Sunday, March 30, 2008

The life and tragedy of a blossoming country queen's monarchy

Very seldom do the twinkling lights of stardom spotlight on someone. Those who don't fade under the glitz and glamor are a testament to fighting through the hurdles of stardom while remaining true to their vision.

Those who fade are usually forgotten. Aberdene Williams is one of those faded lights.

Williams was a little known country singer who, upon hitting the Nashville circuit, carved out her name in blazing lights. Lights that would burn brighter and faster than recorded remembrance in country music.

Aber as she was called to a few, came to country music's capitol, Nashville, TN in June of 1957 at the urging of Carl Smith who had discovered Williams on the amateur circuit. Many in country music speculate that Smith and the 17 year-old Williams had an affair during Smith's divorce to June Carter and before his marriage to fellow country singer Goldie Hill.

Smith never commented on his relationship with Williams, only commenting once at an awards show that she's the "fire that will spark a new Nashville."

Indeed her debut album, 1958's Blonde Cowgirl, was an ambitious project that combined classic country bass rifts with honky-talk sass. The album reached number three on the country music charts and her third record from the album, "The Dirt Isn't On Your Shoes", reached number forty-seven on the pop charts.

Williams spent the next three years on tour running the festival circuits.

"She inspired so many of us girls," fellow country singer and former roommate Dolly Parton said. "It was wonderful to see a girl out there giving lip back to those boys in the audience."

It was while performing for those "boys in the audience" at Pearl Harbor in 1961 that Williams met hot country bad-boy, Elvis Presley.

"Oh, how she fell for Elvis," Vivian Page, a noted country historian said. "All of Nashville was abuzz when she would visit him on the set of Girls! Girls! Girls! in 1961."

Sight and Sound magazine published two stories in 1962 documenting their stay in Hawaii. The then 27 year-old Elvis supposedly asked the 22 year-old Williams to move in with him. Reluctantly, she declined Elvis' invitation reportedly telling Parton he was "too distracted with his rising star". Many country music devotees view her 1963 song, "You Knew I'd Say No", as a kiss-off letter to Elvis.

"Listen to those lyrics," Page said. "'I couldn't fit in our house by the blue/ The bed would be too small for your ego, me and you'. Those are powerful, painful lyrics. She's crying out for her man to change."

After about a year-long break from the spotlight, Williams returned to Nashville in 1964 with a rejuvenated outlook to her career and a new roommate she met through a representative at Monument Records, Dolly Parton.

Parton, 19, and Williams, 24, became fast friends and spent the next year writing out songs for their respective albums.

"She was incredibly nervous for her follow-up album," Parton said. "She had almost been in Nashville for ten years, had a successful debut, a torrid love affair with a blazing star and all of this before twenty-five? She was petrified of coming up with something to bring her back to an artistic harmony."

For Williams, 1966 will be her year of triumph. After Parton married Carl Dean in May of 1966, Williams found herself without a roommate and without a record label. Luckily, the Man in Black found her. After hearing an early recording of Williams' second album, tentatively titled, Empty Houses Mend Broken Hearts, Johnny Cash invited her to meet with Columbia label executives.

Many speculate that it was Cash's finding of Williams as to the reason why Cash wasn't dropped from Columbia during this period. A year earlier in 1965 he was arrested in Starkville, MS, for trespassing and by that time he was heavily into drugs.

Execs at Columbia were excited at what they heard on Empty Houses and wanted more hits. They introduced Williams to country hit maker Hank Oakley.

In August 1966, Williams and Oakley got to work on Empty House's re-recording sessions. After two months of creative brain-storming, the two settled on eight new tracks and a new title, Hearts Burn in Texas.

Execs at Columbia and producer Oakley were excited about Hearts and knew Williams would become a star. Oakley reportedly told record executives that it would reach gold status by January 1967. Oakley was right.

Williams' second album debuted in November 1966 and went number one on the country charts in its first week and number thirteen on the pop charts. Williams was a bona-fide star.

Her first record from the album, "Hitchin' Post", went gold in January 1967. In February, during her Burning Hearts tour, Williams and her label were shocked when the album came up empty during awards season.

"She told me that she thought everyone in the industry would have heard the magic that her and Oakley created on that album," Parton said. "But she took it in stride. She knew those people were money hungry cattle drivers."

Williams reportedly never got over that year's award season snub and never attended the ceremonies of any of the shows she was invited to.

1967 also found Williams and former roommate Parton in direct competition with each other. Parton's "Dumb Blond" reached No. 24 on the country charts that year, while Williams' "Hitchin' Post" was No. 1, "Man in the West" went No. 13, and "At the Alter" went to No. 24 on the country charts.

After spending the last half of 1967 on tour, Williams returned to Nashville to begin work on her third album. Hoping to rekindle her collaboration with Oakley. After discussing a deal with Columbia, record execs told her not to use Oakley on her next project. Crushed, Williams retreated to her childhood home in Texarkana, AR.

It was while on sabbatical in 1968 that Williams received a call from the Dick Cavett Show. It was that show were she met rock's then leading lady, Janis Joplin.

Williams met fellow tragic icon Joplin while performing with band Big Brother during their rehearsals on the Cavett show.

"Williams sat in on those rehearsals while waiting to rehearse for her own performance the following day," Page said. "She wrote in her journal that what she heard was 'shocking and powerful'. She described Joplin's voice as 'earth-shattering and heart-breaking. She was moved and in 'awe' of Joplin's presence."

Williams and Joplin met later that week for dinner, beginning what many country historians consider to be Williams' downward turn.

"Joplin and Williams had dinner and hit it off right away," Page said. "They discussed what it was like to be a woman in the recording industry and their constant frustration with wanting creative control."

Indeed Williams and Joplin were struggling to maintain their own image. Williams, after feeling forced out of choosing her creative path, was bitter towards record execs at Columbia. Joplin, growing more popular after the release of Cheap Thrills, wanted a split from Big Brother.

"It was after this meeting that rumors and speculation begin to take over," Page said. "Rumors began that the two were meeting nightly at bars in San Francisco and there the two would just get completely obliterated."

Some also speculate as to how close the pair got exactly.

"What historians know from this union is that the two drank a vast amount of alcohol and experimented with lots of drugs," Page said. "A lot of groupies from that time recall seeing the two having sex together and with many others."

When asked about Williams' relationship with Joplin, Parton remains mum.

"I didn't really talk to her during those days," Parton said. "I knew she was lost and I prayed for her. She was unhappy and she wouldn't let anyone near her. I tried, but I think she was resentful that I was being embraced by these country big-wigs and she wasn't."

It was in 1971 that Parton's "Coat of Many Colors" hit No. 4 on the country charts while Williams' latest record, "My Man's On the Porch" only reached No. 47 a year and a half earlier.

With "My Man", Williams began to embrace Joplin's blues influence, experimenting with electric guitars in her songs.

"This new experimental sound didn't sit well with country audiences," Page said. "She was absolutely shunned from the country music industry."

In late August and early September 1970 Joplin began seeing Seth Morgan, a 21 year-old Berkeley student and cocaine dealer.

"I think Williams felt very put out to dry by Joplin," Page said. "Joplin was so messed up on heroin and shifted her focus to the Pearl album, that she never found her way out of that life. I think she fell for Joplin and she turned to those drugs."

Williams began to drink heavily after the pairs fall-out in the summer of 1970. It was then when she started to use heroin.

"She wrote how she hated it when Janis would use," Page said. "But she turned that drug into her love letter to Joplin. In some twisted way she thought that she could win Joplin back by opening Joplin's world into her own."

By the end of 1970, Williams went on binges that lasted for weeks. Record execs at Columbia, fearing for her life, confronted the former country chanteuse.

"They offered her medical treatment and studio time," Page said. "She was really taken aback by the offer and eventually told those fellows to 'beat it'."

Reportedly during the intervention, Williams was so beligerant that she spit in an exec's face and told them to "fuck off".

Early in 1971, Williams met with band Fleetwood Mac shortly after their Kiln House release. Williams hoped to join the group, but her hopes were dashed when the band offered Christine McVie a membership in the band for their album Future Games.

"That was the straw. The final straw," Page said. "Janis had died in October of '70, she couldn't find her footing anywhere in the industry. She wanted a new sound and couldn't find that either. Her end was speeding ahead and I think everyone who encountered her knew it as well."

When asked about Williams' possible involvement with the band, Mick Fleetwood told a reporter that Williams knew her sound appealed to the band, but her sound wasn't the direction they wanted to go in order to achieve crossover success.

Depressed, Williams wrote in her journal in the spring of 1971 that she had been going on week-long heroin induced binges.

"I saw Janis today," Williams writes in an April 3, 1971 entry. "I think she's here to welcome me."

Williams never set foot in a studio after her meeting with Fleetwood Mac in 1971. Finally, Williams succumbed to her heroin addiction in June 4 1971. An overdose claimed the once budding starlet of honk-talk country. Nine months to the day that Janis Joplin died of an overdose to heroin.

But for those who remember Williams and her nightingale voice, her tragic and untimely death at 31 is not the memory they have of her.

"Aberdene Williams was the life-shine of the Nashville country circuit," George Waitt, a long-time fan of Williams since his childhood said. "My pa would put on Hearts Burn in Texas and that voice would just trap you in her heartache and her yearning. Despite every story there is of her, she made her mark. She touched lives. She accomplished what she was supposed to in this life."

Friday, March 21, 2008

I Love This Song!

Okay, okay, I admit that I heard it on the MacBook Air commercial, but it makes me smile. The artist(s)? is Yael Naim. I just saw her on Conan O'Brien tonight too.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Easter Treat

I have not blogged in quite some time. I've been busy as shit.

My Celebrity "Look-alikes"

Yeah, I don't think I look like Johnny Depp or any of these cats. But oh well, I'm not the expert.

Monday, March 3, 2008


I'll take my rainbow with extra cloud sauce!