“I think I oughta say something about that song now,” Don Williams would tell concertgoers between the tunes he’d play while seated on a stool, guitar in hand. “I’ll think of something and say it later.” The joke being that country’s “Gentle Giant” would rarely get around to saying much, preferring instead to let the lyrics, and his warm, blanketing baritone do the talking, with his onstage motion mostly limited to moving effortlessly from one familiar hit to the next. Williams, who died in 2017 at 78, will be paid tribute at a trio of concerts Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center as his touring band and the Nashville Symphony will back special guest performers including Trace Adkins, Sara Evans, Tracy Lawrence and songwriter Victoria Shaw on dozens of Williams’ best-loved songs. The concerts are curated by longtime Williams disciple Keith Urban, who will deliver a special message to audiences via video.
“It’s such a hopeful voice,” Alison Krauss said of Williams’ distinctive Texas drawl in an interview coinciding with And So It Goes, the LP that brought him briefly out of retirement in 2012. “Like everything good, everything figured out, everything kind. It’s just like nothing else.”
“I’ve always felt very responsible to what I do; I always wanted to feel really honest,” Williams himself said in 2004, while also acknowledging his role as a country-music ambassador throughout the world, with a fervent fan base in many countries throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. “[My fans], to the greatest extent, are some of the most oppressed people in the world. To me, that is absolutely the highest of compliments. In Ireland, Africa and India, I probably have more fans there than I do anywhere in the world. I don’t think they’ve ever really perceived me as country. I’m just an artist.”
Here are five reasons Don Williams and his music matter:
His exceptional track record
During his career he scored more than 50 Top Thirty singles, 45 Top Ten singles (the majority of which made the Top Five), 17 chart-topping hits and a pop Top Thirty entry with “I Believe in You,” making the reticent singer among the most popular country acts of the Seventies and Eighties. He also earned six consecutive CMA Male Vocalist of the Year nominations, taking the trophy in 1978. He received the ultimate honor in 2010, as he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
His role as an audio-visual pioneer
Beyond Williams’ undeniable status as romantic balladeer, he made history as one of the first artists in country music to support a current single with a high-concept music video. The creative vision of producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement, Williams’ clip for the Bob McDill-penned “Come Early Morning” was released in 1973. “Jack was still into the whole mentality and excitement — for him — of making movies,” Williams told CMT in a 2004 interview. “He made a horror movie [Dear Dead Delilah, 1972] that preceded the video. But [the video] was his idea, totally. He just really wanted to do it. [Although] there was virtually no outlet for it at the time. … I think there was like a Saturday morning show in Philadelphia and American Bandstand that at some times would play something like that. … But it was just something he wanted to do. So I said, ‘Go to it.’”
His influence on Eric Clapton…
In April 1976, guitar icon Eric Clapton was watching an episode of the syndicated Dinah Shore variety series when Williams was the musical guest. Impressed not only by Williams’ performance but by his aversion to the usual chitchat that would follow, Clapton would first meet the singer-songwriter when he crossed the pond to play a show in England during his first international tour. Not long after that meeting, Clapton recorded “We’re All the Way,” written by Williams, for his blockbuster Slowhand LP. The following year, he recorded the studio version of “Tulsa Time,” penned by Williams’ longtime guitarist, Danny Flowers. A country chart-topper for Williams, Clapton’s live version became a Top Thirty hit in 1979.
…And the Who’s Pete Townshend
In October 1976, Townshend and his bandmates played their last gig before a paying crowd with drummer Keith Moon, who would die less than two years later. During the hiatus, Townshend teamed with former Small Faces and Faces bassist Ronnie Lane, who had recently been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. While much of the LP included songs by both Townshend and Lane, it closed with a heartachingly gorgeous and delicate duet version of “’Til the Rivers All Run Dry.” Penned by Williams with Wayland Holyfield, it was the third of three consecutive Number One singles for Williams in 1975. Shortly after Lane died in 1997, Townshend would perform the song onstage with another rock superstar: Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder.
His friendship with Burt Reynolds
When Williams, in his 1982 hit, “If Hollywood Don’t Need You (Honey I Still Do),” sang, “If you see Burt Reynolds would you shake his hand for me, and tell ol’ Burt I’ve seen all his movies,” he could have added that he’d also been a featured player in one of them. In 1975, Williams was among the cast of the Reynolds-starred action-comedy, W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, shot in and around Music City. Williams, as Leroy, the Dancekings bass player, earned positive notices for quietly stealing the spotlight in a handful of scenes alomgside the decade’s box-office champ.