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Leona Williams becomes an honorary Texan

By Dan MacIntosh, December 2003

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Williams recently released her first new album in several years, "Honorary Texan." Although Williams herself has never lived in Texas, she says she's long felt a bond with the state and frequently performs there when her obligations in Branson permit.

"I'm not from Texas," says Williams. "I'm originally from Missouri. But I love the Texas country sound. I told Justin ' (Trevino) I'd love to do a Texas country album. So we got right on it, took a little time to pick out the songs."

Produced by noted Texas workaholic Trevino (who also juggles his role as Johnny Bush's bassist with his own solo career), "Honorary Texan" finds Williams tackling a combination of 14 originals and covers. All are rendered in a classic Texas blend of shuffles, two-steps and honky-tonk numbers.

"I got acquainted with a fellow down in Texas named Tracy Pitcox," says Williams of her label's owner. "Tracy has a lot of interest in real country music and in keeping it alive. One time we were on a show in Texas, and that's how we met Justin. He works with Johnny Bush, (and) he's got that special something. When he got me down there to record, he knew what to do with me. He knew what I liked and what songs to sing."

A standout on the album is a Haggard/Williams composition dating back to the late '70s, "Don't Sing Me No Songs About Texas." Although the song has been recorded by Johnny Bush, Hank Thompson and Charlie Walker, neither of the song's writers had ever recorded the song until now, though it's been a staple of Williams' live act for years.

"One night, I was out at the Grand Ole Opry, and I ran across Hoot Gordon, who was Ernest Tubb's bus driver for years. He told me Ernest was getting ready to record again and (wanted) some of (my) songs. But he said, 'Do not send me no songs about Texas.' And I thought, 'Oh my gosh, what a good idea for a song.' So I went on the road with Merle to Iowa, and on the way, he and I wrote the song."

Asked if her songs are still sought after, Williams replies, "Once in a while I get calls for songs. Not as much as when I lived in Nashville, but some of the new artists will say, 'I want to write with you' or when somebody's working on getting a record deal. But the music business ain't like it used to be. I just write the songs. One day maybe it'll come around where maybe they'll record some of them."

Today Williams calls her childhood hometown of Vienna, Mo. home once again. She and her third husband, songwriter Dave Kirby (who had also been an important source of material for Haggard at one time) married in 1985, and Williams performs a few days a week at the Grand Country Theater in Branson.

"The show I'm doing right now is called Down Home Country, and it's real classic country. They feature me through the show doing my own songs and then at the end of the show we do some of the duets that Merle and I had."

In Haggard's 1999 autobiography, "My House of Memories," it was obvious that he had unresolved issues with Williams, never referring to her by name, but always as "my third wife" or words to that effect.

Happily, Williams says that today she and Haggard are friends again, adding that there's a possibility that she might tour with him again in 2004, particularly since his longtime backing vocalist Bonnie Owens retired from touring early in 2002.

"As a matter of fact, I hadn't seen Merle for 18 years. I'd talked to him once or twice on the phone, but a while back he called my husband, Dave Kirby, who's a songwriter. He wrote Merle's song 'What Have You Got Planned Tonight, Diana,' and he'd written a song called 'Colorado' that Merle had also recorded. Merle called Dave because he was going to re-record ('Colorado'), and he needed the words to it. Then later on, they were fixing to work down here in Branson at the Grand Palace, and he wanted Dave and me to come to the show. So I said, 'Let's go.'"

"We went to the Grand Palace, he was waiting for us, and the first thing I said to him was, 'Well, there's Merle Haggard!' That broke the ice, (and) we laughed and hugged. He's had his life, and I've had mine. He said, 'I'm going to get a microphone fixed - I want you to sing with me.' And I said, 'Okay. I know my parts.' So we went out there, and I did the show with him. Then when he came through here again about a month later, he wanted me to sing with him again, so I did. And he's even asked me to work some dates on the road with him next year."

"I told him I might like to do that. That might be really fun."

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