Don Williams, one of country's most consistent hitmakers of the '70's and '80's, quit recording during the early '90's. A few albums on various labels did little to re-establish his career. Now recording for RGM, a brand new Nashville label, Williams hopes "Live Greatest Hits, Vol. 2" will rekindle the old-time magic in the modern age.
Is a live hits album the best way to do that? Williams quietly but authoritatively addresses that via phone from his new label's office in Nashville. "I've just had so many fans throughout the years that have said that they really did like a lot of the songs the way I did them live, even better than the studio versions," responds the singer. "So, when I felt like I had my band and my technicians together to where I could do it, I did it."
Recorded at three different venues in Great Britain, the album provides ample proof that Williams' quiet, expressive voice has lost none of its poignant honesty. The artist/producer credits master engineer David Zinko of Garth Fundis' Sound Factory for the disc's spotless, state of the art sound.
The Floydada, Texas native can't remember a time when he didn't listen to a song and try to figure out what the artist was trying to say. Though never attempting to emulate anyone in particular, the 62-year-old baritone cites Brook Benton, Perry Como, Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton, and "a bit of Elvis" as his earliest musical influences.
Williams first picked up an acoustic guitar and sang with friends during junior high school, a situation that continued through a stint in the U.S. Army. Discharged during the height of the Beatles-era, he, Susan Taylor and Lofton Kline formed The Pozo Seco Singers, an acoustic-based pop/folk ensemble.
Williams shared lead vocals with Taylor and was the nominal head of the group. "They elected me to that position," recalls the shy singer. "Which meant that I had to take care of all the headaches, you know?"
The group's Edmark recordings were picked up by Columbia which resulted in a few of the trio's efforts ("Time," "I Can Make It With You," "Look What You've Done") flirting with the pop Top 40 before the group disbanded in 1971. (Two of their LPs were recently compiled on a Collector's Choice CD.)
However, the shards of defeat turned into opportunity at Jack Clement's JMI label in Nashville. "My first encounter with Allen Reynolds and Bob McDill was the last single that the Pozos put out," laughs Williams. "Bob McDill was the writer of it. When I came back, and we started working together, I told him he owed me a lot because the last single the Pozos had was a flop."
It was Williams' intention to merely be a staff writer for Clement's publishing company, but his rapport with producer/writer Reynolds was strong. "It got to the point that Allen didn't want to go into the studio on any of the projects he was doing unless I could come in and work with him."
A demo session of songs written by Reynolds, McDill and Williams yielded surprising results. "We thought, 'We'll just go in, get the musicians together that would understand my treatment the best. Worst case scenario, we'll come out with, hopefully, some really good demos that'll help get these songs cut.' That first day constituted about 95 percent of the first album. It was like it was supposed to happen, I guess."
That solitary session put in motion a career that between 1973 and 1991 accounted for an astounding 45 Top 10 records for MCA, Capitol and RCA, 17 hitting Number One.
Williams' best records were as popular with crossover and country audiences, though he is at a loss to describe his sound and appeal.
"I guess the vision that I had for myself was that I really wanted to appeal more to the country fans, but I think a good bit of what I've done is anything but traditional country. With every album that I've made, I've hoped I haven't made such a departure that people listening to it would think, 'Well, what'd he do that for?' When I think of people like Hank Sr., I don't feel like I'm anywhere close to that. But, at the same time, when I first started, I had people come up to me and say, 'Man, you're the most country thing that's come down the pike since Hank, Sr.'. I just do what I do and I try to be as honest about it as I know how to be."
Eventually, Williams began producing some of his own biggest hits, which was creatively satisfying, though collaborations with Reynolds and Fundis proved more fun.
When asked how he balanced the demands of country radio with his artistic needs, Williams says, "What the label or radio felt about what I was doing honestly was not even a consideration. The only consideration that I had was to have the best songs and to do every song like it was going to be the best single on the record."
Creative freedom in the studio and a keen writer's instinct provided the hitmaker with sufficient wherewithal to redraft "I Believe In You" into his most enduring hit.
"Roger Cook and Sam Hogin had written it, but didn't have it completely finished and gave Garth Fundis what they had at the time. I listened to it, and I told Garth instantly, 'Man, tell them to get on that and finish it up!' But Roger had some words in it that were a bit rock 'n' rollish that I didn't feel would be that palatable to my fans. So, I changed some of the words so it would fit me better."
At the peak of his early success, Williams appeared in two of Burt Reynolds' feature films, "W.W. And The Dixie Dance Kings" and "Smokey & the Bandit II." In the former, the movie idol gifted the singer with the hat that would become his trademark. The original item was stolen, returned, and retired 17 years ago, but Stetson made him an exact duplicate that he faithfully wears to this day.
During the early '90's, Williams, plagued by back problems, dismissed his band and road manager and took himself out of the mix for a couple of years. Upon return, he recorded sporadically for the short-lived independent American Harvest, and Giant Records.
Williams was attracted to RMG by label head George Collier, who worked regional sales during the singer's MCA hey-day. "Volume one was released on American Harvest, which immediately went defunct. So, it really hasnÕt been out enough so that anybody has it to any extent. In working with George and starting this thing out, he really felt it would be better to go ahead and go with Volume Two because it would be newer sounding."
After 37 years in the business, Williams still enjoys the momentum of touring and plays between 70 and 80 concerts a year. Most of his set changes from show to show, but there exists some songs he doesn't feel right about not performing.
"I have five or six songs that I don't leave out because if I do, I'm in trouble, y'know? 'Amanda,' 'You're My Best Friend,' Š I've tried leaving 'Till The Rivers All Run Dry' out and was chastised over that. "I Believe In You," I usually do 'Lord I Hope This Day Is Good' and 'I Recall A Gypsy Woman' and 'Tulsa Time.'"
Yes, audiences the world over, mostly couples, still softly croon along with "Till The Rivers All Run Dry" and "You're My Best Friend," particularly in Great Britain where Williams is still enormously popular. The grateful singer chuckled, "Sometimes it's absolutely beautiful to hear the difference on how they pronounce some words."
Surprised when asked if his current live disc, his first outing in three years, is a prelude to a studio album of new material Williams answers point blank, "Y'know, I don't know. George and I have not discussed that at all at this point." Then he wisely, but thoughtfully adds, "I would be up for it, if I felt like everything was justified."