Independence and Gentle Music Make Texan Don Williams a Loner Star in Nashville
A successful crossbreeding of country music with pop or rock produces a so-called “crossover hit”—a genetic miracle of the recording studio that blends the strum and twang of Nashville with the slick soul of Sunset Boulevard. Big-buck crossover masters like the Denvers, Campbells and Newton-Johns may rule the lucrative L.A.-Nashville nexus, but the hottest singer in Music City these days is a fiercely uncompromising 37-year-old C&W thoroughbred from Texas named Don Williams. Williams’ last five singles—and new LP Harmony—have all hit No.1 on country charts, and Say It Again, his new single, is also bulleting toward the top.
In his simple, affecting songs of love and loss, Williams’ cowboy drawl resonates warmly with vocal harmonies, and sweet chording from acoustic and pedal steel guitars. Though voted Britain’s top country artist last year, Williams isn’t about to mongrelize his music for U.S. trophies. “If I ever do win an award,” he says, “I hope it isn’t for some dad-gum crossover hit. It’s sad when country music prostitutes itself to reach a pop audience.”
Though deeply respected around Nashville as writer and singer—and for his acting debut in Burt Reynolds’ 1975 drive-in Nashville called W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings—Williams remains strenuously aloof from the high-rolling hustle along Music Row. He’d rather drive himself to a gig—even eight hours away—than fly. Once behind the wheel of his camper, Don dissolves into his own wavelength, where he is known only by his wrenchingly frank CB handle, “Lonesome Me.” And onstage he hardly moves, offering no “roll over, Rover” showmanship, as he calls it. Instead he tends to leave audiences squirming uneasily with open-heart patter like: “I don’t really like to say much. Guess because I haven’t got that much to say.”
Though now in demand across the U.S., Williams declines dance-hall or beer-joint gigs, because the listeners are, he finds, too distracted. Williams admits stardom “is frightening” and has even refused to play Nashville: “Don just doesn’t want to be known around here,” says his booking agent. “His privacy would be invaded.”
Williams turned down a film follow-up to W. W., the lead as sheriff in a sequel to Walking Tall: “I’d have been ashamed,” says Williams (whose nastiest cussword is “fiddle”), “for my boys to see me do some of the things I’d have had to do.”
Born and bred the son of a mechanic near Corpus Christi, Williams went to church “every time the doors opened for about five years as a kid.” He married a local girl during his two-year Army stint and then resettled in Texas, toughening his 6’2″ frame on oil field bull gangs. In 1966 his folk-pop group, the Pozo Seco Singers, scored with a big hit, Time, but by 1971 they foundered, and Williams lit out for a solo career with a bitter taste for record biz promo and road life.
Back home Williams rides horses, detests TV (“I’d like to kick my foot through the screen; how can people allow that much trash to come into their living rooms?”), goes to church weekly and closely follows his sons’ Little League games. But even there, in the rolling Tennessee hills as on Music Row, competitive zeal drives him to psychic cover: “Some parents get so wrapped up,” he snarls. “My reaction is always to just grab my boys and head for home.”