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Assured and reassuring

Don Williams (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Assured and reassuring

Remembering the ‘Gentle Giant’ Don Williams

On Sept. 8, emphysema claimed the country singer Don Williams. He was 78.

Williams began his 50-year career as a member of the Pozo-Seco Singers, a Corpus Christi folk trio configured along the lines of Peter, Paul & Mary. He sang lead on their first Top 40 hit (“I Can Make It with You”) and co-lead on their last (“Look What You’ve Done”). Their album covers identified him as “Donnie.”  

Solo, he earned the nickname the “Gentle Giant”—“gentle” because of the peaceful, easy feelings generated by his music, “giant” because of his towering presence on Billboard’s country chart.  

From “Shelter of Your Eyes” (1973) to “Lord Have Mercy on a Country Boy” (1991), Williams placed 49 singles in the Top 20. All but five made the Top 10. Seventeen reached No. 1. The Best of Don Williams, Volume II and The Best of Don Williams, Volume III went gold. His best-selling album, I Believe in You, went platinum.    

Among his best-known hits were “You’re My Best Friend,” “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good,” and “Tulsa Time.” “Till the Rivers All Run Dry” brought him to the attention of rock fans when the Who’s Pete Townshend and Small Faces’ Ronnie Lane included a faithful rendition on their 1977 album Rough Mix.

Williams didn’t write the majority of what he recorded. Rather, it was with the assured and reassuring nature of his warm baritone voice and acoustic guitar that he laid claim to the material and came to be regarded as a reliable purveyor of aural balm.

His last studio album, an all-covers affair called Reflections, appeared in 2014. A highlight was Doug Gill’s “Stronger Back,” the refrain of which goes “I don’t pray for a lighter load, I pray for a stronger back.” The sentiment, from its humble nobility to its common-man piety, was pure Williams. So was the race-well-run contentment of Jim Collins and Bob Regan’s “Working Man’s Son.” Hearing Williams sing “I'd like to think I'll still be here / to celebrate a hundred years,” it was easy to believe that he’d reach that milestone.

In short, nothing about Reflections or the live chronicle of his 2014 U.K. tour, Don Williams in Ireland: The Gentle Giant in Concert, suggested that he was winding down.  

But he was. In 2016, he retired for the second and final time. Last May, the day before what would turn out to be his last birthday, Slate Creek Records released Gentle Giant: The Songs of Don Williams, a tribute album featuring versions of 11 of Williams’ greatest hits by an A-list roster of contemporary country and Americana performers.  

Williams no doubt appreciated the appreciation. And, assuming that his humility didn’t preclude honest self-evaluation, he probably also appreciated knowing that he’d sung each song better when he was still in the game.

UNLIKE THE COVERAGE attending Williams’ passing, the recent death of the 45-year-old former Beachwood Sparks guitarist Josh Schwartz from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease) generated few headlines

Brent Rademaker

Josh Schwartz (Brent Rademaker)

From one perspective, the dearth makes sense. The SoCal alternative country that Beachwood Sparks helped define remains an under-the-radar genre, its retro trappings having earned it the “pale, male, and stale” tag from dismissive critics. The music deserves better.

So does Painted Hills, the solo album that Schwartz released in 2010, the year before his ALS diagnosis. Although its melodies could’ve been dreamed up in the 1960s, the frayed electric-guitar sounds haunting their perimeters suggest that Schwartz had his eyes—and ears—on the future.