Best Don Williams Songs: 20 Country Essentials

We cover the country music giant’s best, from heartbroken ballads to upbeat dance numbers and everything in between.

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Photo: David Redfern/Redferns

Don Williams was nicknamed the Gentle Giant at a not-quite towering 6’1”. He was giant, though, when it came to his success on the country charts. With a nearly two-decade-long run in the top ten of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs, Williams remained steadfast as the genre moved through a number of different aesthetic eras, carving out his own timeless, velvety niche with his distinctive voice and style.

The native Texan had already spent years pushing for hits as a member of the ’60s folk group the Pozo-Seco Singers (best known for their song “Time”) by the time he made it to Nashville and launched his solo career. He had hits almost immediately, and rarely strayed from the sound and collaborators he established early on. Williams produced and wrote as well as sang and played guitar; especially as a producer, he was able to keep his rock solid but still understated soft country-rock sound constant through dozens of songs.

Williams’ rich bass-baritone voice, charming and more than a little seductive, offered another throughline to his catalog. Just about any love song sounded sweeter when Williams sang it, and more modern and groovy when he produced it – so even though he was incredibly prolific through the ’70s and ’80s, his hit rate rarely changed. It was country through an adult contemporary lens, mature and familiar but still compelling. Yet with all that consistency, Williams was still able to dabble in contemporary styles like disco more convincingly than most other country artists – it all still just sounded like Don Williams music, rather than some significant departure.

Below are 20 of Don Williams’ best songs, from heartbroken ballads to upbeat dance numbers and everything in between.

Listen to the best Don Williams songs now.

20. “If Hollywood Don’t Need You” (1982)

Almost a sequel to “Tulsa Time,” the single tells the story of someone left behind in a small town while his lover tries to make it in the movies (and hasn’t yet had to head on back to Tulsa time). All moody, resigned pathos, the song would have sounded quite familiar to Williams fans by the time it was released, nearly a decade into his career — yet the way that it played with leaving song conventions made it still sound compelling and fresh enough to once again bring the singer-songwriter to No. 1 on the country charts.

If Hollywood Don't Need You

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19. “Rake and Ramblin’ Man” (1978)

Williams’ catalog is remarkably consistent: He found a sound and a style and a type of song that he loved, and rarely deviated. This song is one of his more anomalous hits, though — the singer abandoned his favored four-on-the-floor groove and crooning for a more off-center beat and a little bit of talk singing about unplanned pregnancy. It was written by his frequent collaborator Bob McDill, though, and just like almost every other Don Williams single from the period reached the top five of Billboard’s country chart.

18. “Listen To The Radio” (1982)

“The words I’d say don’t seem to sound as real/The songs they play, that’s how I really feel,” Williams sings in this song-about-songs, a self-referential ode to the power of music. All lush strings and piano, the singer seems to be imagining an adult contemporary station (and not a country one) as he croons about how hard it is to convey how you really feel without an assist from the Top 40.

17. “Love Me Over Again” (1979)

One of Williams’ poppier outings, with a robust string section and some beachy guitar riffs, “Love Me Over Again” was also the singer’s first and only No. 1 hit as the sole songwriter. He also co-produced the seductive tune, crafting its lush layers with hints of the era’s disco and funk sounds but never fully abandoning his country roots. “Likely as not, there’s been better weather,” is also just a fantastic opening line.

16. “Ghost Story” (1974)

Don Williams made his name with straightforward love songs — this album cut, though, serves that convincing affection with a twist. On it, Williams helps his partner move on from a traumatic relationship with characteristic gentleness (and more than a few lightly spooky musical adornments from the pedal steel and organ). The result is unexpected and sweet, a love song for adults with pasts that still has country bona fides to spare.

15. “I Just Come Here For The Music” (2012)

On his second-to-last album, Williams included this duet with Alison Krauss — showing off just how little his supple, rich voice had changed over the years over a bluegrass-tinged bed of sweet acoustic instruments. It’s a compelling story song, painting a picture of two world-weary people who might just find each other. Krauss sounds songbird-sweet as ever, and together they recall the sweet harmonies of “If I Needed You,” 40 years later.

Don Williams - I Just Come Here For The Music (feat. Alison Krauss) (Official Audio)

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14. “The Shelter Of Your Eyes” (1972)

By the time Don Williams released this original composition as his first solo single, he was already something of an industry veteran, having spent nearly a decade in the Pozo Seco Singers, a Texas folk group. “The Shelter Of Your Eyes,” one of just a few singles that Williams wrote himself, combines some of that folksy, stripped-down sound with a decidedly Music Row polish. Rather than resting on the low end, Williams stretches into some of the higher reaches of his range, showcasing a less often-heard side of his voice.

13. “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend” (1977)

Williams picked up the tempo for this dancefloor-ready heartbreak tune, which opens with as classic a country line as exists: “Coffee black, cigarettes/start this day like all the rest.” Lloyd Green’s pedal steel grounds this bouncy track on Music Row, yet it became an international success via Telly Savalas’ cover, which topped European charts — proving that even if it wasn’t showing up on American charts, Williams’ sound was deeply connected to the pop music of the ’70s.

12. “Til The Rivers All Run Dry” (1975)

Another timeless love song from Williams released during his most commercially successful period, “Til The Rivers All Run Dry” is fittingly hypnotic and fluid, with the singer having a musical dialogue with the pedal steel. Its pretty chorus is fleshed out by a meaty backing choir, all, like most of his recordings, produced by Williams himself. Everything is silky smooth without feeling processed or redundant, a sound that the singer would ride to over a decade on the charts — a decade that had, when this song was released, barely begun.

11. “You’re My Best Friend” (1975)

By 1975, Don Williams had one country No. 1 under his belt and a strong sense of his own signature style — a mellow, soft rock and pop-driven sound that was warm, listenable and lightly seductive. This love song, his second No. 1, shows that sensibility, which would change little over the next decade. The strings might eventually be turned down a little bit in the mix, but otherwise “You’re My Best Friend” begs for adult couples to hit the dance floor and bob along sweetly together.

10. “She’s In Love With A Rodeo Man” (1974)

An album cut that became a fan favorite, “She’s In Love With A Rodeo Man” is the rare Don Williams song that finds the singer flaunting his Texas roots. The slow waltz tells a story about some elusive honky tonk angel, painted complete with jangling spurs punctuating the track — unlike many of Williams’ more famous tunes, its Western flair would still charm the crowd at any roadhouse or dancehall.

She's In Love With A Rodeo Man

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9. “Stay Young” (1983)

Opening with an almost modern-sounding mandolin riff (if such a thing exists), this uplifting track actually encourages rock n’ rollin’ in spite of its twangy aesthetic. “Just step outta line and break all the rules,” Williams croons with a characteristic lack of urgency, creating the most relaxed exhortation to live in the moment you’ll ever hear. Groovy and bright, the song finds Williams stretching a little outside his love song comfort zone to great effect.

8. “I Believe In You” (1980)

The dawn of Don’s brief run on the pop charts, this mellow waltz became his sole entry on Billboard’s Top 40 as Americans started to come down from their disco highs. Sweet and understated, the ballad includes a laundry list of contemporary political touchstones (gas prices, inflation) in service of its larger point: that real love is simple, unlike everything else. Few could deliver that message as convincingly as the velvet-voiced Williams, who croons it with characteristic ease.

7. “I Wouldn’t Want To Live If You Didn’t Love Me” (1974)

This song is basically the Don Williams prototype: intimate, conversational singing; a warm, round bass pulse; pretty pedal steel and dobro; light but locked-in percussion; and lyrics for grown-ups. It’s easy to understand why it became his first No. 1 song on the country charts, as there is not a single sound on the recording that chafes the ear even slightly. Instead, it’s inticing and breezy, the musical version of a glass of wine on a back porch.

6. “It Must Be Love” (1978)

One of a number of Bob McDill compositions that Don Williams recorded over his most popular period, “It Must Be Love” continued the groovy streak that “Tulsa Time” started. The song is settled in the low end, layering a number of different rhythmic riffs with precision — and yes, that is a cowbell providing the song’s persistent pulse. Williams’ singing adds another dimension to the song’s danceable contour, as evidenced by the late song breakdown where his self-harmonized melodies are accompanied only by percussion and he doesn’t miss a beat.

5. “(Turn Off The Light And) Love Me Tonight” (1975)

“Don’t think about tomorrow, it don’t matter anymore,” Williams sings on this twangy charmer, one of his more explicit singles to this point. Country fans weren’t thrown, though — it was the second of four straight No. 1 tracks for the no longer up-and-coming star. The song, produced as so many of his recordings were by Williams himself, includes an early example of the deep, enticing, disco-lite groove that would become one of the singer’s signatures.

[Turn Out The Light And] Love Me Tonight

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4. “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good” (1981)

Something of a return to country form for Williams, chock full of mandolin and pedal steel, “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good” links a broad-strokes Christianity with universally relatable sentiment to compelling effect. It became Williams’ twelfth country No. 1, and an important entry in the long list of country songs that cross over into religious music without necessarily alienating secular listeners. Optimistic and endlessly listenable, it’s got a timeless twang that’s inspired covers by everyone from Lee Ann Womack to Keb’ Mo’.

3. “If I Needed You” (1981)

May all great songs be recorded this simply and sensitively. Williams joined forces with the similarly superlative Emmylou Harris to turn Townes Van Zandt’s composition into a country standard, and the pair’s effortless harmony did just that. Released as the lead single from Harris’ album Cimarron (as well as on Williams’ Especially For You), “If I Needed You” reached No. 3 on Billboard’s country chart with little adornment — brushes of strings, a gurgling harmonica, light synths — and two of country music’s most distinctive voices in easy tandem.

2. “Love Is On A Roll” (1983)

Co-written by songwriting legend John Prine with Roger Cook — the same duo who penned “I Just Want To Dance With You” — this lilting, danceable number finds Williams translating Prine’s whimsy with characteristic ease. The unlikely hint of calypso is the perfect musical signifier for the lighthearted love song, which bridges country and pop into an endlessly sweet and listenable fashion. You’d never know that Williams was a seasoned fixture of Music Row by this point with the song’s levity and creativity.

1. “Tulsa Time” (1978)

Disco never sounded as grounded and earthy as it did on Don Williams’ No. 1 country single, an evergreen, straightforward ode to Central Standard Time. The Bee Gees were running the pop charts, Saturday Night Fever was running the box office, and Williams got in on the good-timin’ grooves with this song, composed by his bandmate Danny Flowers in (where else) a Tulsa motel room. It would become a bigger hit for Eric Clapton, but Williams’ version remains definitive, with a four-on-the-floor pulse that will get anyone dancing. It’s a country classic that stands alone.

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