8 p.m. Jan. 17
The Florida Theatre, 128 E. Forsyth St., Downtow
Attempting to understand the life of a soul intent on penning lyrics can be as slippery and ephemeral as wordplay itself. It may be best to leave that task to the poets themselves. “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world,” wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley, “and makes familiar objects be as if they are not familiar.” The biography of the acclaimed 19th-century English Romantic never specifically mentions his favorite Victorian-era honky-tonk bar, but his prescient words easily describe the understated music of country legend Don Williams.
Over the course of a career that now spans half a century, singer-songwriter Williams has attempted to articulate his musings on love, life, heartbreak and the rest of the “hidden beauty” in tunes that have fueled the minds of his fellow wordsmiths.
Williams has produced 17 No. 1 hits and earned induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, but if this soft-spoken troubadour has a legacy, it is one of gradual obscurity combined with an ongoing devotion of a disparate array of fellow musicians and songwriters. It’s an arrangement that has transformed the once-popular Williams into an accidental cult hero, which is all the more frustrating when one delves into the consistency of Williams’ work. The fact that Williams is at times reticent or even indifferent to the press deepens the disconnect between the power of his music and the general public’s awareness of an artist who has been name-checked by Johnny Cash and Kurt Cobain.
Born in Floydada, Texas, in 1939, Williams first displayed his musical gifts at 3 years old, when he sang at a local talent contest and won first prize: an alarm clock. Williams wrote his first song, a tune called “Walk It Off,” when he was 14. “I’ve always tried to think of myself more as a writer than anything else,” Williams told British journalist Alan Cackett in 1995. “I guess you’d say it’s the most fulfilling thing I do.”
Still in his teens, Williams began gigging around in various country and rock bands, while honoring that same self-gratification by honing his songwriting skills. It was as a member of the folk band The Pozo-Seco Singers in the mid-1960s that Williams first experienced success, with a tune called “Time.” When the band broke up in 1971, Williams ventured out as a solo artist, displaying an aptitude for interpreting other musicians’ tunes as well as harnessing his talents as a songsmith.
Through the mid-’70s and early ’80s, Williams enjoyed commercial success with a string of hits like “I Recall a Gypsy Woman” (1973) “I Wouldn’t Want to Live If You Didn’t Love Me” (1974), “Tulsa Time” (1978) and “I Believe in You” (1980). Williams’ sonorous voice, laid-back singing style and equally laconic stage demeanor attracted fans across the realms of country and pop.
Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend are two of Williams’ followers from the rock scene. Clapton covered “Tulsa Time” on his “Backless” album, but it was The Who’s mastermind who helped demonstrate the subtle pleasures of Williams’ music. In 1977, Townshend and Ronnie Lane (formerly of The Faces) recorded “Till the Rivers All Run Dry” for their collaborative release “Rough Mix.” Williams’ three-chord opus “Rivers” features dreamy lyrics that border on the contemplative: “Till the rivers all run dry/ till the sun falls from the sky/ till life on Earth is through/ I’ll be needing you.”
Williams’ version is innately powerful, but the Townshend-Lane rendition seems to magnify the ballad’s soft authority, trading the original’s swooping dobro guitar licks for choir-like layers of vocals that skim above the haziest kind of romantic music. The two British rockers turn the Texas folkie’s jukebox tune into a hymn that dips into the mystical, a testament to a great song made greater by those who remain devoted to its very creation.
In the past 40 years, the music of Don Williams has been covered by an array of incredibly diverse talent: Lefty Frizzell, Charley Pride, Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers, Alan Jackson and alt-country sweethearts Lambchop. Even neo-prog rockers Tortoise performed a few of Williams’ songs.
Williams’ most recent release, “And So It Goes,” continues his longstanding ability to attract greatness. Already praised by the critics, this 10-track affair features appearances by Alison Krauss, Keith Urban and Vince Gill, a trifecta of Grammy Award-winning artists genuflecting before this lesser-known poet of country music. The fact that it’s been released on an indie imprint (Sugar Hill) with little or no fanfare almost guarantees that the latest from the now-73-year-old Texan won’t be dominating the iTunes bestseller list.
Local fans savvy enough to check out Williams’ upcoming appearance at The Florida Theatre can be certain of one thing: It’s their chance to witness a living legend deliver a set of no-frills, high-thrills country music that owes as much to the illumination of poetry as it does to a neon barroom light.