There are few American classics these days, but Don Williams is certainly one of them. With a warm hickory baritone that balances strength with a gentle concern, he draws his listener into the intimate world of an old friend, someone who cares deeply about you and the quality of your life … and who will always offer a hand when you need it.
“I don’t think there’s anything we have to do daily in our walk that’s more important than how we deal with each other,” Williams confesses. “To me, it’s everything. So when you’re looking for songs, if they can express that, then you’ve found something special.”Without a doubt Williams, whose hits with the likes of Good Ole Boys Like Me, I Believe In You, Love Is On A Roll, Amanda and Tulsa Time, have always had a knack for finding songs that speak directly to people’s hearts.
“When you first start making records, all the songs are challenging and there’s so much to talk about,” Williams begins, explaining the challenges of maintaining one’s artistic commitment a quarter of a century into a solo career. “But after you’ve done it for a while, it’s hard to revisit the same places and still be believable.”
“The longer you do it, the harder it becomes to do things that aren’t just an echo of something you’ve already done. Of course, when you do lock into it, the fact that you’ve lived all those years and seen so much allows you to bring a lot of things to the song you couldn’t have when you were starting out.”For Don Williams, trying to address the simple pleasures and the things that should last has always been his stock in-trade. And he’s also always been something of an iconoclast in a town known for its assembly line approach to making music.
Williams recalls, “Back when I was on JMI Records several industry people really liked what I was doing but they also said it would never work … it’s too laid back.”What those people forgot is that country music is built on real emotions, real songs, real moments in people’s lives. Don Williams is a subtle master of all of those things, deftly inhaling tenderness and concern into some of the best lyrics and melodies ever created.
And his commitment to the songs never flags. “What it is, is simple: I want the best songs possible. I don’t look at songs as just singles or who the publisher is – I look at what it’s trying to say, how it feels. Then when they’re picked out, I want to treat them all the same. I want to make them as special as I can.”
“Ideally, whether I’m in the studio or on stage, I’m totally into the story, or if there’s no story, that emotion, that feel of what I’m doing at that moment is the only thing I want to experience.”
“After a day in the studio or a show, the energy I’ve used just wears me out and if you’re not 100% there, that’s even worse. There’s nothing more trying than not being completely there!”
For the man who got his professional start with the Pozo Seco Singers, who hit with Time in the mid-60s, there’s no greater sin than not being completely committed to the songs he’s entrusted with. As he says with an earnestness that stops you in your tracks, “There’s just the emotion. There’s the right emotion – and then it’s over.”
Simple. Direct. To the point. Exactly the things that have made Don Williams’ music so compelling – and that’s helped him build an international audience in places one can’t imagine country music ever being more than a curiosity. Yet for Don Williams, he’s popular in far-flung places like Zimbabwe, Australia, England, Monaco, Finland and Brazil as he is in his native America.
“I couldn’t have picked anything for the South African culture or the English culture,” Williams explains. “We’re all made of the same stuff – and when we’re dealing with one another, we’re all on the same plane. I’ve been fortunate that when I’ve picked material, there’s always been a universality to what I want to sing and what other people feel.”
“It’s pretentious to think that you can speak for anyone else, but I work very hard to align myself with the average person who’s never been in a studio or sat down with a number of writers to hear their songs. Those are the people I make music for, not Nashville so much, and I think it’s served me well.”
Enlisting the help of his accomplished road band, Williams creates the kind of music that speaks to everyone. There’s a broken-in familiarity among his players that can’t be created merely by charts and musicians – and those lived-in grooves fit Williams like the custom-Stetson hat he’s know for.
“Everybody knows from me on the road that when they’re doing their job well, I hear nothing,” Williams says, explaining the subtle musical web his band spins. “It’s the emotion of what we’re doing is all that I hear. Nothing sticks out. Nothing jars me.”
“That lets me get to the inside of the song. When that is working right, there’s nothing but that (song’s) feeling, and I can focus completely on that. If you can create that, then you’ve done a good job.”
On February 23, 2010, the Country Music Association announced that Don Williams was to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Don Williams has called this “the biggest honor of my life”. After battling through several sell-out shows at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium during the previous week, Don was unable to attend the Medallion ceremony due to bronchitis. His manager, Robert Pratt accepted the Medallion on Don’s behalf athe ceremony celebrating his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame on Sunday October 24, 2010.