By CHARLEY WILKISON
If you’ve ever dropped a tear for “Yes Ma’am, he Found me in a Honky-Tonk,” or wondered who is singing backup on Merle Haggard’s “The Way I Am” then you’re not only a bonafide country music aficionado, you’re already a Leona Williams fan.
Leona doesn’t mind talking about the past as long as the conversation ends up in the here and now. She laughs as she offers that she was born in Vienna, Missouri.
“Vienna, just like them little sausages you buy in a can,” she laughs.
Born Leona Belle Helton, she was raised in a family of seven brothers and four sisters where country music was all around the home and community.
She had her own radio show in Jefferson City, MO, by age 15. Lorretta Lynn heard her singing and asked her to join her original road band. She sang backup and played upright bass. While touring with Loretta she got her own record deal and began a solo career, but continued to sing backup and perform in other bands as well. Loretta recorded a hit song written by Leona, “Get What You Got and Go.”
Her two favorite singers remain Merle Haggard and George Jones. She was married to one of them, Merle Haggard. Before, during and after their marriage they wrote songs together including some big hits like, “Someday When Things are Good” (I’m gonna leave you). She also wrote his mega hit “You Take Me For Granted” which she says Tammy Wynette told her was the saddest song she’d ever heard. Tammy Wynette and Randy Travis recorded her “We’re Strangers Again,” and won critical acclaim and several recording industry awards.
Leona, who will perform Friday in Liberty Hill, says she likes telling the stories of country music and how it’s been part of her life.
“But the future is more important,” she said.
From her home in Nashville, Tennessee, on Independence Day, Leona gave an exclusive interview to The Independent. She insisted the newspaper drop her courtesy title and refer to her by her first name.
“I’m sitting here barefooted. I’m about as country as cornbread—and that’s pretty country if you cook it right,” she said.
“Singing was first for me. Song writing was just something extra the good Lord gave me,” she said, adding that she thinks she wrote her first song when she was about 14 or 15 years old.
“Some have been recorded by others, some I’ve recorded, and some of them still keep coming back to me. Maybe someday I’ll record them, too,” she said.
As for the current state of country music, Leona won’t say anything that could be remotely construed as negative about so-called country artists whose music sounds more like pop hits or are, in fact, pop hits.
“Everything has to change. I sure understand that, but I can see a renewed interest in roots music, in real country music, some call it hardcore country, I kind of like to call it straight ahead country,” said Leona.
Leona says her straight ahead country music came from the people, the front porches, the workplaces, the dances, the tailgates of pickups and just as somebody gives it up for dead, the music surprises everyone.
“I think country music roots have always been alive and now I think they’re coming back,” she said. “The grass roots are sprouting out music all over the place.”
Her recent bluegrass music CD was cut with folks like country-bluegrass superstar Vince Gill and the remaining members of the famed Dilliards, or “The Darlings” as they were known on the “Andy Griffith Show.”
Leona says her concerts in Europe are further proof of the grassroots country music being in a stage of renaissance. She shares her personal experience of being on stage in Ireland, Scotland and Sweden where crowds not only knew her but knew the words to every song and sang along with tears in their eyes.
Besides Honorary Texan being the name of one of her CD’s, Leona says she has always felt like one. Texas has always been a mainstay for her brand of country music. She allows that as country music has faced various generational and commercial revolutions, Texas has been the place where the audiences love to hear the real thing.
“It doesn’t seem to matter which end of the state you start with, there always seems to be an audience that wants to hear straight-ahead country music,” she said.
Leona says Texas is different for many reasons but that Texans of all ages are raised with some kind of deeply personal appreciation of music which makes it an entertainer’s dream to play.
“I love coming to Texas, love that audiences like to dance and have fun. That’s what it’s all about for us,” she said. “I’ve played Texas my entire career, but have never been to Liberty Hill, but I’m coming on Friday, the 13th!”
Leona will join Liberty Hill’s own Janice Maynard and the Country Stardust Band at the Annual Texas Hoedown Friday at Sendero Events Center.
“I’ve performed all over Texas and out of state, but never in my hometown and just thought this would be the perfect opportunity to perform here and get to bring some great traditional country and western swing music and artists here,” said Mrs. Maynard. “Also, I love the newly-redecorated Sendero Events Center.”
Also performing traditional country and western swing will be Leona’s son, Ron Williams, Jade Jack, Bobby Flores, and Mrs. Maynard’s brothers-in-law, Jerry Maynard and Steve Maynard.
Leona’s first connection to Janice Maynard came from her son, Ron Williams, who met the Maynard family at a show he was doing in San Antonio some years ago.
“I just love Janice and the whole Maynard family. Her husband and the whole family play in the band and are directly involved. They remind me of us,” she said. “Everybody in Liberty Hill should be proud of her. She represents her hometown so well.”
Mrs. Maynard said it’s “an absolute honor” to be able to perform with Leona Williams.
“She’s my hero!” she said. “She flew down from Nashville April 24th just to sing the duet with me that we’re going to cut on my new album. I did my showcase at the Broken Spoke in Austin, and she came down just to be there that night and sing with me.”
Mrs. Maynard said Leona enjoyed the evening so much that she wanted to do it again.
“That’s when we decided to put the Annual Texas Hoedown together,” Mrs. Maynard said.
“We’re both country to the core and we love traditional country music. It’s what we’re all about,” Mrs. Maynard continued. “I love her songs. In my opinion, she’s one of the best writers ever. She writes from the heart. She is going to have several songs on my new album I’m doing with Bobby Flores on Yellow Rose Records. And as far as her singing, she’s one of my absolute favorite female singers. She expresses a song so well. I tell everybody I’ve been taking singing lessons from her for years, she just didn’t know it!”
As for Leona’s future, after the obligatory plug for her latest CD “New Patches,” she spent time with The Independent talking mostly about other entertainers.
“It’s an honor to have a son who sings country music right,” she says of Ron Williams who will perform Friday.
She also mentions scores of other young country entertainers who have caught her eye or ears.
“I want to help anybody that does country music and helps to get it back,” she said.
As far as Leona’s personal career goes, she intends to keep on singing and writing songs.
“As long as I can carry my guitar and people want to hear me sing then I’ll keep on doing it.” she said.
Want to Go to the Show?
Sendero Events Center, 170 CR 214, Liberty Hill.
Doors open at 7 p.m. Dance from 8 p.m. to Midnight.
Tickets at the door are $25 or $20 in advance by calling (830) 798-2408.
Find out more at www.JaniceMaynardMusic.com.