The great, tender, plain-spoken, big-hearted Don Williams, "gentle giant" of a Zen country music of grace and soul, has died at 78. Yeah, we know: country music? But Williams stood out from what was often dreck, and it's a grievous loss for those of us who used to listen to him on 8-track in our pick-ups gliding through the beatific woods. In scores of No 1 hits starting in Nashville in the '70s through his 2010 induction into the Country Hall of Fame until his retirement last year, he crooned ballads of love and loss in a deep smooth voice "that walked the seam of a porch-front baritone and stage-ready tenor." He rarely toured, and spent most of his time on a Nashville farm, raising a family with his wife of 57 years.
In May, fellow-musicians - including John Prine, Keb' Mo', Alison Krauss, Trisha Yearwood - made a tribute album "Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams." There was also a performance in his honor at the Grand Ole Opry featuring some of his plaintive, moving songs: "Amanda," "If I Needed You," "Some Other Place, Some Other Time," "Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good." In giving voice to those songs, said Kyle Young of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Williams "offered calm, beauty, and a sense of wistful peace that is in short supply these days....His music will forever be a balm in troublesome times. Everyone who makes country music with grace, intelligence, and ageless intent will do so while standing on the shoulders of this gentle giant." And may his voice endure, till the rivers all run dry.
In a 2013 performance of 1981's "I Believe In You," listen as he pauses before an encore for an endearing, "Mercy."
"Well, I don't believe that heaven waits / For only those who congregate / I'd like to think of God as love / He's down below / He's up above / He's watchin' people everywhere / He knows who does and doesn't care / And I'm an ordinary man / Sometimes I wonder who I am / But I believe in love."