Don Williams Relies on Top Songwriters for Reflections

Veteran Singer Delves Into Catalogs of Townes Van Zandt, Merle Haggard

Don WilliamsReflections showcases a classic vocalist in top form. Peak moments soar (“I’ll Be Here in the Morning”) and soothe (“I Won’t Give Up on You”) with trademark effortlessness.

CMT Edge caught up with the country legend by email to discuss his excellent new album, the qualities that make a country song great and the decision to record a Townes Van Zandt song three decades after his signature take on “If I Needed You” with Emmylou Harris.

“As we go through deciding which songs to record, I try to pay special attention to the songs that seem to haunt me, that creep back into my head on a pretty regular basis,” Williams says. “[Van Zandt’s] ’I’ll Be Here in the Morning’ was one of those.”

CMT Edge: Describe how the new album took shape.

Williams: The folks at Sugar Hill Records seemed pleased with the last album, so they asked us if we’d consider doing another. Thankfully, there are still some songwriters out there who send us songs to consider recording, and we were able to find several that seemed to fit well with a few that we didn’t record on the last album.

I don’t write much at all these days, and I’m grateful and knocked out that there are still publishers and writers out there that think of me and send us their songs. To me, the songwriters have always been the lifeblood of the industry.

Does the album have a common lyrical theme?

Not intentionally, no. I’ve always tried to find songs, whether they were my own or written by others, that could make people feel something. I think that’s all I’ve ever wanted my music to do. We’ve never tried to make singles. We just try to find the best songs to record, frame them with music that seems to complement what the song is saying and hope that people react to the feeling the writers were trying to communicate.

What drew you to “I’ll Be Here in the Morning”?

It’s a song that was sent over to us for the last album by Gary Paczosa at Sugar Hill. It’s one of those that we didn’t record on the last album, but when we listened to it again, it just seemed like one that we could try.

The melody, the imagery and feelings that Townes was able to capture make it not one of your pedestrian love songs. I sometimes worry whether we can do justice to some of these, particularly when it’s something I didn’t write.

What’s Townes’ greatest strength as a songwriter?

Like I said before, Townes had a way of capturing or describing a situation that few writers are able to do. His perspective or how he approached a subject was often unique. A lot of his melodies seemed simple but would stick in your head as much as the lyric.

I think he intended to give you plenty to think about as the listener. There are times, to me, he wasn’t always clear on exactly what he was trying to say because some of that seemed so personal to him, but it didn’t make me pay any less attention in thinking about it.

What singers have most impacted you?

That would be hard to say. If you’re asking about my early influences, I guess I’d say there were a lot of different ones from all types of genres like Brook Benton and Ray Price. Great singers.

Describe your approach as far as putting your own stamp on these songs.

Oh, I don’t know. I just try to feel what the lyric is attempting to communicate. I don’t know that I have a unique approach other than how it feels to me. I try to keep it simple and honor the song.

What drew you to record Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home”?

To be honest, I didn’t recall that it was one of Merle’s songs. The version that was sent to me wasn’t Merle’s recording. I thought it was a great song, a unique story from the perspective of the fellow who was watching his friend take his final walk to his death. Powerful stuff. When I was reminded that it was one of Merle’s hits, it didn’t deter me from taking a shot at it. I just thought, “What a great country song.”

What elements are essential to a great country song?

Honesty, simplicity, imagery, a good melody, a lyric that most people can wrap their head around and, like I’ve said, feel something that the writer was trying to convey.

How does your recording of “If I Needed You” hold up today?

I think that would be for someone else to say, not me. It’s a beautiful song, and I’m proud that we were able to make such a beautiful record with it. I always enjoyed hearing Emmylou’s voice — a singer’s singer — distinctive and beautiful. I was honored to be able to do that one with her.