Calling Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams a labor of love for legendary producer Garth Fundis might be something of an understatement.
“A couple of years ago, my partner at Slate Creek Records, Jim Burnett, asked me about doing a Don Williams tribute, and if I would be interested in doing it,” he explains to Billboard. “I told him ‘I’ve got a notebook full of ideas about that.’ Nobody had done one, and I really thought Don deserved something like that.”
Fundis had one stipulation. He wanted to align the project with a charitable cause, hence the affiliation with MusiCares. “Nobody knows how much they do for a lot of people,” Fundis says about the foundation. “I know some of what they do because of my involvement with the Recording Academy. I was national chairman several years ago. It’s a great organization. They help a lot of people anonymously in the industry.”
Fundis — who has steered the musical ship for such artists as Trisha Yearwood and Keith Whitley — has considerable affinity for Don Williams, both the artist and the man. “Of course, I have great admiration for Don — and all that he’s done for me,” he says. “I was a young pup when I first started working with him… I became acquainted with folks like Don, Allen Reynolds, and Dickey Lee. I became the young-gun engineer of the room, and got to work on a lot of those early records… My first co-production with him was on the Expressions (1978) album, and had three number ones right off the bat with ‘Tulsa Time,’ ‘Lay Down Beside Me,’ and ‘It Must Be Love.’ So, we got off to a good start as a team.”
Putting together the artists with the songs on Gentle Giants was a puzzle that Fundis set about with as much passion as anything he had ever done. Take, for instance, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires’ version of “If I Needed You,” a 1981 recording with Emmylou Harris that hit No. 3 on the Billboard Country Singles chart.
“They are both amazing,” Fundis states. “I’ve been a big fan of Jason’s for a long time. Amanda plays with him a lot, and I became aware of her. In thinking about casting people for the album, I wanted to go a little wider than the normal Country Music roster… I knew Jason was a fan because when Don released his last album, he had tweeted about it. I suggested involving Amanda, as well, and suggested ‘If I Needed You.”
The disc features a wide array of acts, ranging from Americana stalwarts Isbell and Shires to hitmakers like Lady Antebellum and Dierks Bentley. Fundis says that diversity speaks to Williams’ depth as a recording artist. “Don appeals to a lot of different folks, and his audiences were a varied group of people — not just country music fans. His appeal went around the world. I traveled with Don on his European tours, and he was a huge star in Great Britain and Ireland, as well as Scotland and Scandinavia. He was a bigger star over there before he really blasted off here.”
One special track on the record is “Love Is on a Roll.” A no. 1 hit from 1983, the recording features the song’s writers, John Prine and Roger Cook. Fundis considers that a coup: “John and I have been friends on and off for a long time. I asked them if they would be interested. I knew that he had never done that song himself. So, this is the only place that you will hear him do that song. Nobody else writes or sings like that.”
Williams also has few peers as a recording artist. From 1974 through 1991, every single the singer released hit the top 40 on the Country charts — including 17 number ones. His relaxed style helped him to earn the nickname of “Gentle Giant,” which inspired the name of the tribute album.
Fundis says that amount of success seemed never to go to his head. “To his friends and those who are around him a lot, he’s not too much different from what you know about him,” the producer explains. “He’s shy and quiet, but obviously, when he’s comfortable, he opens up. He can crack some pretty funny stuff from time to time. He just enjoys being a regular person. I’ve seen him a lot of times go into a truck stop, and nobody recognize him because he has a ball cap on. He doesn’t really stand out in a crowd that much until he has that [signature] hat on — then everybody recognizes him!”
That low-key style also describes Williams’ personality away from the stage and studio. “He hates talking about himself,” describes Fundis of the interview-averse singer. “He’d rather focus on the songs, the musicians, and the people that contribute to the making of the records.”
One track from the tribute that was especially meaningful to the producer was “Maggie’s Dream.” Originally a 1984 hit for Williams, the song was personally selected by Trisha Yearwood as her contribution for the set. Including her first six albums, Fundis has produced the majority of hits from the songstress — who has always impressed him.
“The thing that strikes me about her from the night I met her at Douglas Corner — I was mesmerized by the instrument that came out of her across that microphone,” Fundis recalls. “She’s amazing. Trisha is one of those people who has the natural ability to be herself in just about any situation. I always describe her as an ‘A’ student. She’s sharp and articulate, and always in touch with her thoughts.”
As a vocalist, he feels Yearwood has few peers: “She’s a huge fan of Linda Ronstadt, one of the most iconic singers in the world, and she also reminds me of Barbra Streisand. I put her in those circles with people like that. I think her voice is that wonderful.”
Another impressive performance from the album comes from Chris Stapleton, who contributes a 2013 performance of “Amanda” from the Grand Ole Opry. “This was before the 2015 CMA Awards,” notes Fundis. “There were people discovering him even then. You can even hear it on this recording from the Opry. I don’t think the audience really knew who we was, but when the voice starts on such a beloved song as ‘Amanda,’ you can hear the awe that comes over the audience.”
At the end of the day, one common thread that runs through Gentle Giants is how well these songs hold up all these years later. As producer of many of the originals, Fundis would like to take credit, but says that it all came from the top. “That’s Don,” he rhapsodizes. “He never let himself stray from what he felt about music. I think that’s where the consistency comes from. It had to work for him in a simple way… He always was the rudder that kept the bow pointed in the right direction, to use a sailing term. It was wonderful how he could always take different kinds of songs, and by the time he was done with them, they all kind of fit together in a really wonderful way.”
Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams will be released Friday (May 26).
Gentle Giants Track Listing
“Tulsa Time,” The Pistol Annies
“I Believe In You,” Brandy Clark
“We’ve Got A Good Fire Goin,” Lady Antebellum
“Some Broken Hearts Never Mend,” Dierks Bentley
“Amanda,” Chris Stapleton (featuring Morgane Stapleton)
“Till The Rivers All Run Dry,” Alison Krauss
“Love Is On A Roll,” John Prine (featuring Roger Cook)
“If I Needed You,” Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires
“Maggie’s Dream,” Trisha Yearwood
“Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good,” Keb’ Mo’
“Good Ole Boys Like Me,” Garth Brooks