he number of female vocalists who also have strong reputations as songwriters is relatively small in country music. Dolly Parton, certainly. Loretta Lynn, too. In most cases, though, gifted female vocalists have traditionally either looked elsewhere for their songs, or tend to write for themselves.
For the past 35 years Leona Williams has been one of the more gifted female singer/songwriters in country.
Although she's only had one major hit as a vocalist (1978's number 8 hit "The Bull and the Beaver," a duet with then-husband Merle Haggard), she was a regular mid-level chart fixture from the late '60s until the mid-'80s.
Just as importantly, Williams' compositions appeared regularly on other artists' albums in those days, most notably on records by Merle Haggard. Her compositions have also been recorded by the likes of George Jones, Gene Watson, Johnny Bush, Moe Bandy, Tammy Wynette, Hank Thompson, Connie Smith, Willie Nelson, Randy Travis, Lynn and others.
Williams - who has just released her first new album of new music in about a decade, "Honorary Texan," on the Texas-based Heart of Texas Label - has been a musician almost her entire life.
Born Leona Belle Helton in Vienna, Mo., Williams came from a large family, all of whom were musicians. At 15, KWOS in Jefferson City gave Helton her own radio show, "Leona Sings," and the following year she married her first husband, a drummer named Ron Williams, with the pair soon moving to St. Louis.
Moving to Nashville a few years later, Ron and Leona joined Lynn's backing band, with Lynn recording the Williams' composition "Get What 'Cha Got and Go" in 1967 on her "Don't Come Home a Drinkin'" album.
"I moved to Nashville in 1966 to be a musician" says Williams in a telephone conversation from Branson, Mo. "I knew I wanted to sing. And I played upright bass and sang with Loretta Lynn on the road for almost a year. Then I was wanting to do something myself, so I got with Hickory Records. I (also) signed with them as a writer, and I wrote several songs," including Connie Smith's "Dallas" and Tammy Wynette's version of "Broadminded."
Williams ended up scoring a handful of minor hits while on Hickory, the best remembered today probably being 1969's "Once More" and 1971's "Country Girl With Hot Pants On."
"I cried for two weeks when they were getting ready for me to record that. Because I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm gonna have to wear those old hot pants.' I didn't like that because I'm pretty countrified. But I learned to love that song after we'd done it a little bit. I'd wear a little skirt where you could maybe see hot pants on the side. I was kind of bashful, but it did real good for me. I stayed with Hickory for about six years, and then I moved over to RCA. I had a couple of singles over there that really didn't do anything. At that time, I had just joined up with Merle, and I asked them if Merle could produce (me), and they said no. I was getting nowhere on that label, so I asked to be released."
In the minds of many, Leona Williams' name will always be associated with Merle Haggard's. For nearly a decade - from 1975 to 1984 - the two worked together closely and were married from 1978 to 1984.
Williams was a vocalist in Haggard's band during that period and was also an important source of songs for Haggard. Well-known numbers such as "You Take Me For Granted" and "Someday When Things Are Good" came from Williams' pen, either in collaboration with Haggard or by herself. Haggard, for his part, produced Williams' solo albums and recorded a number of duets with Williams.
One of the highlights of Williams' early career was "San Quentin's First Lady," which appeared on MCA in 1976. Reportedly the first live album to be recorded by a female artist at a men's prison (though it's hard to imagine there are many other contenders for the title), the album featured Williams backed by Merle Haggard's Strangers, with whom she was touring at the time.
"I'd (thought) for a long time that it'd be a great idea for a lady to go to a prison and do an album," says Williams. "So I got to be that lady."
Haggard had served nearly three years in San Quentin in the late '50s for armed robbery and accompanied Williams on the trip to the penitentiary.
"Merle showed me around. He showed me where his old cell was. Then we all played prison songs. I did that song 'I'm Just Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail.' And me and Bonnie (Owens) had written a song called 'San Quentin, You've Taken the One and Only Man I'll Ever Love.' There are several on there that talk about prison."
The obvious question is whether Williams was nervous being the only woman in a room full of several thousand male prisoners.
"I was a little bit nervous," answers Williams. "You can tell that when I sing - I can, anyway. I don't mean to compare it to anything else in my life, but in 1968 I went overseas to Vietnam and Japan. For nine weeks, I spent my time in the Far East entertaining servicemen. And I don't know what it was, but that day it all came back...so many people applauding and hollering and screaming and rooting you on. It took my mind back to when I was overseas and how they appreciated me."