THEY CALL ME SWEET PAPA DON
Papa Don Winters' Last Interview
by Michael Buffalo Smith
Don Winters scored a major country hit as songwriter for The Louvin Brothers back in 1955 with “You’re Running Wild,” and while he was a major songwriting talent, he was and is quite a singer, spending many years as Marty Robbins’ accompanying vocalist. GRITZ was fortunate enough to meet up with “Papa Don” just before this year’s annual Winters Brothers Band Summer Jam in Nolensville, Tennessee. We spoke with Don briefly about his career, his love of music and his health. Don has terminal cancer but it didn’t stop him from taking the stage this day and singing his heart out. It has been a long time since this writer has seen a man with this much spirit, soul and determination.
When did you first hook up with Marty Robbins?
It was in 1960. I sang harmony with him. He didn’t like my guitar playing. (laughs) But he did hire me as rhythm guitarist and singer. We played our first gig in Albuquerque, New Mexico and about two or three songs into the set Marty turned to me and said “you’re a little loud on your background singing, back away from the microphone.” Then, after the next song, “Don, you’re still a little loud.” He kept backing me up until I nearly fell off of the stage! (laughs)
How long did you work with Marty?
From 1960 until he died in 1982.
Did you record with him as well as tour?
Oh yes. I did the background vocals on a lot of songs like “El Paso City” and “Devil Woman.” Not the original “El Paso City,” we re-recorded it.
How did you feel about Marty and how did his passing effect you?
It liked to killed me when he died. Marty Robbins had more talent in his little finger than most people have in their entire body. He was a real down to earth person. We spent a lot of time together. We went fishing and stuff. We had a great time together.
Did you do any solo recording?
We did an album called The Yodeling King, me and my boys. (The Winters Brothers Band) We didn’t call it that because I am the “King” of yodeling, but because I like to yodel.
How did your sons’ success effect you?
I was ecstatic. I was so happy for them. They did such a great job.
Did you go on the road with them?
Yeah, I did a few shows with them. And after Marty died I did Charlie Daniels’ Volunteer Jam with them. But I absolutely love southern rock. I loved being out there with them I remember Toy Caldwell of The Marshall Tucker Band. He’d see me and he’d say, “come on over here Papa Don and see me!!” (laughs) I don’t like the new country music too much. I have all my tapes I have collected over the years from different places. Classic country and Southern rock.
Tell us about your fight with cancer?
Well, I was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1994, but I got rid of it. I beat cancer! Then about a year and a half ago we discovered it had moved to my liver. I received some experimental treatments but it has really taken hold of me. I felt good the first couple of weeks of this intravenous chemo but then my muscles began to deteriorate down to nothing. I quit taking the treatments.
UPDATE: That night, June 15, 2002, Papa Don sang his ass off with The Winters Brothers Band. He sounded great. Papa Don passed away on August 17, 2002. We’ll never forget him.