When Bon Iver played the Ryman Auditorium, country music's so-called Mother Church, in 2011, he pulled out a surprise cover, a 1983 country hit called "If Hollywood Don't Need You (Honey I Still Do)." Few No. 1 country singles from the '80s could fit seamlessly into the low-key troubadour's set, but Don Williams, the Nashville legend who recorded the tune, was making subtle sonic statements long before Bon Iver main man Justin Vernon was born. Vernon's performance of the Williams hit served as one more indication that the mellow-but-manly country star's story has reached a new generation.
With his new album, And So It Goes, Williams arrives as an emissary from another era of country music—one in which mainstream appeal and artistic credibility didn't seem quite so mutually exclusive. From the mid '70s until the late '80s, the creamy-voiced and tall Texan known to fans as "The Gentle Giant" ruled country radio with a string of hits ranging from the swampy country funk of "Tulsa Time" (recorded by Eric Clapton) to the aforementioned lambent love letter, "If Hollywood Don't Need You (Honey I Still Do)."
Williams' laconic, papa-bear vocal style and cool arrangements don't ring the cash registers in Nashville these days. And So It Goes is only his second batch of new tunes since 1998, and his last big country hit came before the election of Bill Clinton as president.
Williams earned his first moment of fame as part of the moderately successful folk-rock group The Pozo-Seco Singers. They cut three albums for Columbia in the '60s and were managed by Bob Dylan's notorious overseer, Albert Grossman. A year after Williams began his solo career in 1973, he scored the first of his 17 No. 1 country singles with the typically laid-back lope, "I Wouldn't Want to Live If You Didn't Love Me" (much later covered by Keith Urban).
Although he spent the next couple of decades as a country superstar, Williams, now 73, was never the kind to court attention. Matching his music with his character, he was always the polar opposite of crash-and-burn contemporaries like Glen Campbell and Tanya Tucker. He's been married to the same woman, Joy Bucher, for 53 years and has led a life conspicuously devoid of scandal or excess. He generally eschews tunes containing country tropes such as cheating and carousing. "I've never really done those things," he told Texas Monthly's Dick J. Reavis back in the '80s. "They haven't been a part of my life, so I guess I just don't relate to them very well."
In 2006, the Country Music Hall of Famer mounted a farewell tour to mark his imminent retirement from the public eye. Given his notable lack of interest in the fame game, that move didn't seem surprising; however, when he emerged from his warren again and returned to performing four years later, it was a bit of a shock. The continued comeback suggests that the love of making music outweighed his distaste for life in the public eye.
Released in June, And So It Goes features a duet with Alison Krauss, but it largely sports the same basic sound that made the man from Portland, Texas, a household name. With it, Williams reiterates, in his own quiet way, that retirement and the front-porch rocking chair will have to wait. As a man more focused on staying true to his inner voice than maintaining a high profile, Williams' way of working has always been at odds with the Nashville mainstream. That's as true today as it was in his heyday, and it's one more reason why we need him now more than ever.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Keep coming 'round."