Don Williams’ death on Friday at age 78 resonated throughout the country music community. Revered as one of the finest singers of the genre, the “Gentle Giant” was known for his smooth, mellifluous vocals. Listen to his sublime phrasing in the 1980 country Number One “I Believe in You,” an Adult Contemporary crossover hit as well. That song, and nine other equally marvelous recordings, make up Williams’ 10 essential tracks.
Williams’ easygoing proclamations of love had a way of feeling timeless, as though their sense of calm was rooted in the knowledge that the universe would always come around. “‘Til the Rivers All Run Dry” took that theme from implication to outright declaration, as Williams vowed his love would last as long as the sun was in the sky. Reuniting him with songwriter Wayland Holyfield, with whom he shared a co-writing credit for the first time, the song – at once spare and lush with its warm electric guitar leads – opened the 1976 album Harmony. “‘Til the Rivers All Run Dry” demonstrated just how far Williams’ influence extended, particularly in the U.K., where the Who’s Pete Townshend and the Faces’ Ronnie Lane showed their softer sides with an earnest cover of the song on their Rough Mix collaboration later that year. J.G.
One of the greatest country songs of all time, this sweet, nostalgic tune from Bob McDill, a Number Two single in 1980, offers glimpses of vintage Southern life. There are complicated memories of a father “with gin on his breath and a Bible in his hand,” cherished nights listening to legendary deejays John R. and Wolfman Jack on the radio and wisdom imparted by “those Williams boys, Hank and Tennessee.” What this Williams boy does with those memories is simply magical, and although the song also name-checks Thomas Wolfe, who wrote You Can’t Go Home Again, Williams’ delivery suggests that home is anywhere you leave your heart. S.B.
“I Believe in You” was the biggest record of Williams’ career – a country chart-topper and platinum album title track that went Top 10 Adult Contemporary and Number 24 pop. It was also explicitly, if subtly, political. The song, written by Roger Cook and Sam Hogin, lets Williams shake his head at a host of hard life transitions and American troubles – from getting old to religious fundamentalism to “the high cost of getting by.” In opposition to all that nonsense, Williams avers that “I believe in love…I believe in you.” That “you” typically gets heard as Williams’ pledge of gratitude to a lover. But heard back in the immediate run up to Election Day 1980 (or, for that matter, heard today), “I Believe in You” feels far more expansive, as if the “you” Williams wants most to believe in is us. D.C.
The “Gentle Giant” toughened up on “Tulsa Time,” the closing track from the opening side of 1978’s Expression LP. Driven by a gritty, funky rock & roll beat that sounded more like it was out of Waylon Jennings’ playbook than his own, Williams reveled in songwriter Danny Flowers’ hard-luck tale of trying and failing to make it in the big city. Pushing his baritone to a higher-than-normal register, his voice felt like it might just flutter away on the joyous, hand-clapping chorus. This was Williams at his most versatile, a fact that didn’t go overlooked by the country music establishment: “Tulsa Time,” his eighth Number One single and soon-to-be favorite of Eric Clapton’s, was named ACM Song of the Year, while the CMA gave Williams the Male Vocalist award —the only time he would earn either honor. J.G.
After Williams’ breakthrough in 1974, he returned the next April with the release of You’re My Best Friend. The album’s title track brought him a second Number One song and marked the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership with songwriter Wayland Holyfield. It was the first time Holyfield topped the U.S. charts in a career that would see him pen hits for everyone from Charley Pride to Anne Murray to George Strait. “You’re My Best Friend” was quintessential Williams – a plaintive, loping ode to marital bonds with a gentle, soothing string accompaniment. The song also marked Williams’ true beginning as a commercial juggernaut, as it topped the Canadian country chart and cracked the U.K. Top 40, while the album’s next single, “(Turn Out the Light and) Love Me Tonight,” also went to Number One three months later. J.G.
Williams had his 13th Number One hit with Bob McDill’s “If Hollywood Don’t Need You,” released in 1982 as the third single from Listen to the Radio. It’s a classic trope in country songwriting that persists even today: the narrator is pining over a woman who’s ditched him for the bright lights of Tinseltown. He’s feeling a bit stuck (“Things back here they never change at all,” he admits) and unable to enjoy himself without her (“‘Cause all that I can think about is you“), but Williams sings it with an air of calm, sad acceptance. He wishes her the best and leaves an offer on the table that he’ll have her back if things don’t pan out in California, asking her to shake Burt Reynolds’ hand if she ever meets him – funny, considering Williams had his own Hollywood moment with Reynolds in 1980’s Smokey and the Bandit II. J.F.
Williams sang so softly and easily, and his records were arranged so sparsely, that listeners are all but forced to attend to every word. Strange then that “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good,” long beloved as an ordinary man’s earnest and humble morning prayer, hasn’t been more widely recognized for what it is: country music’s greatest expression of all-too-human hubris. Williams comes off as just a regular Job here, accusing God of perhaps forgetting him, suggesting specific plans to replace His mysterious ways, even flattering the Lord a little bit (“It would be easy for you!“), the better to get Him to do Don a solid and make this day a good one. Slyest of all is that Williams’ down-on-his-knees delivery leaves us endorsing this everyday sacrilege – and singing along. D.C.
In spite of its breezy tune, light-as-a-feather production and Williams’ toasty-warm vocals, this song offers two verses about lost love that also let Williams croon with a little tear in his voice. Of the songwriters he scored hits with most often, two – Bob McDill and Wayland Holyfield – were there early and often, sometimes penning tunes together. This was, however, Holyfield’s first solo write to reach the top for Williams, which it did in May 1977. Actor Telly Savalas had a sizeable hit with it in Switzerland, Austria and the Netherlands, and others who’ve recorded it include the Bellamy Brothers (to a reggae beat) and the Cox Family (as a bluegrass number). S.B.
A key to Williams’ success with country audiences, and also a reason he never crossed over more than he did, was that while he had clear affinities to the dominant pop-country sounds of his time – Outlaw, in the late 1970s; Urban Cowboy, in the early Eighties – he always stood out as his own man, doing his own no-fuss thing. He was a crooner, closer to Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold than Hank and Lefty, and a domesticated country lover man, à la Reeves and Arnold, too, but he scuffed up the confident smoothness of their vocals with his own gentle brand of cautious hesitation. And as on this Roger Cook and John Prine co-write, he smoothed out his down-home drawl with poppy Buffet-style rhythms and a delivery that convinced you could do as well, at least until you try. He was sui generis. Nobody has ever done Don Williams like Don Williams. D.C.
Written by Townes Van Zandt, this moving ballad was first heard on Van Zandt’s 1972 LP The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. Nine years later, Emmylou Harris recruited Williams for a duet on the song, which she included on her LP Cimarron. While it may never have been intended as a duet, Williams’ smooth baritone and Harris’ gentle folk-country vocal blend beautifully, creating one of the most romantic pairings in the country canon. A Number Three single in the U.S., it also topped the country chart in Canada. Covered most recently by husband-and-wife duo Joey + Rory, it has also been cut previously by Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, Doc Watson and many others. S.B.