Here You Come Again: Leona Williams, Unsung Country Queen

David Cantwell | March 17th, 2014

leonayesmaamWhen Loretta Lynn cut the records that transformed her into a first-rank country star, she was still touring as the featured “girl singer” for brother team Teddy and Doyle Wilburn. By late 1966, though, her back-to-back grown-woman hits “You Ain’t Woman Enough” and “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (with Lovin’ on Your Mind)” put her in a position to headline her own gigs—but she needed a band. One line-up or other of her Blue Kenutckians have been backing her ever since, but as she told it a decade later in her autobiography Coal Miner’s Daughter, her first thought was to assemble “an all-girl band,” dreamily named The Lynnettes.

That never happened. (“People started saying you can’t have a travelling girl band,” Lynn wrote. “If you had one incident, people would start gossiping about it. It was that old double standard again…”) Lynn did hire at least one woman for her band, though, to play bass and sing: Leona Williams.  “She’s one of the best musicians in Nashville,” Lynn wrote in 1976, “and now she’s out trying to make it on her own. I bet she does, too.”

Loretta was right. While Williams never had any radio success to speak of, she mostly definitely made a successful career for herself—a career that, as it’s played out, is ongoing. I highly recommend, just for examples, two recent Williams tribute projects: 2008’s Leona Williams Sings Merle Haggard and 2012’s By George [Jones], This Is Leona Williams, both on Ah Ha Music.

And I recommend Yes, Ma’m, He Found Me in a Honky Tonk, a new three-disc collection of most of her early work, from Bear Family Records, just as highly. Yes, Ma’m… proves that Leona Williams was a first-rate country singer and a remarkable songwriter—a key if all-too-often neglected woman in the game-changing decade that followed Loretta’s and Connie Smith’s mid-sixties breakthroughs.

As well-told by journalist Randy Fox in the set’s 32-page liner notes essay (his work is particularly important here as it’ll likely go down as the most comprehensive biography of the singer ever written), Leona Williams grew up Leona Helton in the northern reaches of the Missouri Ozarks. In the early 1960s, she moved to St. Louis with new husband Ron Williams, and together—Ron on drums, Leona on bass—they became a pick-up rhythm section for mid-level country stars performing in the area. That’s how they met Lynn, who straightaway made them as Blue Kentuckians and encouraged them to make the move to Nashville. There Leona met Oscar Wilson (of Lonzo and Oscar fame), who set up a recording session for Leona in early 1968. One of those sides, a “You Ain’t Woman Enough”-styled complaint written by Redd Stewart called, “A Woman’s Man,” became her first single, for Hickory Records, a few months later.

Like just about everything else she released on Hickory over the next few years, “A Woman’s Man” was commercially unsuccessful but artistically quite strong. With a big, husky voice and phrasing a bit like George Jones’, and propelled by a zinging Weldon Myrick pedal steel lick that matches the singer sass for sass, Leona sings the hell out of “A Woman’s Man,” but it didn’t chart. Her next single, am equally rousing if more generic reading of “Once More” (a 1959 hit for Williams favorite and Hickory label mate Roy Acuff), blanketed Williams voice in backing singers and was a minor hit in 1969. I’d have pushed “Broadminded” instead, a Williams original that begins with an arresting a cappella cry, then finds Leona reading the riot act to a “broadminded, narrow-minded” husband. Like so many tracks on this collection, “Broadminded” is a perfect little country record—and one I’d never heard before.

Williams released two albums for Hickory—the super That Williams Girl, Leona in 1970 and the even better The Best of Leona Williams in ‘72. The latter includes swell funky country cuts like “Happy Anniversary, Baby” and “Tom Lucas,” complicated class-conscious weepers like this collection’s title track, and the if-you-can’t-beat-them boot scooter “Country Girl with Hot Pants On,” Williams biggest Hickory hit—all driven by the great studio bassist Bobby Dyson.

Yes, Ma’m, He Found Me in a Honky Tonk collects all of these sides and more, including never-before anthologized singles and previously unreleased sides that Williams cut for Hickory and, just afterward, for RCA.  Of course, Williams is best remembered today as the woman who was a featured backing vocalist, a frequent songwriting partner and the eventual wife of a fellow named Merle Haggard—a partnership that lasted a long, hard decade from 1975, when they met, to the end of their marriage in the early 1980s. She wrote such memorable Hag hits as “Someday When Things Are Good” and “You Take Me for Granted” (titles that speak directly to frustrations with her famous husband), and in 1983 they cut a duet album together, Heart to Heart (not included here but available from Bear Family as a single disc), that is perhaps the most underrated work of Merle’s entire career, not to mention Leona’s.

Frustratingly, Yes, Ma’m… doesn’t include the first major project Leona and Merle worked on together, her singular 1976 live prison album, San Quentin’s First Lady (it was a CD Baby reissue in 2005), where Williams is backed by Merle’s Strangers. The set does include, however, the couple’s silly 1978 top ten hit, a CB-themed come-on called “The Bull and Beaver, and its first-time on disc B-side “I’m Gettin’ High,” as well as several more solid solo sides she cut in the late 70s , a half dozen of which were produced by Porter Wagoner.

Disc three includes one more rarity. The final ten tracks here are from a never-before-released, Tompall Glaser-produced album that Willliams cut for MCA in 1986, featuring Pig Robbins on piano and a largely acoustic sound that would have fit nicely at radio beside contemporaneous sides from Randy Travis, say, or the Judds. I’d never heard it before either, but it’s been on near constant repeat here at my place for the past few weeks. Leona’s singing is addictive like that.  Indeed, nearly all of the 82 tracks on Yes, Ma’m… argue persuasively that, at least as far as talent is concerned, Leona Williams deserves to be remembered as a country queen right alongside the very best of her era: Loretta and Connie, Tammy and Dolly and Tanya. And Leona.

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Speaking of Bear Family… Something else that’s been dominating a good bit of my listening time here of late is their Bear Family Records Radio, which is exactly what it sounds like: Non-stop streaming American roots music (Hillbilly and R&B and more) of precisely the sort the label has been specializing in for decades. It’s free, and you can check it out at BearFamilyRadio.com.

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Finally… Just one column in, and already there are corrections, or at least clarifications, I want to make… I mentioned last time that I hadn’t encountered a single word written about any of my nominations for Best 2013 Country Reissues. Of course, that didn’t mean no words had been written. For instance, Paul Dennis included one of my picks, The Buckaroos Play Buck and Merle (Omnivore), a two-fer disc combining that band’s 1965 album The Buck Owens Songbook with their 1971 release, The Songs of Merle Haggard, in his own “The Best Reissues of 2013” roundup at My Kind of Country. Barry Mazor, meanwhile, wrote up another of my picks, Jerry Lee Lewis’ Southern Roots: The Original Sessions (Bear Family), right here at Engine 145.  That omission is doubly embarrassing as Barry’s Jerry Lee review appeared at the end of the very same column in which he reviewed my book, Merle Haggard: The Running Kind.  Well, mea culpa, as the Catholics say. Or, as the Simpsons say, D’oh!

  1. Paul W Dennis
    March 18, 2014 at 5:53 am

    I first saw Leona and her then-husband Ron perform at the USAF base in Ruislip, England. Ron was an engaging singer but Leona struck me as a likely future star. I’m delighted to hear of this Bear Family release

  2. Janice Brooks
    March 18, 2014 at 9:56 am

    So looking forward to seeing Miss Leona this weekend as well as meeting her son Ron at the Dennis Payne benifit.

  3. Ben Foster
    March 18, 2014 at 10:53 am

    Thanks for such a great article, David. I’ve been generally aware of who Leona was for some time now, but was never very familiar with her. I enjoyed learning a bit more about her and getting to hear some more of her music. A very talented lady indeed.

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