During my career at The Tennessean that rambled through four decades, I had the extraordinary fringe benefit of getting to meet and interview scores of actors, writers and singers whose talents I admired as an ordinary fan.
While I love a wide arrange of music genres and singers, my favorite vocalist, bar none, was and remains the late country music crooner Don Williams, who died two years ago.
It was my great pleasure to interview him on two occasions, but I previously had crossed his path twice, moments when I easily could have spoken to him but found myself in such awe that I dared not approach.
I share these memories to alert his fans of a bodacious event coming up. “Don Williams: Music & Memories of the Gentle Giant” runs Oct. 31-Nov. 2 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. The Nashville Symphony, accompanied by Williams’ touring band, provides the music synchronized to performance footage of Williams while his vocals were taken from live recordings.
Robert Pratt, Williams’ longtime manager, says of the event, “It’s almost like Don is still on stage.”
The two things that appealed most to me about Williams were his God-gifted voice (a smooth bass-baritone) and his humility. It would be a stretch to describe his onstage demeanor as laidback, but maybe double laidback would come close. This mellow music man of few words allowed his songs to speak for him.
His concerts typically were just him and his tight-knit band playing away with little chatter. The tunes would flow one right after the other, while every now and then, after a big hand of applause, he might simply smile to the crowd and say, “Mercy.”
The tall Texan scored his first Top-10 hit in 1974, and by the time he retired, he had bequeathed to the world 17 No. 1 hits and 38 Top 5 hits. In 2010, his peers voted him into the Country Hall of Fame. They also honored him as the Country Music Association’s Male Vocalist of the Year in 1978.
But his music reached far around the globe as he toured the United Kingdom, Europe, Oceania and Africa, where he was received as a superstar, particularly in Zimbabwe where the locals who could sing the lyrics to many of his songs in English.
Catching a glimpse of superstar singer
Williams captured my ears in the mid-1970s, and I remain most partial to his tunes, “I’m Just a Country Boy” and Bob McDill’s lyrical masterpiece, “Good Ole Boys Like Me,” which boasts the line “And those Williams boys they still mean a lot to me, Hank and Tennessee.
The first time I saw Williams in person was a Sunday morning in 1977 when my wife and I visited the Ashland City Church of Christ. I knew that Williams and his family lived in Cheatham County and were members of a local congregation. As we were parking our vehicle, I told my wife, “I think I just saw Don Williams.” Sure enough as we made our way to an adult Sunday school class, Williams and his wife came in and sat down.
I whispered to my mate, “Hmm, when class is over let’s hurry into the auditorium and maybe we can sit close so we can hear him sing.” Alas, the Williams family sat in a spot with no vacant seats nearby.
Then in late January 1978, about five months into my tenure at the big-city paper, I found myself boarding a plane for Los Angeles, my first time to cross the continent in the air, on a giddy assignment to interview actors about midseason replacement TV series.
Walking through the first-class section, I spotted Dolly Parton, effervescent as always (picture me as a wide-eyed Gomer Pyle saying “Gollee!” to myself). Then making my way to the back of the plane, lo and behold, I spied my musical hero, Williams, sitting in the smoking section, wearing his blue jean jacket and trademark cowboy hat and surrounded by empty seats.
I recollect thinking, “Wow, there’s Don Williams. Man, I bet I could go sit beside him and talk to him.”
My shyness stopped me from greeting him. However, after we took off, three or four times I glanced over my shoulder to see if he really was there.
The plane stopped for an hour or so layover in Dallas, and all passengers had to get off. I silently shadowed Williams from a respectful distance in the concourse and watched as he lit a cigarette and nonchalantly puffed away. Nobody noticed the entertainer beneath the hat.
We finished the flight to L.A., and I hailed my first taxi cab ever. As the vehicle pulled away from the airport, I glanced to my right and saw through the window another cab with Williams inside. For the next 15 minutes our cabs drove side by side all the way to downtown L.A., until mine stopped at my hotel. I was on cloud nine.
Resisting Coca-Cola change
Williams’ career continued to soar. He was famous for his reticence and did not do a lot of interviews. Thus, it was a surprise when the mild-mannered singer caused what was likely the only ruckus of his career when, in the summer of 1985, he became the first entertainment celebrity to publicly challenge Coca-Cola’s decision to ditch the original Coke formula and introduce New Coke in its place.
Over the phone he told Tennessean music writer Robert K. Oermann, “Coke is like a tradition or somethin’, and what really upsets me is that all the people that have loved Coke and supported it all these many years, it’s like they just don’t care. To me, Coke has always been as traditional as apple pie and baseball and all that. I think those people made a bad judgement call, and I just hope that they have the wisdom to see their error and get straightened out.”
Williams added that he was so upset that he went as far as to tell his road manager that when they ran out of the original Coke stored on his tour bus to replace it with Pepsi.
Please note that soon after this, Williams and the Coke folks made peace (and the original Coca-Cola is still on the market).
Finally, the introduction
Seventeen years after sharing a cross-country plane ride with Williams and no longer nearly as shy, I finally met Williams face to face for a sit-down interview on Music Row to discuss a new album. He could not have been nicer, and I treasure the memories of that hour.
About Nashville’s country music scene of the era, he told me, “When the wagon gets too full, many people doing the same thing, that gets a little frustrating to me. I don’t think 90 percent of the time it’s the artists’ fault that it happens. That’s where they’re made to go by the industry. I’m most anxious for the industry to start relaxing that and let these people show the world what their talent really is and claim a little individualism.”
Williams had been serving as an elder with his church family in Ashland City but had resigned after deciding he did not have the time needed to rightly fulfill the leadership role.
I asked him a bit about his faith. He said, “There are a lot of ways to say something to somebody without having a Bible in your hand. Maybe they’ll listen and take it to heart and feel like there’s a little more investigating they need to do with regard to their lives.”
My second and final conversation with the singer was in 2006. I spoke with him over the phone as he was about to begin his final concert tour (he later returned to performing). He was set to do a concert at Lipscomb University to raise funds for a new building project for the Cheap Hill Church of Christ in Cheatham County.
I quizzed him about what he liked to do in his spare time. He responded, “I guess over the years, what I’ve enjoyed the most is just keeping everything running on the farm, and after that, fishing, just tinkering around.”
I had to ask him about his original cowboy hat, which he first wore while making the 1975 Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed movie, “W.W. & the Dixie Dancekings” (hard to imagine Williams as a Danceking, huh?), which was filmed in and around Nashville.
He answered, “I still have the original. I wore it about three to five years. It was stolen once, but I got it back. Stetson made me another, the one I wear today.”
At the three-night event at the Schermerhorn Center this week, a variety of items from Williams’ career will be on display including his tour bus, some of his guitars, his blue jean jacket and one of those two cowboy hats.
Security had best be tight, because I know one longtime fan that would sure like to try that Stetson on for size, and if it fits … well, who knows?
Note: Ken Beck wrote this story while wearing a 1985 Don Williams tour ball cap given to him by Oermann, one of many friends he made during his 31 years with “The Tennessean.”
Don Williams’ musical legacy
Among the many songs recorded by the country music star known as the ‘Gentle Giant’ are ‘Amanda,’ ‘’Til the Rivers All Run Dry,’ ‘Rake and Ramblin’ Man,’ ‘She Never Knew Me,’ ‘The Shelter of Your Eyes,’ ‘Some Broken Hearts Never Mend,’ ‘I’ve Got a Winner in You,’ ‘I’m Just a Country Boy,’ ‘If I Needed You’ duet with Emmylou Harris, ‘Cup o’ Tea,’ ‘Tulsa Time,’ ‘It Must Be Love,’ ‘Good Ole Boys Like Me,’ ‘Nobody But You,’ ‘Love Is on a Roll,’ ‘I Believe in You,’ ‘Miracles,’ ‘Lord, I Hope This Day is Good,’ ‘Maggie’s Dream,’ ‘Old Coyote Town,’ ‘Heartbeat in the Darkness’ and ‘Where the Arkansas River Leaves Oklahoma.’