People who don’t talk much seem to hear everything, and that’s evident in the songs of Don Williams, a soft-spoken country legend of so few words, you can hear his beard growing.
At the Birchmere on Wednesday, he opened a vault of delicate ballads culled from a lifetime of living, loving and listening close. With “Good Ole Boys Like Me,” he embarked on a coming-of-age nostalgia trip told in sensory details: “I can still hear the soft Southern winds in the live oak trees.” Shush up for a second and you’ll hear them, too.
“I usually don’t have a whole lot to say,” Williams told the near-capacity crowd after that opening number. “And I guess for right now, that about covers it.”
Sounds familiar. Williams is famous for avoiding reporters, so it isn’t clear why the man retired in 2006, changed his mind in 2010 and released “And So It Goes,” his first new album since 2004, in June. He remains sphinxy and is most certainly not on Twitter.
We know he was born 73 years ago in Floydada, Tex., which sounds like the name of a made-up, gobbledygook town that suddenly appears in your mouth when a police officer is shining a flashlight in your face. But Williams wouldn’t know anything about that. While countless pills vanished into the circulatory system of Nashville’s roaring ’70s, Williams was notoriously mellow. He cut his teeth in various groups and went solo in 1971, crooning in a placid baritone that would score him 17 No. 1 country hits.
“Back in My Younger Days” made it only to No. 2 in 1990, but on Wednesday you had to wonder if Williams’s voice had aged at all since then, or even since the younger days he was reminiscing about. Where most senior troubadours ride off into their sunsets with a little rasp in their pipes, Williams’s voice has retained a stunning clarity. The audience seemed to have noticed. When the song was over, he shook his head at the crowd. “Man, y’all are so quiet.”
That’s called reverent silence. For 19 songs, the room seemed to be holding its collective breath. Instead of heel stomping, there was silent swaying. Instead of hand-clapping, there was hand-clap-pantomime. Even “I Believe in You” — which has one of the funniest riddles ever smuggled into a country tune: “I don’t believe virginity is as common as it used to be” — failed to generate a half-chuckle.
The band played with similar timidity. During fragile versions of “Elise,” “If Hollywood Don’t Need You (Honey I Still Do)” and “You’re My Best Friend,” Williams’s six-piece backing troupe handled its instruments like they were made of Grandma’s china. The entire set relied on a steady, almost subliminal pulse — another winning hallmark of the Williams songbook — but John Gardner’s drumsticks often sounded as if they were being manipulated more by gravity than by muscle.
That left plenty of space for Williams’s voice to comfortably hold the center, making it easy to hear his influence on contemporary country soothsayers such as Keith Urban and straight-talking stoics such as Jamey Johnson.
But who knows what Williams thinks about his legacy? Onstage, he didn’t have much to say about it. Or anything else.