Don Williams

I don’t remember a time before being aware of my father’s record collection. That’s not only because the collection predates me, but because I don’t remember a time when there wasn’t a record player in the living room or dining room, when my father or my mother weren’t playing something.

My father is a country music fan, and I grew up listening to George Jones and Waylon Jennings and Tammy Wynette. I sorted through my father’s albums more times than I can remember. There was a lot of Johnny Cash and Bobby Bare. There were a few, pre-Bocephus, Hank Jr’s. There was Sammi Smith and Tanya Tucker.

I remember in kindergarten one day that the teacher asked us to write the names of albums on pieces of paper, and how I had no idea who Peter Frampton or ELO were. I pretended to know what Grease was. I’d heard of the Beatles but I’m not sure if I knew which songs were theirs. Many of my classmates had older siblings, and many of them probably had parents who listened to popular music. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Maybe that was the beginning of the feeling out of step. It’s a feeling that has never quite left me.

Not that my father’s collection didn’t payoff in some ways. When I went to college I was self-conscious of the gap between me and my affluent classmates. While we found common ground in current pop music, we also found common ground in things that I knew from my father’s collection, like Cat Stevens and Simon & Garfunkel. It was borrowed knowledge for me, not acquired from my interest and effort, but it made me feel a little more sophisticated, a little less of a rube.

But back to my childhood. At some point, right around the time I got a paper route, I started listening to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40, starting becoming aware of popular music, and started making choices for myself. (Those early choices included Hall & Oates and Styx.) The watershed moment in my musical life was in 1984 when Born in the USA came out and PYX 106 played cuts from it every day. That was the beginning of my Springsteen fandom, which continues to this day.

As for country music, I left it behind. It wasn’t that I no longer liked it, but I needed to make my identity. I owned a record player, of course, having seen my father periodically update his turntable, his receiver, his speakers. It was my second major purchase from my paper route money, after my bicycle.

Over the years since abandoning Country & Western, I have drifted back. I went through an Alan Jackson phase, which of course reminded me of Jones. I listened to Garth Brooks a bit. I listened to Waylon again, not to the pre-Outlaw Waylon that my father loved, but to his interpretations of songs by Kristofferson and Shaver. It was a way to hang on to part of my childhood, and a way to convince myself that I had things in common with my dad.

One of the other artists in my father’s collection was Don Williams. Williams didn’t have the cachet of Waylon or George, and he didn’t seem as current. Waylon was the narrator on “The Dukes of Hazzard” and Jones had a massive comeback with “He Stopped Loving Her Today”. Williams was just always there in the records, similar to Tom T Hall. I liked his songs but didn’t thing much about him, other than occasionally recalling a gypsy woman or hoping a day was good.

I don’t remember where we were but one night my wife (then girlfriend) and I were watching TV and there was a video of an old Don Williams song. It’s a beautiful song and my wife loved it. We still love it. It’s now our song, and it spurred me to seek out some compilations that had the Don Williams songs that I remembered. After that, my wife and I would play the CD when we were taking a long drive, harmonizing on the chorus of “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend”. My wife, who is an excellent singer, would tell me to listen to how Williams sings, how he never over-sings anything. I thought of this when I read this Williams quote from a 1999 Geoffrey Himes profile in No Depression.

If somebody’s saying something to me in real life and it’s too over-the-top, I feel like it’s a put-on; it doesn’t ring true. The same thing’s true in music; if the singer’s trying too hard, I’m suspicious.

(Hat tip and thanks to Stephen Thomas Erlewine who included this quote in his excellent obituary of Williams.)

I can’t sing like Williams, of course, but I learned this much from him, and singing along with my wife to his songs is joyous.

So yeah, Don Williams passed away a few days ago. Unlike when Waylon and George passed away, I am not sad for my father as much as I am sad for my wife and I. I am sad that one of the few artists who was meaningful to the both of us is gone. Not that I’ve listened to anything that he recorded after 1984, but that narrow range of songs are important to me.

I have a lot of memories of Don Williams from my childhood. This is the cover of one of the albums my father had.

I can’t find a picture of the back but I believe it was a reverse of the cover, showing Williams from behind. This album cover used to mesmerize me, as I tried to reconcile the Gentle Giant standing in the middle of this scene. This album had “I’m Just a Country Boy” and I remember it from my childhood but it took on more meaning as I got older.

Never could afford a store-bought ring with a sparkling diamond stone
All I could afford is a loving heart the only one I own
‘Cause I’m just a country boy
Money have I none
But I’ve got silver in the stars and gold in the morning sun

This was in the back of my mind in college when I was interested in one of the women from out-of-state. What could I offer to someone who had grown up with everything? I doubted a loving heart, if indeed I had one, would be enough.

Also on that album is the song “Rake and Ramblin’ Man”, about a man who gets a woman pregnant and is wondering how he can possibly be a father. I had no idea what a rake was and somehow I changed the meaning of the song to be about a man who is denying paternity; “Do I look like your daddy to you” instead of “Do I look like a daddy to you”.

Other Williams songs I remember from childhood. “Good Ole Boys Like Me” is a story about growing up in the south, and I always loved the part of the chorus when he sings “And those Williams boys still mean a lot to me/Hank and Tennessee”. In “If Hollywood Don’t Need You” the narrator tells a woman who went to Hollywood to become an actress to say hi to Burt Reynolds if she sees them. Don Williams was friends with Reynolds and appeared in WW and the Dixie Dancekings with Reynolds. (I only know that because the movie was on TV once and my father played his favorite “I’ll give you a dollar if you can tell me who that is” game. I didn’t get the dollar.) “She’s in Love with a Rodeo Man” is about a waitress whom the narrator says won’t go home with you because of reason given in the title. It’s like all of Williams’ best, economic in music and lyrics and his delivery. The waitress has lines in her face but she’ still beautiful, at least in the lights of the dance hall. And the rodeo man is hard and scarred and grayin’. But they’re devoted to each other.

There’s more songs by Williams that I love, and there’s even more that I would probably love if I listened to them. But I don’t think I will. Don Williams, at least the narrow range of songs that I know by him, means something specific to me, about my childhood and my father, and about my marriage. The memories associated with those songs are important to me, and hope they never end.

Tell me what you think. Thanks.