Crackerjack keyboardist Chris Nole captures the dynamics and subtleties of ‘Gentle Giant’ Don Williams

“I believe in love, I believe in babies, I believe in mom and dad, and I believe in you.” Weathered troubadour Don Williams sports his trademark Stetson on March 27, 2012. Image Credit: Photography by David McClister

Chris Nole, best known as a core member of beloved “Country Roads” troubadour John Denver’s ultimate band lineup, was a fortunate veteran of Don Williams’ outfit for nearly three years. An all-around instrumental extraordinaire capable of handling keyboards, accordion and backing vocals with aplomb, the self-effacing New Jerseyan makes a salient observation about the intrinsic musical similarities between the ’70s country icons in a far-reaching interview debuting exclusively today.

“The dynamics and subtleties of John’s music were much deeper than most any other act that I know of,” reveals Nole. “Maybe the closest I’ve seen was with Don. The performance on his stage was all based around the vocal as John’s show was.”

Nicknamed “The Gentle Giant” for his laid back persona, salt and pepper beard, lanky frame, personalized Stetson cowboy hat, and lullaby-tinged baritone that never ceases to convey well-worn experience into an emotional lyric, the Country Music Hall of Fame inductee experienced his worldwide chart-topping zenith in the mid to late ’70s on ABC-Dot Records.

Over a 51-year musical career, the singer-songwriter impressively notched 50 singles snugly inside the Top 20 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Between 1973 and 1991, only two singles released by the singer-songwriter failed to reach the Top 20. Seventeen A-sides reached the prized top spot, many of them ambling ballads or mid-tempo pop produced by the artist himself.

Claiming somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 songs spread over 25 studio albums [not counting the four albums cut with ’60s folk rock trio the Pozo-Seco Singers or three official live albums], the country music titan’s extensive repertoire unequivocally stands the test of time.

On March 1, 2016, Williams astonished fans when he announced his second retirement from the road [he previously played a “Farewell Tour of the World” in 2006 but reversed his decision some four years later].

“It’s time to hang my hat up and enjoy some quiet time at home. I’m so thankful for my fans, my friends and my family for their everlasting love and support,” the then-76-year-old asphalt travelin’ warrior asserted in a prepared statement. A month prior to the retirement revelation, the Gentle Giant was forced to cancel a 21-city USA trek to undergo hip replacement surgery. And due to an undisclosed illness, three months’ worth of shows were inexplicably scrapped in spring 2015.

As a consolation prize for all those unfortunate to witness Williams up close and in person — including this humble writer — pour a generous helping of black coffee and sit back as Nole ascertains the stepping stones on his path to joining the Gentle Giant’s musical organization as well as the appropriate mode of action to implement whenever a piano bench unexpectedly collapses — with you on it.

Chris Nole endearingly beams from his piano bench during opening night of the “John Denver: A Rocky Mountain High Concert” mini Florida tour, on Nov. 19, 2013, Florida Theatre, Jacksonville. Image Credit: Photography by Jeremy L. Roberts

The Chris Nole Interview

Had you met Don Williams before you were asked to join his band?

I did not meet Don until our first rehearsal in January 2013. I was a huge Don Williams fan — his voice, songs, and record production quality were legendary in the circles I ran in here in Nashville.

I met Don’s producer Garth Fundis back in the early nineties. I recently got a chance to work with Garth and Don on the latter’s Reflections [No. 19 C&W, released March 11, 2014 via Sugar Hill Records]. I also knew some of Don Williams’ band members very well (before I joined the group).

Was there an official audition, or did your prior credentials [e.g. John Denver, Faith Hill, Emmylou Harris, Oak Ridge Boys] seal the deal?

I think my prior touring and recording credentials did have a lot to do with me getting the offer to work with Don. There was not really an audition — although I guess you could probably call my first rehearsal with Don and the band an audition.

In September 2012 I took a break from the Oak Ridge Boys tour which I had been doing for three years. Shortly after, I was contacted by Robert Pratt, Don’s manager, asking me if I’d be interested in working with Don.

I talked to my wife about it and we both agreed I should give it a go. I ended up working with Don up until his retirement in March 2016. In those three years I did over two hundred shows with him, including three weeks in Ireland, England, and Scotland. The Don Williams organization was top notch; a good bunch a people — professionally and personally.

What stands out in your memory when recalling your first rehearsal?

There were three days booked at SIR (Studio Instrument Rentals) in Nashville for me to rehearse with Don and the band. We actually worked and played through the whole show in the course of two days. We also played through other songs that were not on the set list such as “I’m Just a Country Boy” [No. 1 C&W, 1977].

After the second day, Don called the rehearsals — he felt I was ready to do the gig and that we did not need another rehearsal day. That made me feel pretty good.

How did your debut concert go?

I remember watching and listening to Don and the other musicians on stage very closely during my first show on Jan. 16, 2013, at the Lakeland Center in Lakeland, Florida.

As a professional musician, it is very important to not only concentrate on what you are playing (or not playing) at any given moment, but also to pay close attention to the music that is going on around you.

I thought it went off pretty well. There were no major crash and burn situations. I really don’t remember all the specifics of the Lakeland show, but I can be certain that there were at least a few things I wanted to work on afterwards as far as tightening up my keyboard parts. It usually takes a few shows under my belt for me to start feeling confident.

John Denver and keyboardist Chris Nole pose alongside Denver’s tour bus at the Harbor Lights Pavilion (renamed the Bank of America Pavilion) in Boston, circa Sept. 9, 1995. The show was officially released in 2002 as “The Harbor Lights Concert.”
Image Credit: Courtesy of Chris Nole

In our previous John Denver conversation, you stated, “The dynamics and subtleties of John’s music were much deeper than most any other act that I know of. Maybe the closest I’ve seen was with Don Williams…” Can you go into further detail regarding why you feel this way?

The dynamics and subtleties I am referring to happen pretty much throughout John’s and Don’s entire delivery and performance. The non-musician might not get exactly what I am trying to describe here — but the masses of listeners do understand this at a deeper level just by listening. They know it from how the singers and songs make them feel.

I’ve watched John Denver captivate 20,000 people with just his acoustic guitar and soft voice. Similarly, the more laid back Don Williams sang a song, the closer it drew the audience in. Not many performers I’ve seen out there have the ability to do this as well as Don Williams and John Denver.

How would you characterize Don’s personality?

During the course of a show, Don liked his sound, tempos, and arrangements to be as consistent as possible. He took great care to precisely deliver the melodies and lyrics show after show.

On stage Don tried to keep the show moving, although on occasion, he would acknowledge certain audience members that called out to him. He usually got a kick out of what people asked him such as, “What’s in your coffee cup?” Many a night I’ve seen Don have a good laugh while interacting with some of the more vocal audience members. By the way, there was black coffee in his coffee cup.

Are there any rituals that Don went through before stepping onstage?

The band and crew were really good at taking care of any last minute details such as tuning and such. When I saw our tour manager set a fresh cup of hot black coffee on the stool next to Don’s chair, I knew the show was about to start.

Can you recall any specific songs rehearsed at sound check that sounded great to you and the band, but for one reason or another, they never appeared in the main show?

We ran through many lesser known Don Williams songs at soundcheck and at rehearsals — and they did sound amazing. Because of the length of our live show, there was just not enough time to squeeze more songs onto the set list.

“Get busy living or at least die trying:” Don Williams poses alongside his tour bus for the rear jacket of “And So It Goes,” the singer-songwriter’s 24th studio album released June 19, 2012 via Sugar Hill Records. Image Credit: Photography by David McClister

Did you suggest any songs, whether covers or original compositions, that Don should have performed onstage?

Sure, the band called out tunes all the time at sound check. Sometimes you could get Don to oblige you and sometimes — not so much. As far as the concert itself, I left the set list and repertoire to Don. He knew best what suited him and his voice on that particular night.

How was the setlist dictated? Did Don take requests from the audience?

Don’s set list was pretty much all hits. Being the country legend that he is with such an extensive repertoire, it was impossible for Don to perform many of his songs in any given show. It was not a nightly occurrence, but Don would occasionally do songs requested by the audience. Don doing a request most likely happened during an encore.

What were some of your favorite Don Williams songs to perform onstage?

My favorites varied nightly depending on my mood and the moods of the others on stage. Also, the audience’s reactions certainly influenced our perception of ‘fun factor.’

It’s hard to beat “She Never Knew Me” [No. 2 C&W, 1976]. This tune has a very emotional lyric with a melancholy melody — no one could deliver it like Don. “Tulsa Time” [No. 1 C&W, 1978] let the band stretch out a little — it was always fun to play.

We performed “Lay Down Beside Me” [No. 3 C&W, 1979] a lot on our 2014 UK tour. I really enjoyed that. Of course, “Good Ole Boys Like Me” [No. 2 C&W, 1980], composed by Bob McDill, is one of the best country songs ever written.

A fresh-faced, 33-year-old Don Williams opts for an everyman blue denim jacket on the cover of his debut album, “Don Williams, Volume One,” released June 1973 via JMI Records. Image Credit: Jack Clement Music, Inc.

Can you recall any unexpected onstage surprises, whether intentionally by Don or perhaps due to circumstances beyond the band’s control?

Besides an occasional hiccup with equipment malfunctions or sound issues, I’ve rarely seen any major surprises on stage with Don.

One of the not so minor equipment malfunctions that comes to mind is when my piano bench collapsed when I walked out and sat down to play the very first song of the show! I think Don caught me going down out of the corner of his eye…and probably heard my expletives of dissatisfaction. He asked me if I was okay — I was. The piano bench was quickly fixed and off we went with the show.

Being Don’s song catalogue is so extensive, I must admit I do not have them all committed to memory. If Don called a tune during the course of a show that I was unfamiliar with, I just listened carefully to Don and the band and did what I could to blend in.

Does a show come to mind where the audience expressed limited enthusiasm? How did Don handle the situation?

Yes, that can happen. As performers, we have to remember why we rode the bus all night. It’s up to us to put on our best show possible whenever we hit the stage. I try to keep in mind that some people in the audience have been waiting for months or longer to hear us count off that first song.

Also, I learned over the years that playing to an audience that seems to have limited enthusiasm does not mean that they are not enjoying the show. They may be enjoying the performance more so than a louder, more boisterous audience.

Any given audience can be relishing every note sung and played while being reserved, polite, and attentive. Don Williams is a seasoned pro when it comes to playing to just about any audience.

During the May 2014 tour of England, Ireland, and Scotland, did you notice any differences in how the audience responded versus a typical American crowd?

The enthusiasm and turn out of Don‘s fans in the UK and Ireland was really amazing. Being Don Williams did not tour overseas as frequently as he did in the USA, his shows were considered “must see” events by many country music fans there.

The audiences in Ireland and Scotland were particularly warm and welcoming — and their singing along was really something to hear. They knew just about every word to every song…and sang confidently in tune! A concert hall packed with adoring fans singing along with one of their favorite country music stars is quite a beautiful sound.

I really enjoyed the comradery of the catering crew and drivers throughout the tour. Spending a few weeks traveling with such friendly and capable people is always a treat. The food was top notch!

The Gentle Giant plucks a trusty electric Gibson guitar during his final concert held at Arlington Music Hall in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2015. Image Credit: Photography by Karen Walker

The Don Williams Band roundly conquered the Arlington Music Hall in Arlington, Texas, on Nov. 21, 2015. Was there any evidence that it would serve as the Gentle Giant’s touring finale?

I remember that our last run in November 2015 went pretty well. At the time, there was some indication that Don would tour more in 2016. I don’t recall anything out of the ordinary about the Arlington Music Hall performance on November 21, except after the show, we all said our goodbyes and wished each other a safe trip home, Happy Holidays, etc. I haven’t spoken with Don since Arlington.

Only when I was contacted by Don’s management before the official announcement in March 2016 did I know that I had played my final show with Don Williams on November 21, 2015. We all knew that after every tour run Mr. Williams could decide to call it quits at anytime.

I could tell that Don wanted to keep touring, but it was becoming too difficult for him to travel and perform. In hindsight, I believe it was a good decision for him to get off the road. I feel bad for anyone who did not get to see Don Williams perform live — he truly was one of the greatest ever.

Does being constantly on the road ever bother you?

Well, these days I’m not! Lately, I spend most of my time in Nashville making music in the studio and performing occasionally as a solo artist. I still do out of town shows now and then — I was asked to perform with the Colorado Symphony in Denver to do a special evening of John Denver’s music on Sept. 10, 2016. The show featured John performing on video accompanied by former band members and the orchestra. It was quite a night.

When I used to travel a lot, if I could manage a good night’s sleep, eat some decent food, and maybe get a little exercise in, all would be well.

Released on Aug. 2, 2016, presenting the cover of Chris Nole’s rollicking seventh studio album, ‘It Be What It Be.’ Inspired by such keyboard extraordinaires as Professor Longhair, Randy Newman, Ray Charles, Dr. John, Pinetop Perkins, and Johnnie Johnson [i.e. Chuck Berry], Nole also tackles lead vocals on the majority of cuts including the standout “Good for My Soul.” Image Credit: Photography by Rick Caballo / Courtesy of Chris Nole

Musically, what have you been doing lately?

I did a few solo shows here locally this year. I have a solo show coming up on November 12 in Long Valley, New Jersey — road trip!

I released my latest recording endeavor in quite awhile on Aug. 2, 2016, a 12-song album entitled It Be What It Be. My piano playing, over the years, has been heavily influenced by many of the old school blues and New Orleans piano masters.

It Be What It Be is pretty much a celebration of vintage blues, rock & roll, and New Orleans style piano and song. I think it turned out quite well, and the feedback so far has been amazing. It’s available on my website, http://www.ChrisNole.com/, and just about everywhere online [e.g. iTunes and Amazon].

Other than releasing It Be What It Be, I keep busy in the recording studio. Due to the capabilities of the home recording studio and Internet, I’ve been recording piano and keyboard tracks for clients all over the world right from my Nashville studio. This way of collaborating with other producers, songwriters, and recording artists around the globe has really exploded in recent years.

Oh yeah — I’ve also been transposing a lot of my piano arrangements lately. I’ve had so many requests over the years to do so, and now I’m finally getting around to doing this. Sheet music arrangements of select songs are also available on my website.

I have to mention that one of my piano instrumentals, “Provenance” [available on Songs of the Wide Horizon, 2003] has racked up over 12 million plays on Pandora Internet Radio in the past few years. I feel very fortunate to have so many people listening to my music.

Does Don play any piano?

I’m not sure if Don plays piano — I’ve never heard him talk about it. I’m guessing Don is pretty much a guitar player.

What is the best compliment that the Gentle Giant bestowed upon you?

Besides the heartfelt compliments that Don graciously handed out to the band every night during the course of the show, one particular evening backstage, Don told me that I was doing a fine job. What a wonderful thing to hear from such a legend in the biz [Author’s Note: An earlier rendering of the Chris Nole interview was published April 12, 2015 in my “Jeremy’s Country Music Notes” column at Examiner.com].

L to R: Matt McKenzie (bass), Billy Sanford (guitar), Don Williams (rhythm guitar, lead vocals), Mike Noble (guitar), John Gardner (drums and percussion), and Chris Nole (keyboards) backstage at the IP Casino and Resort in Biloxi, Mississippi, on Jan. 17, 2015. Image Credit: The Don Williams Band / Courtesy of Chris Nole
Released on Aug. 2, 2016, presenting the rear jacket of Chris Nole’s rollicking seventh studio album, “It Be What It Be.” Sublime for being cranked up on some good speakers, the record finds Nole paying homage to vintage blues, rock & roll, and New Orleans style piano and song. Image Credit: Courtesy of Chris Nole