After a six-year furlough, Don Williams has returned to the record wars with My Heart to You, an album that bundles new songs, fan favorites and covers of two classic pop tunes. Williams co-produced the album with his manager, Robert Pratt, for the Intersound/Compendia Music label.
Among country music’s distinctive voices, none other is as instantly recognizable as Williams’ rich, rumbling baritone drawl. Over a 32-year chart span, that voice has netted him 17 No. 1’s, including such gems as “Tulsa Time,” “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good,” “I Believe in You” and “You’re My Best Friend.”
I Turn The Page, Williams’ previous album, came out on Giant Records in 1998 when the company was already in its death throes. “Before we had even finished mixing and mastering [the album],” Williams says, “it was pretty obvious that the financial legs were being cut out from under the label. … That was really disheartening to me, and I didn’t want to get back into [recording] again unless I felt like there was going to be a place for it and somebody who was going to really be able to do something with it. It takes too much time and emotion and all such as that to just do something and there’s not a home for it.” Giant closed down in 2001.
Several selections in My Heart to You — notably “Fly Away,” “When I’m With You” and “Years From Now” — are newly recorded versions of songs that first appeared in Williams’ early albums. His covers are of Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” and Amanda McBroom’s “The Rose,” Bette Midler’s 1980 hit. Williams says he discovered “four or five years ago” that “Years From Now” had become a popular wedding theme. “It was just some songs like that that I thought I would bring forward,” he adds. The title song is one of Williams’ own recent compositions.
“I’ve always loved ‘The Rose,'” Williams says. “A friend of mine told me about two years ago that if I ever made another album, he wanted me to promise him that I’d really, really look at ‘The Rose’ because he felt like it would be a good song for me. I said I would. … The more I got into it, the more I felt like I wanted to accept the challenge. To try to make that [song] live really was a challenge.” He says he still hasn’t incorporated it or “Wonderful Tonight” into his stage shows.
Williams is the sole writer of six songs on the new album, a rarity in these days of multiple composers. “It isn’t that I don’t like to co-write,” he explains, “but I don’t come into Nashville just to hang around. My writing anymore is just kind of in spurts. It’s kind of when the spirit moves me that I’ll devote myself to that. But I never know when it’s going to happen.”
An essentially private man who shuns publicity, Williams lives several miles outside of Nashville, about half way between Ashland City and Clarksville, Tenn. “We live in the country,” he says. “But as far as farming goes, I don’t even have a garden this year. But we have chickens and dogs and cats and kids. I don’t have any livestock, per se, anymore. I gave that up not too long after we moved out there because I was always gone. The livestock would get out, and my wife would have to run them down. That’s not a very kind thing to ask somebody to do.”
Even as his star dims in the U.S., Williams continues to be popular abroad. Earlier this year, he toured Australia and England. In conjunction with his album, Compendia has reissued his DVD, Into Africa. It chronicles his 1997 travels and live performances in Zimbabwe. In one of the most moving scenes, a blind street musician strums his guitar and earnestly sings “You’re My Best Friend” while a friend accompanies him on a drum kit made of discarded pots and pans.
Williams credits his international stardom to the efforts of George Collier, who worked with him during his tenure on ABC/Dot Records in the 1970s. “George really did a lot of work getting my records to other countries,” he says. “The sales that he caused in a lot of places were just unbelievable.” It was also Collier, in his capacity as a Compendia executive, who lured Williams back to recording.
While some may argue the definition, Williams appears to hold the distinction of having starred in country music’s first music video — years before there were music videos. In 1973, Jack Clement, who then headed Williams’ label, shot a concept film of his single, “Come Early Morning.” In the film, the lanky singer performs without the battered hat that would soon become his trademark.
“Jack was still into the whole mentality and excitement — for him — of making movies,” Williams explains. “He made a horror movie [Dear Dead Delilah, 1972] that preceded the video. But [the video] was his idea, totally. He just really wanted to do it. [although] there was virtually no outlet for it at the time. … I think there was like a Saturday morning show in Philadelphia and American Bandstand that at some times would play something like that. … But it was just something he wanted to do. So I said ‘Go to it.'” (Williams has made precious few music videos since then — about three — and they tend to be clips from live performances.)
Given the rigors of this year’s far-flung circuit, Williams says he probably won’t tour overseas next year — at least not on such a punishing schedule.
“I told my manager, ‘I don’t think I want to do that again,'” he says. “I mean, [the tours were] only like a month apart. That’s a long way from the house and a lot of hard running.”