Six years after his farewell tour and eight years after his last LP (2004’s My Heart to You), Don Williams, the Gentle Giant of Country Music, has returned with a new album, And So It Goes. The nonchalance of the title is appropriate: It’s refreshing how un-flashy a comeback it is. Instead of new gimmicks or attempts to re-hip-ify himself (see: Glenn Campbell singing Guided by Voices and Green Day, or many of Johnny Cash’s American recordings), he’s just right back to the sound he’s known for – business as usual.
That sound is perennially relaxed, even if he’s singing a sad song. He doesn’t get all that sad, however. Wistful, yes, and introspective, reflective, critical, observant, humble, and full of quiet dreams; that’s the essential viewpoint here. Even while he’s acknowledging the terrible, tough now, he’s focused on a better future to come, like on the opening track “Better Than Today”, a would-be radio hit, if the state of country music today were different; if it wasn’t, like the larger culture, so fixated on youth. Can a 73-year-old singer get on the radio charts these days?
“Better Than Today” is hopeful about the personal future of a hard-working, down-on-his-luck man and, by extension, for the future of our financially struggling country. Then again, significantly, the song acknowledges that by dreaming we’re pulling the wool over our eyes to an extent. Our high hopes might be foolish or even dangerous, but we still need to carry them, he declares: “Why not believe it anyway”?
The hopes of the song and of the album (other song titles: “Imagine That”, “What If It Worked Like That”) are purposeful ones. There is a concerted effort to wish a better, more peaceful, more content world into existence, even when it might seem illogical to do so. The album is polemical in that way, while not feeling like it, because Williams comes across as such a gentle soul. Patience is a big part of what he’s going for. He sings, “What if we could…take our time without being late … what if this big old world didn’t turn so fast”?
Some of the songs that aren’t explicitly wishes still play like a description of a dream life – like the love songs “I Just Came Here for the Music”, where two lonely singles (embodied by Williams and Alison Krauss) match up in a honky-tonk, and “She’s a Natural”, where his lover has perfect intuition for what he wants and feels. In that song, his dream lover is also living out her own dream life: “In her heart she’s by the ocean / the sun on her face”. Williams can get pretty philosophical, particularly in how he describes the interior essence that we channel in how we live – what lies in our “Heart of Hearts”. In that song, weakness and strength are described as part of the same ever-flowing river within us, as are love and hate.
That talk of eternal somethings feeds also into the song “Infinity”, which speaks too to Williams’ role in country music as an ever-solid rock of gentleness. But while he sings about eternal things, he’s putting them in a bigger context, comparing them to black holes in space, again bringing us humans down to earth – grounding us in the gentle drifts of dirt and water and wind.