic--and on a personal note, I named my oldest daughter for it.”

Also author of the forthcoming Johnny Cash—The Man in Song, Alexander adds, “Don was also a great songwriter himself, having written some of his own hits like ‘Say It Again’ and ‘The Shelter of Your Eyes.’ In fact, he wrote a song called ‘Down the Road I Go’ for Johnny Cash. Cash didn’t record it right away so Don did it. A few years later, Cash recorded it, and I heard that Don was thrilled to finally have Cash cut it. He was a quiet, gentle and humble man. What a tremendous loss for country music.”

Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Kyle Young said, in a statement, “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.”

Just last May a tribute album, Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams, was released. It starred such top country artists as Alison Krauss, Garth Brooks, Jason Isbell, Brandy Clark, Lady Antebellum and Trisha Yearwood.

“I’m so honored to be part of Gentle Giants--A Tribute to Don Williams,” Bentley said at the time. “He is such a great person, such a huge influence on so many people, and an icon in country music.”

The album was produced by Garth Fundis, who had produced many of Williams’ recordings.

“With this record, I’m reminded of what our old friend Jack Clement used to describe as ‘magic,’ that intangible essence that happens in a recording studio where a special song meets just the right voice--accompanied by the best musicians--and voilà!” said Fundis.

Prior to his country stardom, Williams was a member of the hitmaking late ‘60s pop-folk group the Pozo-Seco Singers. As word spread of Williams’ death, numerous country artists issued statements, among them Larry Gatlin.

“Every time--repeat--every time we did a show with ‘The Quiet Crooner’ Don Williams, I stood in the wings and listened to his show,” Gatlin said. “He was not just a great singer, he was a song stylist and true artist. And, most importantly, he was a very nice man.”

But artists from different genres acknowledged their debt to Williams, including blues musician Keb’ Mo’, who appeared on the Gentle Giants tribute album, and alt-pop/rock band Lambchop, which recorded “I Believe in You” on its 2008 album OH (Ohio).

“My God, Don will live forever for this world and the next,” said Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner via email. “His touch was pristine.”



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