Don Williams doesn’t make an appearance in my favorite Don Williams memory. I never actually met the singer many country music fans around the world know as “The Gentle Giant,” although his publicist once got him to sign an autographed photo for my sister, who might be his biggest fan.
Now that Don, who died on September 8 at age 78, has left us, I’ll never get to stand face to face with the man who so influenced my formative years and shared deity status with Jim Reeves and Charley Pride in the Helligar household. But I’ve tucked away my favorite Don Williams memory alongside his music in the special place in my heart I’ve long reserved for him.
The songs are never out of regular rotation, but upon learning of his passing, I pulled out the memory for the first time in years. I was at a dinner in Los Angeles for the country singer Lee Ann Womack. We were celebrating the release of her 2000 album I Hope You Dance, on which she covered Don’s 1981 number-one country single “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good.” Lee Ann and I bonded over our love of old country songs most people had forgotten (she said I knew more about country music than anyone she knew, besides her father), and when I told her how much I loved Don’s song, she promised to perform it for me later.
She kept that promise. After singing a few of her previous hits and her crossover-smash-to-be, “I Hope You Dance,” Lee Ann got to her Don Williams remake. The song has an offbeat structure in that it starts with the chorus, followed by a variation on the chorus, followed by the first verse, followed by the first chorus, followed by the second verse, followed by the first chorus, followed by a reprise of the instrumental intro.
Lee Ann was doing a fantastic job until she got to the second verse. Then she stopped and started laughing.
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “I forgot the lyrics.”
After a few awkward moments, she turned to me. “Jeremy?”
“You‘ve been the King since the dawn of time/ All that I’m asking is a little less crime…” I sang, right on cue.
Thankfully, she picked it up from there, saving the audience from my terrible singing voice and completely doing Don justice. Mr. Williams, that one was for you. And this one’s for you, too.
10 Unforgettable Don Williams songs
1. “The Ties That Bind” I didn’t discover this 1974 Top 5 single until a bit later in life since it was slightly ahead of my time. It was thoroughly representative of what was to come, so classy, so stately, so high-quality that, like its singer, it defies genre classification.
2. “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend” The 1977 country number-one that established my life-long appreciation of “The Gentle Giant.”
3. “Lay Down Beside Me” A 1979 Top 3 hit that kicked off a staggering run of eight consecutive unforgettable Don Williams singles (1979 to 1981), all of which were Top 10s (numbers 3 to 10 on this list).
4. “It Must Be Love” Don was known for his gentle ballads (hence his nickname), but he was just as convincing working a swinging tempo.
5. “Love Me Over Again” I practically wore out the groove on this when it was included on one of those K-tel vinyl compilations in 1980. My all-time favorite song by Don Williams, who wrote and co-produced it.
6. “Good Ole Boys Like Me” My brother Alexi’s favorite Don Williams song, this number-two smash was kept out of the number-one spot for three consecutive weeks by Ronnie Milsap’s “My Heart.” Confederate emblems abound as he sings about being a young boy and going to sleep “with a picture of Stonewall Jackson above my head.” I prefer to blame that particular one on Daddy, who “came in to kiss his little man, with gin on his breath and a bible in his hand.” The twist in the song’s message of home pride, clearly delivered in the final verse, is that while he may be a product of the deep south, “I was smarter than most, and I could choose.” Listen and learn.
7. “I Believe In You” Don’s signature song and a Top 30 crossover pop hit. My second boyfriend once accused it of “reeking of Republicanism.” I dissented then and now. Its romantic sentiments are universal, and its political and social observations, particularly the ones about race and religion, are as progressive and enlightened today as they were 37 years ago.
8. “Falling Again” A 1981 country companion piece to Luther Vandross’s “My Sensitivity (Gets in the Way),” which was still four years away. At 11, I just loved the melody, but now I can relate to the lyrics so much more than I care to admit (which I just did).
9. “Miracles” My third boyfriend and I used to say that if gay marriage were ever legalized and we took the plunge, this would be our wedding song. I might still use it one day.
10. “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good” A prayer for the living by the now-dearly departed. R.I.P.