Heartbeat in the Darkness: R.I.P. Don Williams, Whose Understated Strength Made His Music Perfect to Grow Old With

David Redfern/Redferns
Don Williams performs on stage at the Country Music Festival held at Wembley Arena in London in April 1977.

Don Williams, who died after a brief undisclosed illness on September 8, 2017, was called "The Gentle Giant", but the first part of his nickname may have been more appropriate than the second.

Williams wasn't imposing -- and, at six feet one, he wasn't really all that tall -- but he certainly did have a gentle touch that paired well with his warm baritone. Combined, his light phrasing and genial drawl conveyed a sense of ease and comfort. "It's such a hopeful voice…it's like everything good, everything figured out, everything kind," claimed Alison Krauss in an interview promoting Williams' 2012 comeback And So It Goes, and that assessment hints at perhaps his greatest gift as a vocalist: he could soothe without seeming saccharine.

Such a quality also suggests how Don Williams wasn't a pure country singer -- not in the way George Jones, who sat at the top of the Billboard charts alongside the Gentle Giant in the 1970s and 1980s, was. Jones had a twang in his voice, hiccupping with abandon whenever the tempo quickened, but Williams was smooth, never rushing a song and never raising his voice. Like with any professional artist, this understatement was deliberate. In a 1999 profile by Geoffrey Himes for No Depression, Williams claimed "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."

Throughout his professional career, which began in 1965 as part of the folk-pop trio the Pozo-Seco Singers and concluded after the 2014 release of Reflections, Williams never seemed like he was trying at all. A mellowness seemed to emanate from somewhere deep inside his soul, infusing the music he made with producer Garth Fundis -- a partnership that began in 1978, the year Don Williams won the CMA for Male Vocalist Of The Year, and continued until his retirement in 2016 -- with a soft, reassuring glow. Its proud polish meant that it was ideal music for the radio, and Williams was a fixture on the airwaves from 1974, when he scored the first of his 17 total No. 1s on the Country Songs chart with "I Wouldn't Want to Live If You Didn't Love Me," until 1991, when "Lord Have Mercy On A Country Boy" reached No. 7 in the year country generations definitively shifted.

Radio recognized a good thing when they saw it. On the Don Williams bio in the Country Music Hall Of Fame (the singer was inducted into the institution in 2010) Museum's Encyclopedia of Country Music, there's an anecdote related by MCA Nashville president Jim Foglesong, who recalls how a promotion director told him "You know, we have an artist that we almost don't even have to promote to radio. We just shipped Don Williams's new single, and we're calling stations this morning to make sure they received it…Everybody is already playing it! It's that way with all of his releases!"

Such saturation inevitably crept its way into the mainstream, with Williams racking up three Top 40 adult contemporary hits in the early '80s, just a few years he earned the attention of British rockers Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton, who both covered a separate No. 1 hit from the Gentle Giant. Townshend saw a reflection of his own bruised heart within "Till the Rivers All Run Dry," while Clapton understood that the loping shuffle of "Tulsa Time" suited his own laid-back country-rock makeover. But the very fact that both were drawn to Don Williams seems odd, since he didn't sound nearly as "rock" as an artist like Bobby Bare, the fellow folkie renegade who was touted as "the Bruce Springsteen of country music" by Bill Graham during the late '70s.

Williams may never have bothered with a four on the floor backbeat, but as part of the Pozo Seco Singers he did sing an ornate cover of the Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday," which sat alongside a swinging version of Bacharach/David's "Always Something There To Remind Me." The existence of these recordings from the sunset of the '60s shows how Williams wasn't strictly country at the outset of his career, a fact confirmed by how Bob McDill (the songwriter behind some of Don's biggest hits and a kindred small-town Texan), who claimed "if you look at a lot of the early Nashville things I did -- the early Don Williams songs -- they had a lot of Band influence on them."

While it may take a little bit of squinting to see the connection ("She's In Love With A Rodeo Man," a cut from 1974's Volume Two, has a tinge of Robbie Robertson's plaintive myth-making), it is nevertheless there, buttressed by the appearance of Mickey Newbury's "I Don't Think About Her No More" on Volume Two. When heard alongside McDill's tunes and Williams' originals, this Newbury composition suggests Don was intentionally crafting slow, shaded music where the song was paramount. That these songs were dressed in handsome, burnished arrangements only accentuated how Williams sounded different than his peers in the '70s: He wasn't an outlaw and he wasn't a slick crooner, he was a quiet, commanding presence, making plain-spoken commercial music.

It also wasn't a coincidence that Don Williams began his remarkable run at the top in 1974, when he was already just shy of his thirty-fifth birthday. He wasn't attempting to chase trends -- he made mature music for an adult audience, which is an essential element to his appeal. Although he sang his share of heartbreak tunes, he specialized in ballads for people deep into a romance, stopping to sing the occasional song of regret. Williams' inherent tenderness means that he never oversold a melancholic streak -- witness his expert delivery on a song as layered as Bob McDill's "Good Ole Boys Like Me" -- and it also meant that it's possible to listen to "Tulsa Time," which is as lively as any of his hits ever was, many times before realizing it's a song of failure.

All of this subtlety isn't just a testament to Don Williams' strengths as a singer, but to the unique shading of his catalog that allowed his career lasted over half a century. It's music to grow old with, songs that offer solace in troubled times, but it also was a music that Don Williams himself could grow old within. Once he and Garth Fundis ironed out the wrinkles in his blueprint with 1978's Expressions, he never departed from his easy-going formula. It served him in good stead, all the way until his pair of 2010s comeback albums on Sugar Hill -- records that sound quintessentially like Don Williams without feeling stuck in the past.

Still, albums may not be the best way to appreciate Don Williams' legacy, and not just because so many of his original LPs are currently unavailable digitally. One of Williams' greatest achievements was staying in the Billboard Country Top 10 for nearly two decades straight, a reflection of how he was part of the fabric of the '70s and '80s. Listening to a good Don Williams hits collection -- the best is 2007's double-disc Gold, a retitled reissue of the 2000 set Anthology -- is striking, because even as he adapts his productions ever so slightly to mirror the times, his kind warmth remains a constant. He followed a template, perhaps but he created music that was so easily identifiable as his, that earlier this year the album Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams could contain just one song with a Williams songwriting credit while remaining an unmistakable tribute to his rich, nuanced body of work. That's an honor only a handful of singers of any style could claim.