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Church elder Don Williams was country’s ‘Gentle Giant’

The first time I saw legendary country musician Don Williams in person was a Sunday morning in 1977 when my wife and I visited the Ashland City Church of Christ in Tennessee. 

As we settled in to an adult Sunday school class, Williams and his wife walked in and sat down. I whispered to my mate, “When class is over, let’s hurry into the auditorium. Maybe we can sit close so we can hear him sing.” 

Alas, the couple sat in a spot with no vacant seats nearby.

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The tall Texan, known as “The Gentle Giant,” scored his first Top 10 hit in 1974 and finished his race with 17 No. 1 hits and 38 top five hits. In 2010, his peers voted him into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was also the Country Music Association’s Male Vocalist of the Year in 1978.

When Williams died in 2017 at age 78, he left a legacy in song — “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend,” “Tulsa Time,” “Miracles” and “Lord, I Hope This Day is Good” to name a few. 

While an entertainment writer at The Tennessean, I interviewed Williams on two occasions. What I admired most about him was his God-gifted voice, a smooth bass-baritone, and his humility. His onstage demeanor was totally laid back. This mellow music man of few words allowed his songs to speak for him. 

His concerts were simply him and his tight-knit band playing away with little chatter. Tunes flowed one after the other, and every now and then, after a big hand of applause, he might smile to the crowd and say, “Mercy.”

Williams’ music reached around the globe as he toured the United Kingdom, Europe, Oceania and Africa. In Zambia, he was received as a superstar, and locals would sing along to many of his songs in English.

I remain most partial to his tunes “I’m Just a Country Boy” and “Good Ole Boys Like Me,” which boasts the line “and those Williams boys they still mean a lot to me, Hank and Tennessee.”

In January 1978, about five months into my tenure at the big-city paper, I found myself boarding a plane for Los Angeles, my first time to cross the continent in the air, on an assignment to interview a batch of TV stars.

Walking past the first-class section, I spotted Dolly Parton, who practically everybody recognized. Making my way to the back of the plane, I spied my favorite singer wearing his trademark blue jean jacket and cowboy hat and surrounded by empty seats. My shyness kept me from greeting him. 

The back cover of 2006’s “The Definitive Collection, Don Williams.”

The back cover of 2006’s “The Definitive Collection, Don Williams.”

At the L.A. airport, I hailed my first taxi cab ever. As the vehicle pulled away, I glanced to my right and saw another cab with Williams inside. For the next 15 minutes our cabs drove side by side all the way to downtown L.A., until mine stopped at my hotel. I was on cloud nine.  

Williams was famous for his reticence and did few interviews. However, 17 years after sharing a cross-country plane ride with him and no longer as shy, I finally met Williams face to face for a sit-down interview on Music Row to discuss a new album. I treasure the memories of that hour as he proved to be a kind and gentle man.

He had served as an elder with his church family in Ashland City but had resigned after deciding he did not have the time needed to rightly fulfill the role. I asked him about his faith. He said, “There are a lot of ways to say something to somebody without having a Bible in your hand. Maybe they’ll listen and take it to heart and feel like there’s a little more investigating they need to do with regard to their lives.”

My second and final conversation with the singer was over the phone in 2006 in conjunction with a concert he was doing at Lipscomb University to help raise funds for a new building project for a rural Tennessee congregation. We didn’t delve into anything deep. I quizzed him about what he did in his spare time. He responded, “I guess over the years, what I’ve enjoyed the most is just keeping everything running on the farm, and after that, fishing, just tinkering around.”

Once when asked by another journalist about his reputation as a superstar, he answered, “The only way that I would be comfortable with that sort of title is when people tell me that my music has helped them through some stage in their life. … But as far as that whole approach to special treatment and people carrying on over you, I never have been too big on that.”

Yep, that was the way of Don Williams.

KEN BECK is a member of the College Hills Church of Christ in Lebanon, Tenn., and was an entertainment and feature writer with The Tennessean for 31 years. He has co-written several books about “The Andy Griffith Show.” Contact [email protected].

Filed under: Church of Christ country music Don Williams Features Reviews The Gentle Giant Top Stories

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