I thought a lot about Don Williams over the weekend. The country singer, who died on Friday at age 78, takes me back to my childhood. Like most people, my early music favorites were the artists my parents played, at least until popular music took me in different directions in the '80s.
But before moonwalks and Prince and parachute pants, it was all about Williams, along with the great Tom T. Hall, The Beatles and Mac Davis. (Willie Nelson, too, but I turned up my nose at his voice back then. Foolish child.)
Williams’ distinct baritone was so smooth, so calming. This may be a clunky comparison, but his voice had the same effect for me as narration by Morgan Freeman or Sam Elliott. There’s no flair, no flourish, no attempts to dazzle. It’s straightforward, plain and perfect.
One of Williams’ songs was among my first misheard lyric moments. For years, I was convinced that he was singing, “Lord, I hope the stay is good,” instead of “this day is good.” I couldn’t figure out where he was traveling, or why he was so worried about his accommodations upon arrival.
Williams could even transcend moments that some might consider hokey. The Burt Reynolds reference in the chorus of If Hollywood Don’t Need You would probably be fumbled in the hands of a lesser talent. (Picture a current artist singing, “Tell Ryan Gosling I’ve seen all his movies” and you’ll see what I mean.) But it worked beautifully for Williams.
And there were so many other great songs: Some Broken Hearts Never Mend, I’m Just a Country Boy, ‘Til the Rivers All Run Dry, You’re My Best Friend, Good Ole Boys Like Me, Tulsa Time, It Must Be Love.
Then there is 1980’s I Believe in You, which may be his most beloved. There’s a lot to the song, which takes some interesting turns in praising life’s wonders (God, music, babies, parents, old folks) and critiquing trendy treasures (superstars, organic food, foreign cars). He also pondered religion ("I don't believe that heaven waits for only those who congregate") and morality (“I don’t believe virginity is as common as it used to be”). It’s a wonderful song.
I regret that I never saw Williams in concert. But about seven years ago, my parents saw him perform in San Antonio. During the show, my phone rang. Seeing it was my father, I figured he had somehow mistakenly called me, and I chuckled at the idea of a butt-dial from Dad. When I picked up, however, I heard Williams, clearly singing I Believe in You. It was fantastic. I listened for about 30 seconds, and then heard Dad quietly say into the phone, “He still sounds the same.”
That’s as close as I got to Williams in person. But I’ll take it.