This article originally appeared in the January/February 1988 issue of American Songwriter.
Few artists ever achieve the level of quality and consistency that is reflected in the music Don Williams has chosen to record. One might say he has one of the highest all-time slugging percentages in the history of country music.
He’s released more than 20 albums, five of which are certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Williams has racked up more than 40 hit singles and some 20 of them have reached the top of the national charts.
It’s not talent alone that has made Williams one of the giants of country music. As he readily admits, much of the credit is due the songwriters and the songs upon which his career has been built.
“The entire weight of everything I do is in the songs,” he says.
He has recorded some bonafide masterpieces. Among the list of gems are such shining examples as “Amanda” (Bob McDill), “I Believe In You” (Roger Cook/Sam Hogin), “Tulsa Time” (Danny Flowers), “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend” (Wayland Holyfield), “The Ties That Bind” (Vin Corso/Clyde Otis), “Good Ole Boys Like Me” (Bob McDill), “Walkin’ A Broken Heart” (Alan Rush/Dennis Linde) and “Maggie’s Dream” (Dave Loggins/Lisa Silver).
Although Williams’ longtime co-producer, Garth Fundis, screens much of the material submitted for consideration, Williams has the final say in what eventually gets recorded.
No one can argue with the results of this method, either.
And surprisingly, the songs Williams has selected haven’t always been the safe bets, songs that are commercially in the pocket. He’s taken some chances.
“I’ve said lots of time, thank God for left field – songs like “Maggie’s Dream,” “Good Ole Boys Like Me” and “Amanda”, he notes. “Those things that just come to me from left field.”
One has to wonder if “Good Ole Boys Like Me” would have every gotten recorded were it not for Williams’ convictions about quality songs. One of the finest songs ever written might still be wound around a reel on a publisher’s shelf if Williams hadn’t believed the song deserved a chance to be heard.
As more than one songwriter has observed, “Thank God for singers like Don Williams.”
How would you compare the quality of songs today to that of when you started recording?
I think one of the biggest problems that we always have is tat you’ll go along for a period of time and songs kind of get into certain feels, making statements a certain way. At first they’re real fresh because it’s a little different approach. But then we have so many people that get in that vein that after a while they start sounding slick. It’s not that they’re not good songs. At least for me – let me qualify this whole thing – they start feeling kind of slick and I start looking for something else that I feel is a little more direct and fresher.
“Maggie’s Dream” came out of just such a search I imagine.
I’m always thankful for songs like that. To me it’s a universal observation of some aspect of life.
Do you ask writers to make little changes in their songs so that they might be better suited for you?
I have to do that fairly often and I’m always real concerned that it’s acceptable to the writer. I never want to change someone’s song, but I have to make it to where it fits me at the same time, or I can’t do it.
Have you ever had someone object to making some changes?
I’ve been real fortunate; I’ve never had that happen yet.
What’s the old saying, songs being like children?
I think most writers when they start, they can’t stand the thought of someone else being involved in their thoughts. They’re such a personal thing with them. It is kind of like kids in a way. You go through a stage where your kids are perfect. There’s just nobody who could ever say a thing about how they look or act. Then after you get a little older and they get a little older, you begin to realize – if you’re realistic about it – they’re people and nobody’s perfect. I think songs are the same way. There are a lot of times when a writer won’t see in a song what someone else may see. It may be a better song than the writer thought, or it may not be as good as they thought.
Are there any types of songs that you simply would not record?
I really don’t know what kind of song it would be – if it was the old triangle song or a boozer song, I don’t know what it would take for me to be interested in it. I’m not going to say I wouldn’t ever be interested in a song that was dealing with that, but it would really have to be an unusual observation, something that I felt like would benefit someone. (Editor’s Note: On his latest album, Traces, Williams recorded a song, “Another Place, Another Time,” written by Bob McDill and Paul Harrison, which is exactly the kind of song that makes an unusual observation).
So you feel the artist has some responsibility not to endorse potentially harmful ideas through his or her music?
I feel very responsible to that. I don’t know of anything that’s as small an industry as entertainment that affects as many lives. I think it’s a sad situation when people totally take an attitude that they shouldn’t be responsible, that they don’t need to be responsible for what they talk about or how they act. It shouldn’t be a crippling kind of weight; I think it’s just an awareness.
How do you go about listening to songs when you’re looking for material to record?
I have one of those Walkman type deals that I listen on. I listen at home, going down the road, or whatever. Basically, I listen when I’m alone. If I’m heavy into it I get off by myself at home and do some serious listening.
Do you listen to the songs all the way through?
It depends. There are some that I don’t listen to all the way through because there are already so many things that have happened that are a little objectionable to me. Or, it’s an interest level that isn’t there; it’s nothing objectionable, it just doesn’t do anything to me. But if it’s even marginal I’ll listen to the whole song.
Do you look to see who wrote the song?
I’m not really that interested in who wrote it when I’m initially listening to it. There are a lot of times when I do know who wrote it before I listen, but it’s not an issue.
What common mistake do you see in songs submitted to you?
For me, I think one of the biggest mistakes that I see people make is that part of writing where they’re really plugged into a community. From each community of writers there emerges kind of an overview that is very successful. So, they all, whether they consciously realize it or not, they all start adjusting to this overview. I think it gets to a point where the overview is really dictating the terms of what a song is going to say or its basic structure.
So, you prefer songs that aren’t contrived or formula patterned?
I like songs the best that are not a constructed effort in that arena. I like songs people write that they sit down, and it’s a real personal statement because that’s the way they felt at that moment and they don’t care if anyone ever records it. It’s that intense of a statement from a person – those are the songs I love the best.
It’s true that trends develop and hit sounds become kind of cookie-cutter patterned after each other.
It’s not that they’re not exemplifying their control of the craft. It’s the same thing in the studio because you have at your disposal such an incredible array of electronics that you can lose the emotion of it all by becoming so technical. I guess that’s what I’m saying about writing – when it becomes that technical, I hear very few songs like that that I care anything about. It feels contrived; it may be the cleverest thing and wonderfully, slickly put together, but it somehow or another loses the emotion of the thing.
Have you ever recorded any songs that were written expressly for you?
I could be wrong, but I don’t think I ever cut a song that somebody sat down and wrote for me. Most of the ones people sit down and write for me, it’s a reflection of something I’ve already done. I’m not interested in doing what I’ve already done again if I can help it. I guess that’s why it turns me off.
Do you like to be pitched full demos?
A lot of times I would prefer that it was not a demo – just the writer and a guitar or piano. Demos can go one of two ways for you. If it’s a demo that helps, sometimes it’ll help a lot. But by the same token, I think there are demos that close the door because it takes you in a direction that maybe you don’t want to go in. It’ll color the attitude you might have about the song. Without the demo you might have viewed it another way.
Do you like to look at a lyric sheet while listening?
The only way I’ll look at a lyric sheet is if I absolutely cannot understand the words. I prefer not to. I would rather sit there and listen to it because that’s much more the way the average person is going to hear it. Everybody doesn’t sit there with a lyric sheet when they’re driving down the road.
Comment on song lyrics, what should they do for you?
If a thought’s not clear or if a word is used out of context in some cleverish way to be where Joe Blow out in Kansas is not going to understand it, then it serves no purpose. I like for the statement to feel real and direct, but in some way fresh. I don’t want to have to figure it out. I like it right out front.
So for you it really does all begin with a song.
Without the songs, you can be the best artist in the world, have the best production, but if you cut a bad song it’s just a bad song with an incredible production. That’s what it all boils down to. That’s not to say that a good production can’t help, but it’s all the songs. I mean for every really fine song there are any number or artists that could have a hit with it.
It sounds like what you want writers to do is pitch you their best songs whether or not they think it’s for you.
That’s exactly right.