Settin’ my watch back to ‘Tulsa Time:’ Inside the dobro-powered Don Williams career record
Heavy weight artists such as Eric Clapton, Who lyricist Pete Townshend, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, and Keith Urban have all professed their admiration for the late Don Williams’ vast, nearly 300-song country music discography, whether “Till the Rivers All Run Dry,” “I Recall a Gypsy Woman,” “Stay Young,” “Lord Have Mercy on a Country Boy,” or his biggest crossover pop hit, “I Believe in You.”
“Tulsa Time” was Williams’ eighth of 17 number ones — 22 additional hits landed squarely in the Top Five between 1974 and 1991 — spending one week perched at number one during its 16-week Billboard sojourn that began on November 4, 1978. Cut in Nashville at legendary Sun Records engineer Jack Clement’s studio on Belmont Boulevard — the renamed Sound Emporium is still active today — Williams placed the bluesy, dobro-driven groover as the last song on side one of Expressions, his eight studio album released via ABC Records. A real departure from Williams’ winning formula of laid-back ballads, listeners may have wondered if their favorite singer had abandoned country for mainstream rock. But those fears were unfounded when “Tulsa Time” was named the Academy of Country Music’s Single of the Year.
Written by Danny Flowers, who supplied electric guitar, harmonica, and sang backing vocals in Williams’ Scratch Band for 13 years starting in 1974, “Tulsa Time” recounts an ambitious protagonist’s Pontiac-powered road trip from Oklahoma to Hollywood. Chasing a dream of fame and fortune much to the dismay of his girlfriend and mama, he ultimately realizes that “they don’t need me in the movies and nobody sings my songs… I had no business leavin’ and nobody would be grievin’, if I went on back to Tulsa time.”
In a 2000 interview with Jim Musser of No Depression magazine, Flowers revealed, “I wrote ‘Tulsa Time’ in about a half an hour in a motel in Tulsa. There was a big snowstorm, and we had the night off because we couldn’t work. I wrote it while watching The Rockford Files [a dramedy private eye NBC series starring James Garner]. So, I played it for Don, and a few months later I played it for Eric. I never even made a demo or put it on tape or anything. They both just went and recorded it ‘cuz it’s so simple.” Incidentally, Flowers placed four more compositions on Gentle Giant records — “To Be Your Man” [Smokey and the Bandit 2 soundtrack, 1980], “Señorita” [No. 9 C&W 1987, New Moves], “Back in My Younger Days” [No. 2 C&W 1990, True Love], and “Silver Turns to Gold” [on 1996’s Flatlands].
Tennessean reporter Brad Schmitt tracked down Garth Fundis the day after Williams’ September 8, 2017, emphysema-related demise to uncover some memories. Fundis served as Williams’ assistant engineer and harmony singer in 1972 before ascending to co-producer status through Reflections, the Gentle Giant’s final studio album 42 staggering years later.
“A day or so after we had recorded ‘Tulsa Time,’” said Fundis, “Don and I had added our harmonies, but he was still missing something rhythmic. Don started slapping his knees through his denim jeans on the downbeats and liked the sound. Then he started stomping his boots on the floor at the same time. So, next time you hear ‘Tulsa Time,’ listen for that. It’s Don out in the studio ‘marching’ with his boots and slapping his knees. It’s pretty distinctive and helps drive that track.”
Clapton first publicly endorsed Williams in an extensive profile conducted by Barbara Charone for the since-defunct, UK-based Sounds magazine. Practicing on a handmade dobro inside his Italian-styled villa dubbed Hurtwood Edge to the accompaniment of a Williams album, Clapton revealed that he had first laid eyes on Williams on Dinah Shore’s syndicated variety talk show [aired April 19, 1976]. When the Stetson-sporting cowboy finished his tune and joined the celebrity panel, Clapton was duly impressed by Williams’ reluctance to engage in the stilted chitchat.
By the late summer of 1976 Williams and his two-man backing crew set foot on British soil for their debut international tour. Clapton scored tickets for opening night in Croydon and wandered backstage to introduce himself to Williams, whose unassuming nature and absence of any preconceived notions towards the godlike guitar maestro sealed an immediate kinship. In fact, Williams and his band were personally invited to Hurtwood Edge two days before the Sounds interview to raise hell with a little jamming thrown in for good measure. Tantalizingly, Williams recorded a tape of songs before leaving the villa. One wonders if Clapton, then ensconced in alcohol addiction, still retains possession of it.
Not long after Clapton overcame various insecurities and joined his newfound American comrade at the Hammersmith Odeon on September 18, 1976. Although unverifiable as to which songs Clapton sat in on, it seems reasonable that “Till the Rivers All Run Dry” was a strong contender. The No. 1 C&W Williams / Wayland Holyfield co-write was part of the studio sessions for Townshend and Small Faces bassist Ronnie Lane’s Rough Mix, a sterling collaboration produced by Glyn Johns that saw Clapton not coincidentally guesting on — you guessed it — dobro.
A full two years before the lanky Texan waxed his “We’re All the Way” composition on vinyl [Portrait, 1979], Clapton unleashed a delicate, nearly unplugged cover on the multi-platinum, Johns-produced Slowhand album that included the side one triple whammy of “Cocaine,” “Wonderful Tonight,” and “Lay Down Sally.”
The former Cream guitarist had a second Williams cover up his sleeve with “Tulsa Time” in a similar uptempo arrangement aimed at rock radio on his largely mediocre Backless album. Also distributed as the B-side of “If I Don’t Be There by Morning,” the studio version failed to ignite, but a bouncier version that opened Clapton’s December 3 and 4, 1979, stint at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan Theatre reached a respectable No. 30 POP.
Williams and/or Flowers had played “Tulsa Time” on February 28, 1978, backstage at the Nashville Municipal Auditorium for a show the Gentle Giant was personally invited to open for the guitar god. In turn, Clapton offered up an acoustic rendition of upcoming single “Wonderful Tonight” during the private dressing room showcase. Williams finally got around to returning the favor when he tackled the definitive slow-dance number on My Heart to You . One other Clapton cover exists in Williams’ discography — “Lay Down Sally” — on the sadly out of print Borrowed Tales .
There’s another reason why “Tulsa Time” may have appealed to the passionate “Layla” rocker. He was an unabashed admirer of the Tulsa Sound, a country roots shuffle exemplified by “After Midnight” and “Cocaine” songwriter J.J. Cale. And three Tulsa musicians — drummer Jamie Oldaker, bassist Carl Radle, keyboardist Dick Sims — plus Oklahoma-connected backing vocalist Marcy Levy were all part of Clapton’s ’70s band
While Clapton did not publicly comment on the passing of his old friend, he is on record as singling out “Help Yourselves to Each Other” [You’re My Best Friend, 1975] as one of his favorite Don Williams songs. “It’s got really nice words and a pleasant melody,” said Clapton. “No, you can’t dance to it. It’s just mesmerizing.”
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