Don Williams, one of the biggest stars in country music in the mid-1970s through late ‘80s, has died after an undisclosed illness. He was 78.
Williams’ unassuming and famously gentlemanly manner was quiet enough that it may have kept his public legacy from being more recognized in recent years. But the artists themselves certainly never forgot him, with Keith Urban, for one, having cited Williams as “probably my favorite male country singer of all time.”
Williams retired in early 2016 after being forced to cancel a tour due to sickness. Yet in 2017, even as he stayed home, the singer enjoyed a higher profile than he had in years. In May he was the subject of an all-star tribute album, “Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams,” that featured homages from the leading lights of both country and Americana, including Garth Brooks, Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Alison Krauss, Dierks Bentley, and John Prine. Besides covering the 1973 hit “Amanda” for the album, Stapleton has also showed his love for Williams by making the tune a frequent staple of his set.
Williams’ chart reign really began in 1974, when his sixth single, “I Wouldn’t Want to Live If You Didn’t Love Me,” became a country No. 1. It was the first of 17 chart-toppers that Williams racked up, the last of which was 1986’s “Heartbeat in the Darkness,” although he continued to place in the top 10 through 1991. Perhaps his biggest hit was “Tulsa Time,” which won him the ACM Award for single of the year in 1978, the same year he picked up a CMA Award for male vocalist of the year.
Yet his most enduring song, even though it only reached No. 2, may turn out to be 1980’s “Good Ole Boys Like Me.” Tellingly, that’s the one that Garth Brooks — who presumably had his choice of material — picked to cover on this year’s tribute album. Written by Bob McDill, the song speaks to the nostalgia of Southerners who’ve “learned to talk like the man on the six o’clock news” but never really escaped their roots, wistfully asking, as other generations come up, “So what do you do with good ole boys like me?” It’s a question that resonates with some country fans and musicians even more than it once did, perhaps, as the styles and social mores of the music and culture change.
As gentle as this giant’s charisma was, it translated to other cultures and media. Burt Reynolds befriended him and cast him in “W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings” as well as “Smokey and the Bandit II,” in which he played himself. Williams had an unlikely international appeal and became one of country’s most reliable exports. In 2004 he released a live DVD, “Into Africa,” recorded in Zimbabwe.
Eric Clapton (who covered “Tulsa Time”) and Pete Townshend were fans. “It’s always a huge compliment that someone who is into a different style of music is aware of what you’re doing,” Williams said in a 1995 interview. “I feel exactly the same way about Eric. We spent some time together and I think we have a mutual respect for each other.”
In 2010, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, but was forced by bronchitis to miss the ceremony — something his manager admitted probably suited him just fine, anyway, since Williams felt uncomfortable in the limelight. He quickly recovered and continued to tour, including a notable stop at the 2013 Stagecoach Festival in California, before performing his final dates at the end of 2015.
In 2014, he released his final studio album, “Reflections,” which, as always, included a mixture of self-penned material and songs from other greats (in this case, everyone from Merle Haggard to Townes Van Zandt). One of the fresh tracks, “Talk Is Cheap,” was collaboration between the great Guy Clark and then-unknown Chris Stapleton. In an interview with WSM radio at the time, Williams reflected on the song’s theme of mortality: “The majority of us spend too much time believing that we’re gonna be here forever. Just don’t think about it that much, you know?”
Williams clearly thought about it, and rather than plug himself endlessly on a country oldies circuit, chose increasingly to stay home, where being a man of few words suited the circumstances fine. His standards, meanwhile, still make every word count.