Don Williams wears a hat onstage, but not a shiny black cowboy hat like those in vogue with younger country singers. His weathered rawhide lid looks like something a feed salesman or cotton farmer in his native Floydada, Tex., might wear while on the job. Williams kept the humble hat on throughout his show at the Birchmere on Thursday, as he sang about common desires and disappointments, things any feed salesman or cotton farmer could relate to.
Williams, now 60, has released many more greatest hits albums this decade than hit singles, but the large, mostly middle-age crowd found most of the material in his 20-song set list quite familiar. Though clearly bothered by a head cold, Williams's incredible baritone held up as good as new as he offered faithful versions of chart-toppers from the early days of a recording career now in its fourth decade. Just in case, the fans provided unsolicited back-up vocals on classics like "I Believe in You," "She Never Knew Me," "Till the Rivers All Run Dry," "Rake & Ramblin' Man" and "You're My Best Friend." However, Williams left it to drummer Billy Thomas, playing his first gig with the band, to deliver the falsetto on the chorus to the timeless heartbreaker "Amanda."
The fans' participation and utter allegiance didn't go unnoticed by the singer. "Y'all are something else," he drawled after receiving a standing ovation for "She Never Knew Me." He would get several more such salvos on the night. The last came with his final number, "Louisiana Saturday Night," which, though an oldie, neither the performer nor the audience treated as old hat.