Harold Gene Williams (1938–2011)
Harold Gene Williams was a promoter of country music, a radio and television personality, and a businessman, becoming the host of the most widely syndicated country music television show outside of Nashville, Tennessee.
Gene Williams was born on January 3, 1938, in Tyronza (Poinsett County) to Abe Rubel Williams and Myrtis Elease Williams, both Mississippi natives. He was one of three children. His father was a farmer and carpenter. As a boy, Williams helped his family in the cotton fields.
Williams and his family moved to Dyess (Mississippi County), where they had purchased land, in 1943. Williams attended high school in Dyess, where he began his lifelong obsession with music. He also excelled as a basketball player and wrote for the student newspaper. In Dyess, he met fellow Dyess resident Johnny Cash (who was then called J. R.). Years later, E. O. Woody, the mayor who also worked at the high school, remembered Cash and Williams playing with the school’s public address system: “I don’t know which one aggravated me the most—J. R. or Gene,” he recalled in 1970.
After graduating from high school in 1956, Williams married Martha Benton (the couple divorced in the late 1960s), a native of Dyess. Although sometimes pictured with one, Williams could not play guitar. Instead, he directed his talents toward musical promotion. He moved from Dyess to West Memphis (Crittenden County) and worked as a disc jockey in Memphis, Tennessee, in the late 1950s at KWAM. In 1962, at a ceremony held at the Grand Ole Opry, he was named “Mr. D.J. USA.” That same year, Williams began his own record label, Cotton Town Jubilee, which issued songs by artists Sonny Williams and Slim Rhodes. The label lasted only a few years.
In 1963, Williams began a live television program—The Gene Williams Country Junction Show—in Jonesboro (Craighead County), on KAIT channel 8. The program was broadcast for fifteen years, during which Williams produced 3,000 episodes.
Williams was a promoter for a large number of country artists. He was instrumental in getting Johnny Cash to visit Dyess on February 4, 1968, for a homecoming concert at the high school. Williams’s booking agency also represented Tommy Cash, Johnny’s brother.
In addition to his work as a promoter, Williams was successful in real estate and other ventures. He owned movie theaters, as well as the newspapers Mid-South Trucker’s News and Ozark News. In 1968, Williams married his second wife, Carole Westbrook, with whom he had two children. The next year, Williams and his family moved to Horseshoe Bend (Izard County). Williams bought the Music Mountain Theatre, which featured such singers as Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner, Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Tom T. Hall, Carl Smith (June Carter Cash’s husband from 1952 to 1956), and Little Jimmy Dickens. In the early 1970s, Williams created his own radio station, KHAM, and an amusement park called Frontierland. KHAM is still in operation, though Frontierland proved unsuccessful. In 1984, Williams moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County), where he had been recording his syndicated television show, The Gene Williams Show, which was shown in eight states. By this time, Williams had divorced his second wife.
Williams eventually became one of the more prominent members of the Branson, Missouri, music and theater scene. He was initially drawn to Branson by the musician and comedian Joey Riley, who had appeared on the Mickey Gilley Show. In 2001, Williams began The Gene Williams Country Music Television Show, a live broadcast. Recorded in Branson, the show had a pre-recorded opening announcement by The Tonight Show’s Ed McMahon (who also appeared several times on the show). The program reached as many as 173 stations in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Over the course of its run, the show featured such well-known country acts as Roy Clark, Mickey Gilley, Johnny Lee, Wanda Jackson, W. S. Holland and Bob Wootton of the Tennessee Three, and the Oak Ridge Boys. Financing for Williams’s Branson show was made possible by Lucas Oil Products, Inc.
In 2009, Williams was inducted into the George D. Hay Music Hall of Fame in Mammoth Spring (Fulton County). At his induction, the awards chairman noted, “Gene is a man who strives to keep alive the spirit of country music for all music fans.”
Despite being a fixture in Branson, Williams remained active in Arkansas. He was instrumental in restoring historic buildings in Dyess, donating $50,000 to help restore the administrative building (built in 1934). Williams also purchased properties in the area and helped clean up the town square. Civic leaders in Dyess named a street after Williams, who also served on the city council. The Gene Williams Land Company—run by Williams’s daughter Debbie—promotes construction and is located in the center of Dyess.
In the last decade of his life, Williams, a lifelong smoker, suffered from heart trouble and other medical problems. During a medical emergency at a hospital in 2001, his vocal chords were damaged when a respirator tube was administered. That next year, he had a heart attack. Williams died on December 14, 2011, in Sherwood (Pulaski County) from heart failure.
Williams was married three times and fathered five children. He is buried in Potter Memorial Cemetery in Lepanto (Poinsett County); his tombstone is adorned with a guitar. Williams was remembered by Katie Lynn, his co-host on the Branson show, as a practical joker and a “walking trivia book about country music.” Starting with Orval Faubus in 1964, eight Arkansas governors have issued proclamations naming a Gene Williams Day.
For additional information:
Hanson, Aprille. “Gene Williams.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 17, 2011, 2B.
Mullen, Phil. “Arkansas Folks Proud, Not Excited, Over Johnny Cash’s Eminence.” Osceola Times, September 24, 1970, p. 8.
Ward, Linda. “Gene Williams Inducted into George D. Hay Music Hall of Fame.” Examiner.com. http://www.examiner.com/article/gene-williams-inducted-into-george-d-hay-music-hall-of-fame (accessed September 16, 2021).
Colin Edward Woodward
UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture
Last Updated: 09/16/2021