Regarded as the Gentle Giant because of his smooth, baritone voice and mild nature, the late Don Williams was honored with three nights of music by the Nashville Symphony at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center on Oct. 31-Nov. 2. Members of Williams’ original touring band joined the symphony in a show curated by “life-long fan” Keith Urban to tribute the Country Music Hall of Famer. The show utilized a 25-foot wide video screen to show concert footage of Williams, while the symphony and the band played along to Williams’ isolated vocal, pulled from the footage, creating a fantastical and touching concert experience for fans of the late singer. The video footage, which came from performances in Africa, Ireland, and Branson, Missouri, and spanned from the 1980s to 2014 and highlighted Williams’ massive international appeal. Williams passed in 2017 at age 78.
Attendees were also able to view some of Williams’ personal items, including the medallion presented to Williams as he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, some items of clothing, record sleeves and Gold records, some of his most recognizable guitars, and the 1971 MCI tour bus, dubbed Gypsy Lady, which carried Williams from show to show for many years until his retirement. His legendary cowboy hat sat up on stage in a chair, much like the chair he sat in on stage during the latter bit of his career, with a singular light shining down on it.
As curator, Urban introduced the experience via video. “This evening is your passport to Don’s magical journey of his hit-making career,” Urban said as he gushed over Williams’ influence on his own career, as well as Williams’ global reach. It was later revealed that Urban had been sitting in the audience with Williams’ long-time manager, Robert Pratt.
Thursday night featured special guests Trace Adkins and Tracy Lawrence, Friday night featured Victoria Shaw, and Saturday night featured Eric Paslay. Previously announced performer Sara Evans fell ill and was unable to attend.
“Don Williams set an incredible standard as a vocalist in country music, and in music in general,” Nashville Symphony conductor Enrico Lopez–Yañez said from the stage. He credited conductor Jim Gray for the arrangements.
The Nashville Symphony started the evening off beautifully by playing a specially-crafted overture featuring bits of some of Williams’ 17 No. 1 hits while the screen showed footage of him traveling to Africa, as well as photos and album covers. Then the screen shifted to Williams performing his hit “Good Ole Boys Like Me.” His original band walked out to accompany Williams and the Symphony on the tune, including Mark Johnson (bass guitar), Mike Noble (band leader, guitar), John Gardner (drums), Chris Nole (keyboards & accordion), and Steve Peavey (guitar).
The Symphony played along with Williams’ stunning voice and the seasoned band through a landscape of his hits like his romantic tunes “Til The Rivers All Run Dry,” “It Must Be Love,” and “I Believe In You,” to his emotional songs, like “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend,” “She Never Knew Me” and “I’m Just a Country Boy,” and his biggest hit, “Tulsa Time.” All the while, Williams’ image smiled down from the screen, and sang along tenderly.
As he is known as the first country artist to perform in Africa, there were several moments of footage of African people singing along to Williams’ music. “Country by country, generation by generation, Don Williams was always the gentle giant,” said Lopez-Yañez.
When it came time for one of his most-loved tunes, “You’re My Best Friend,” Williams led the Symphony, band and audience in song, holding back for the last verse so the audience could sing. In an emotionally palpable moment, The Schermerhorn sang the sweet words up to Williams on the screen, as he grinned. “Fantastic,” Williams said with a smile. “I want to thank everyone of you for coming. Man, y’all are incredible.”
The tribute ended with Williams’ “Louisiana Saturday Night,” and then more footage of Williams in Africa. Attendees stood in the aisles with their coats to watch the final moments of the footage as the lights came on. As attendees were leaving, they were greeted by Williams’ touring bus, Gypsy Lady, and were even able to have a look inside.
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