mistah williams, he dead

Another day and another great passed into the darkness. This one's from my corner of the world, so, Steely Dan people, here's your chance to have at me!

Bill Friskics-Warren did the usual bang-up job in his obituary on Don Williams this morning, but he strikes a false note here:

"Singing in a warm, undulating baritone, he made marital fidelity not just appealing but sexy — as exciting, in its way, as the themes of cheating and running around that defined the classic honky-tonk music of the 1950s and ’60s."

Cheating was a subject in some 1950s C&W but, for a time in the 1970s, it was the subject; thus Don found his highly individualized niche. His brand, which was startlingly developed with his first solo record ("Come Early Morning," "Endless Sleep," "No Use Running," "Amanda," what a roster) stood apart not only because of its soothing moral wholesomeness. Where other country music of its era was, at one end, showily and densely orchestrated in the Atkins or Sherrill manner, or, at the other, apt to nod opportunistically at the guitar tones, kick drum weight, and machismo of contemporary rock a la Waylon or Paycheck, the sound Allen Reynolds and Garth Fundis achieved for Don was spare and as maximally reserved as commercial music can get. It turned the heat way down on the emotions, the image enhancements, the hot licks, the volume, and even the narrative drama. "Exciting, in its way" -- I guess; but I doubt many popular music listeners would find this music exciting in any way. It's so bold in its unexcitingness as to create a new category of fascination.

Lloyd Green said that when he arrived at the studio to work on that first record, Reynolds and Fundis worked with the players to take away more and more from the playing. They kept at it for two weeks. "Just when it seemed the architecture would collapse of its own insubstantiality, that's when we said: 'stop there -- that's our sound,'" Lloyd recalled, if I remember his words very closely. The story may seem slightly too pat to credit, but no one could doubt listening to Don's music that his settings were fashioned with tremendous care, that they sounded like nothing else out there, and that these guys were bucking the trend.

One of my favorites is "I Believe In You," written by Roger Cook and Sam Hogin. The rhythm section groove is positively wild in its lack of pizazz. It's hard to find a more descriptive word than "white" for it. I suggested to some songwriters the other day (they were all white, of course) that they should consider aping the slang and cultural eccentricities of their own tribes, whatever they may be, rather than taking the easy and common path of mimicking black language and vocalizing. No one's likely to take that advice, since it means turning away from so much verbal invention and, really, so much of the best that American musical history offers. "I Believe In You" runs at whiteness full-force and without apology or equivocation. It cuddles up in its pajamas, settles back in its Barcalounger, pats its little paunch, raises aloft its cutely stencilled ceramic cup of hot cocoa, and smiles serenely, "I believe in Mom and Dad, and I believe in you."

Two more of my faves are "It Only Rains On Me" and, as I slyly mentioned in the liner notes to Georgia Hard, "Good Old Boys Like Me," both from Portrait. Songs like these established Bob McDill's writerly voice in country. McDill's breakout, "Come Early Morning," made a good complement to Don's minimalistic aesthetic, because its lyric held back any sparkling details. The narrator was running down a back road and feeling kinda lonesome; other than calling his girl "honeydew" he risked no fancy, or even specific, disclosures -- the scene in this song could be Maine or Cuba or the inside of your head. ("Some Broken Hearts Never Mend" and "It Must Be Love" were just two subsequent DW hits to follow this austere template. One adjective less and the building collapses.) I'd guess this was a conscious application of songwriter diction to production and vocal style, because old Bob had a lot more methods up his sleeve. "Good Old Boys" has as much exquisitely chosen detail (Tennessee Williams, the upwardly-mobile sloughing-off of the Southern accent, John R., the type of tree and the type of whiskey) as any country song ever has had, and it marshals these details in the service of an artistic effect as total and profound as any has attained.

Among the what-a-grumpy--old-man-am-I propositions that I audaciously offered my songwriting group the other day was: "Popular music emphasizes bragging more than ever before; I miss humility as a dominant shade." The bragging of course goes way back, but how many contemporary analogues to "I'll Be True While You're Gone," "Are You Tired Of Me," "Blue-Eyed Elaine," "Till The Best Comes Along," "Before The Next Teardrop Falls," "Let's Say Goodbye Like We Said Hello," or "Walk Through This World With Me" can be drummed up? To this roll any number of Don's forty-five top-10 hit songs can be added. "Amanda" expresses tender and genuine regret that the lady was robbed by Fate of finding a more gentlemanly beau than the singer. "Lord I Hope This Day Is Good" finds him apologizing to God for feeling a touch blue. 

Not that self-crafted humility can't ever get cloying, or that the Don Williams show wasn't an "act," but given that it was presented so skillfully, and seemed so in tune with the natural personality of the singer, this music made itself globally felt, expressing some of the finest attributes and governed emotions to which all of us -- especially we men -- can aspire. My friend Don Lewis was in a remote Ethiopian village when he happened to overhear two men arguing almost violently over whether a voice on a boombox was Don Williams's. "I have all his CASS-ettes," said one, fists clenched on the table, "and that is NOT Don Williams!" It seems Don made a big noise in Ethiopia, and possibly other African countries, by presumably the same means as Jim Reeves in Nigeria -- a smooth slow singing voice and a record label that had too much product on its hands. But the connection goes wide and deep; I had a cab driver in Denver a few years ago who was Ethiopian and also so crazily fond of DW that he exulted for 15 minutes nonstop. 

Like Fitzgerald's Jazz Age short stories, or Horton Foote's plays about Texas, this music, I believe, will long retain its quality of somberly and photographically capturing a particular time and place (the 1970s in white middle-aged middle-class America) while, by mysterious contrast, seeming timeless.