Williams’ easygoing proclamations of love had a way of feeling timeless, as though their sense of calm was rooted in the knowledge that the universe would always come around. “‘Til the Rivers All Run Dry” took that theme from implication to outright declaration, as Williams vowed his love would last as long as the sun was in the sky. Reuniting him with songwriter Wayland Holyfield, with whom he shared a co-writing credit for the first time, the song – at once spare and lush with its warm electric guitar leads – opened the 1976 album Harmony. “‘Til the Rivers All Run Dry” demonstrated just how far Williams’ influence extended, particularly in the U.K., where the Who’s Pete Townshend and the Faces’ Ronnie Lane showed their softer sides with an earnest cover of the song on their Rough Mix collaboration later that year. J.G.
One of the greatest country songs of all time, this sweet, nostalgic tune from Bob McDill, a Number Two single in 1980, offers glimpses of vintage Southern life. There are complicated memories of a father “with gin on his breath and a Bible in his hand,” cherished nights listening to legendary deejays John R. and Wolfman Jack on the radio and wisdom imparted by “those Williams boys, Hank and Tennessee.” What this Williams boy does with those memories is simply magical, and although the song also name-checks Thomas Wolfe, who wrote You Can’t Go Home Again, Williams’ delivery suggests that home is anywhere you leave your heart. S.B.
“I Believe in You” was the biggest record of Williams’ career – a country chart-topper and platinum album title track that went Top 10 Adult Contemporary and Number 24 pop. It was also explicitly, if subtly, political. The song, written by Roger Cook and Sam Hogin, lets Williams shake his head at a host of hard life transitions and American troubles – from getting old to religious fundamentalism to “the high cost of getting by.” In opposition to all that nonsense, Williams avers that “I believe in love…I believe in you.” That “you” typically gets heard as Williams’ pledge of gratitude to a lover. But heard back in the immediate run up to Election Day 1980 (or, for that matter, heard today), “I Believe in You” feels far more expansive, as if the “you” Williams wants most to believe in is us. D.C.
The “Gentle Giant” toughened up on “Tulsa Time,” the closing track from the opening side of 1978’s Expression LP. Driven by a gritty, funky rock & roll beat that sounded more like it was out of Waylon Jennings’ playbook than his own, Williams reveled in songwriter Danny Flowers’ hard-luck tale of trying and failing to make it in the big city. Pushing his baritone to a higher-than-normal register, his voice felt like it might just flutter away on the joyous, hand-clapping chorus. This was Williams at his most versatile, a fact that didn’t go overlooked by the country music establishment: “Tulsa Time,” his eighth Number One single and soon-to-be favorite of Eric Clapton’s, was named ACM Song of the Year, while the CMA gave Williams the Male Vocalist award —the only time he would earn either honor. J.G.
After Williams’ breakthrough in 1974, he returned the next April with the release of You’re My Best Friend. The album’s title track brought him a second Number One song and marked the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership with songwriter Wayland Holyfield. It was the first time Holyfield topped the U.S. charts in a career that would see him pen hits for everyone from Charley Pride to Anne Murray to George Strait. “You’re My Best Friend” was quintessential Williams – a plaintive, loping ode to marital bonds with a gentle, soothing string accompaniment. The song also marked Williams’ true beginning as a commercial juggernaut, as it topped the Canadian country chart and cracked the U.K. Top 40, while the album’s next single, “(Turn Out the Light and) Love Me Tonight,” also went to Number One three months later. J.G.