John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Legacy of Don Williams

Songs like “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend” expressed his tender, quiet and thoughtful style.

By - Sep 22nd, 2017 01:48 pm
Sign-up for the Urban Milwaukee daily email
Don Williams

Don Williams

Politics make strange bedfellows. You’ll get no argument from me on that. But that adage applies equally to music and there are many stories that illustrate it. Groucho Marx golfed with Alice Cooper on a regular basis. Glen Campbell was another of the shock rock’s tee party. A story without Alice Cooper in it that always interested me involved Don Williamsthe country star who recently left us. He was called “The Gentle Giant,” but at 6’1” the second part of that moniker was a little bit of an exaggeration. The “Gentle” came from his tender, quiet and thoughtful music. His songs were romance, on the up or downswing. It didn’t matter which, he was so consistently the same guy you rooted for him like the home team. Like Tom Hanks, he was an everyman you could empathize with.

This quiet guy, with his self-posses and introspective ways, was championed early in England by both Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton. Townshend could easily claim to have invented Heavy Metal with The Who. He was smashing guitars on stage before he could afford to and his poor roadies had to put them back together every night. The aggression and volume in their music gave license to massive troops of Marshall Stacked misanthropes for the generation or two that followed in his footsteps. Cream, Clapton’s trio were almost as excessive. They certainly were loud and the songs ended, as Richard Bennett once so wisely put it, long after they were over. Clapton later embraced the whispering Southern soul of JJ Cale and turned his back on the loud crowd. Williams, I’m sure, helped steer him in that direction.

There was an attraction beyond quietude in Williams music. He consistently put songs at the top of the country charts, and they were all well crafted and universal in their simplicity. He had the ability to express profound emotional states with fewer words (and chords) than you would ever think possible. This was true whether he wrote the song or simply chose a good one, like “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend.”  That was written by a guy named Wayland Holyfield and comes as close to haiku as we ever are going to get here in America.

Coffee black, cigarettes,
Start this day, like all the rest,
First thing every morning that I do,
Is start missing you

Some broken hearts never mend,
Some memories never end,
Some tears will never dry,
My love for you will never die

Rendezvous in the night,
A willing woman to hold me tight,
But in the middle of love’s embrace,
I see your face

Some broken hearts never mend,
Some memories never end,
Some tears will never dry,
My love for you will never die

© Wayland D. Holyfield

Terse doesn’t begin to describe this. I teach songwriting and if someone came in with something like this, I’d put them in charge. It doesn’t use a pronoun till the end of the third line. The word “I” appears twice in the whole song. Did this guy have an ego? So little there and so much of it memorable. Remove the last repeated chorus and you have a total of 64 words. All of them are utterly necessary. “First thing every morning that I do is start missing you,” is the kind of compression listeners are searching for in Country Music, as is, “in the middle of love’s embrace, I see your face.” One listen to this song and it’s printed in your memory.

Don Williams was a brilliant delivery man. If ever a song and artist were paired like a gourmet meal and just the right wine, you have it here. Clapton’n’s real “a-hah” moment came when first heard The Band, a group that sounds positively ornate when compared to Williams. It’s rumored he asked to join them but they were already just what they wanted to be. His path would lead him many places, but his music was growing up. Moving on from wild bombastic youth to a more introspective style. Guess which one is harder. Until you reach that point someone like Williams probably sounds pretty sleepy. Quite the opposite, the guy in this tune was up nights hurting and trying to replace something he lost. Let’s hope it was only in this song.

In real life, Williams was married for a long time — he had kids and grandkids. He seems to have been the guy in the songs he sang, the one who believed so fervently in eternal love. If he wasn’t, he fooled millions with his brilliant impersonation and, really… why would he go to all the trouble? So another authentic troubadour is gone, one who kept a low profile and few may remember. If they do, I hope it’s for songs like this, an absolute gem of simplicity. In an age of excess and overstatement at high volume, you’re sometimes drawn to the one who speaks low.

One thought on “Sieger on Songs: The Legacy of Don Williams”

  1. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    I thought I hadn’t heard the work of Don Williams before, so I went to YouTube to hear this one (and what a deep, dark, husky voice and very stoic delivery!) and saw more songs and realized I’d heard “I believe in you” (with unpredictable lyrics) before. Certainly a poet, though perhaps only he could make simple words so believable at times. Nothing wrong with loving someone, and one’s children! Johnny Cash did that too (while fighting his addictions). Thanks for sharing the lyrics of “Some broken hearts never mend” – and you’re absolutely right, every single word is important to the whole of the song!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *