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Nashville Scene A Different Tune

Paul Williams is back

By Beverly Keel

AUGUST 24, 1998:  After 10 years of battling a serious drug and alcohol problem, Paul Williams is cranking out hit songs again. Only this time, the writer of such '70s pop staples as "We've Only Just Begun," "Evergreen," and "An Old Fashioned Love Song" is hitting the country charts.

If it weren't for the Nashville music community, Williams says, he might never have reactivated his career. His most recent success is the current Diamond Rio hit "You're Gone," which he copenned with Nashville writer Jon Vezner; the song was inspired by a friend who died from a drug overdose.

"I hadn't written in a long time," Williams says. "Anybody who talks about my story has to go with the question, 'Whatever happened to Paul Williams?' I disappeared for a decade, and it was basically drug- and alcohol-related. You know you're an alcoholic when you misplace a decade."

Williams had been surrounded by drugs and alcohol his entire life. His parents were drinkers, and by the time he'd encountered stardom in the '70s, cocaine use was de rigueur in L.A. At the dinner table, he recalls, the drug was as much a part of the table setting as a folded napkin.

Although Williams lived with his family on five acres in a wealthy suburb of Santa Barbara, Calif., he spent his days in a second-floor corner bedroom, crawling around on the floor with a loaded gun. "I watched my children grow up out the window," he says.

Nearly nine years ago, at the age of 49, Williams checked into rehab. "When I got sober, the greatest gift I got was reality," he says. "Basically, the deal I made with God was I would write again and have something to do with music again if I ever felt a love for it. I tried to force it a little at first. I did the Muppet Christmas Carol; I was proud of the work, but the passion was gone."

Then, three years ago, Williams reluctantly accepted an invitation to perform at a Tin Pan South show at the Ryman Auditorium. The decision, he says, changed his life. "I thought the songs I'd written had such old copyright dates that I had 'has-been' stamped on my forehead," he says. As it turns out, though, members of Nashville's songwriting community felt honored to have such a seasoned pro in their presence. "I went down and I was treated with respect, as somebody who was absolutely welcome."

While in town to perform at the Ryman, he cowrote a song with Gene Nelson ("18 Wheels and a Dozen Roses") and met with publishers to see if they'd be interested in working with him. On his next trip, he met with five different songwriters, none of whom he'd ever met, and set to work.

One of those people was Vezner. The first song they cowrote was "You're Gone." "Out of the blue, Jon started talking about Tommy Jans, my best friend who wrote 'Loving Arms' and died of a drug overdose," Williams recalls. "We started talking about people who passed through our lives and are gone but left a positive impression."

Williams began making more frequent trips to Nashville, hooking up with Jim Photoglo, Steve Dorff, and Karen Taylor Good, with whom he wrote the Neal McCoy song "Party On." "It took coming to Nashville to get that connection with music again," he says. "It's about trusting yourself and another person enough to just sit down in the room and have a bad idea. I just about refuse to take somebody's melody off by myself and write the lyrics.

"This whole thing about going to Nashville has been a socialization of my art for me. All of a sudden, instead of it being a separate thing, a secret, my art is an actual part of my life. My connectedness to Karen Taylor Good or Jim Photoglo is larger than just the song because we're writing about us. It's no longer something tucked away that we're trying to squeeze one more little bit of brilliance out of."

As a result of collaborating with other writers, Williams says, he approaches the songwriting process in a completely different way now. When he was cranking out pop hits, he was more "showing off than showing up." "The songs are based more on real feelings now," he says.

Williams, who was certified as a drug and alcohol counselor by UCLA, spends much of his time now counseling people in recovery and speaking on behalf of the Musicians Assistance Program, a group funded by the Recording Industry Association of America and other recovery programs. He left his wife and two children during his years of drug abuse, but has since happily remarried.

"There are times when I do get tired of talking about it," he admits. "It gets talked about as much as it needs to be. When I was newly sober, it was everything that I was. The only people I felt safe with were other alcoholics. But the fact is that maybe there is some sort of a plan to all of this, and I can use my strength and hope to lead other people to recovery."

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