Hello Stranger from Issue #17
As long as this issue’s live-reviews section turned out to be — “20% more than the average ‘Miked’ section!!” — I think Grant and I were most disappointed by the one that didn’t pan out: a Don Williams show on July 27 at the Birchmere just outside Washington, D.C.
Why? Well, strange as it may seem, Grant and I don’t really tend to agree on much when it comes to music. Though we respect each others’ tastes (with a few exceptions) and have a generally similar outlook on a lot of stuff, it’s actually pretty rare that we both find ourselves equally moved by any particular artist. (Heck, it’s uncommon enough that we ended up declaring one of those people our Artist of the Decade a few months back.)
I don’t remember exactly how or when we stumbled upon our mutual admiration for Don Williams, though I think it was one of these nights like tonight, dragging on toward deadline late some Sunday, the magazine due at the printer on Monday morning. I remember being surprised at Grant’s favorable reaction; while I’ll confess to still having soft spots for the mainstream stuff I grew up listening to on the radio, he usually seems to reside a little more out in the fringes than me.
And yet there’s something about Don Williams’ music that just seems hard not to take to heart. Listening to it now — on a greatest-hits disc I picked up a couple months ago in England, where Williams still rates a pretty big star — it’s impossible not to be struck by how smooth and warm and easy he makes country music sound. And how there’s no way any country music station today would touch what he does with a ten-foot pole.
This despite a track record that included dozens of big country hits throughout the ’70s and ’80s — some so big that they started crossing over to the pop realm, which was the only reason I became familiar with him back then (when I wouldn’t have dared to be caught tuning into a country station). One of those songs weighs in with particular resonance today: “If I Needed You”, a duet with this issue’s cover girl, Emmylou Harris, that hit No. 3 on the country charts in 1981. I didn’t know at the time that it was written by a guy named Townes Van Zandt — but I’d be learning about him soon enough.
So we were excited at the prospect of having someone review Williams’ Birchmere show, partly because it seemed a rare opportunity to catch him in a venue where the focus might be more on the artist than on the entertainer. A glance at his concert schedule for the upcoming months revealed an itinerary consisting almost completely of gigs at festivals, fairs and casinos — not the type of environment that usually conduces an artist to follow their muse.
But one by one, our prospective D.C.-area writers fell by the wayside, lost to summer vacations or previous commitments or just too short notice on our part. So instead, we sat here last night, listening to Williams’ hits roll by on the stereo, marveling at how good this music is, wondering if we’re the only ones who care, or if perhaps there’s this silent underground of Don Williams fans lurking with in our own little alt-country world.
If there is, Williams probably doesn’t even know it. Barry McCloud’s Definitive Country encyclopedia, after recounting Williams’ myriad accomplishments in a page-and-a-half entry, matter-of-factly winds his career down thusly: “Then in 1992, the party was over, and both his chart singles, ‘Too Much Love’ and ‘It’s Who You Love’, only reached the Top 75.” Just like that.
Grant and I can’t help but feel there’s more to this story, and we hope to explore it in the future. Though we’ve been told Williams is even more laconic than Jay Farrar in interviews, the guy has just done too much, and there are too many questions to be asked, for him not to have a story to tell.
In the meantime, I could sit here and listen over and over to just one song:
I can still hear the soft southern wind in the live oak trees
And those Williams boys they still mean a lot to me
Hank and Tennessee
I guess we’re all gonna be what we’re gonna be
So what do you do with good ole boys like me?