It‘s time for a little Hank…
It‘s been more than fifty-five years since Hank Williams died at the age of 29 in January of 1953 of a massive heart attack in the back of a limousine while traveling to his next gig. He was the most famous bad example of his time, having rocketed both to fame and flameout, a victim of drink, drugs, missed concert dates, multiple alimony demands, and a notorious unreliability. He was the modern Byron, the new Keats, the prototype for Elvis Presley, James Dean, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Tim Buckley, and anyone else who was ever to succumb to the celebrity lifestyle. Hank‘s manager, Fred Rose, who was one of the most powerful men in the music establishment of the day, said this of Hank:
“He had a million-dollar voice and a ten-cent brain.”
There‘s been some revisionist thinking of Fred Rose‘s judgment lately, with the news that Hank suffered badly from scoliosis, and that his consumption of pain-killers and alcohol was a desperate attempt by a charlatan doctor-friend of Hank‘s to medicate an untreatable illness. Choral hydrate and beer probably killed him, not his lifestyle.
Hank‘s music was the first I ever heard, and it stuck with me. My first memories are of living in a farmhouse outside of a little village called Whitemouth, which was about 60 miles northeast of Winnipeg. My parents grew up there and married at an early age, having four children before they were 23. My father worked “away” all week, returning every Saturday afternoon, leaving again on Sunday after lunch for the gravel pits of Manitouwadge or MacArthur Falls, or wherever the current job happened to be.
We had an aging green half-ton Fargo truck and an almost-new Chev sedan. My mother drove the truck during the week only because she had no other way of getting groceries or seeing people. I don‘t think she actually ever passed a driver‘s test. The local examiner gave her a license because she needed one, not because she knew how to drive.
My father was in his mid-twenties, a construction foreman with deeply-tanned face and arms. He was a ladies man in a strong, quiet way, much like his own father. They bought vehicles frequently, American sedans armored with V-8 engines and lots of big-busted chrome with flashy rear-ends, just like the young husband-hunting girls who haunted the local wedding receptions. They don‘t call them headlights for nothing.
Our farmhouse overlooked a slow-winding river that emptied into the Whitemouth Falls a few miles downstream. Huge flat limestone rocks jutted out from the river. On Saturday afternoons young men drove down to the water‘s edge and stripped off their work clothes. In bathing trunks or shorts they ventured out onto the rocks with iron buckets, and carried water back to wash their Pontiacs, Chevs, and Oldsmobiles in the summer heat. Wives and girlfriends looked on while kids played with marbles, dolls, and slingshots made from sealer rings stolen from their mothers‘ fruit-canning supplies.
Every car radio was turned on, turned up, and tuned to the same radio program: “Live from The Starland Theatre in downtown Winnipeg”, which was broadcast on CKY Radio, a powerful station of 50,000 watts that could be heard south clean to Kansas, west all the way to Saskatoon, and east as far as the Lakehead where huge freighters sat on the shores of Lake Superior, waiting to load up prairie grain for export. And the music that blared in unison from those car radios! – a monophonic symphony of tunes from the likes of Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Bob Wills, and local heroes like Hal Lone Pine and Ray St. Germain.
Saturday nights were reserved for local dances and house parties. I remember a few occasions when those parties took place in our living room. My older sister and I sat on the stairs while our parents and their friends danced to 78‘s played on our little record player. Most of those records came by way of my favourite uncle, a man with a blade-sharp wit and an irresistible charm who had left school in Grade 8 because he was ashamed of his clothes.
My uncle John spent all of his spare money on records. He lived with my parents for a time and his enthusiasm for music infected our household. I heard a lot of Hank Williams, so much so that I don‘t really have a favourite. There are perhaps a hundred Hank tunes that I really can‘t do without, among them “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” (redone by Sheryl Crow recently), “Alone and Forsaken” (find, if you can, Emmylou Harris‘s chilling take on this song ), and then there‘s Keith Richards‘ version of “You Win Again”: and well, I guess his whole Hank catalogue, as well as his albums recorded under the name Luke the Drifter. It‘s always time for a little Hank, no matter whether it‘s sung by him or by just about anyone else.
I think Hank was the finest country songwriter of the last half of the twentieth century, and arguably the finest of all time. As a vocalist and performer, he was electrifying. As an enduring legend, he has never lost his appeal. He was the first artist elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961. His songs continue to be covered today by artists like Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams, Keith Richards, Ryan Adams, Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler.
Hank was also the first singer-songwriter to make it big; he was more prolific as a writer than any other country artist, and paved the way for the modern vision of the artist who could do it all; play, write and sing. He wrote more than 600 songs in his lifetime, an astonishing output. Of those 600+ songs, more than 100 have been recorded by other artists. No other singer/songwriter has ever left such a legacy. Keep in mind he accomplished this with a regional accent, a regional flavour, in a distinctively regional voice that has disappeared from today‘s productions simply because the advent of television and other mass media (I‘m not including radio, which is about as localized a medium as you can get) has destroyed all regional differentiation. More songs have been written about Hank than about any other songwriter: more artists mention Hank as an influence than any other figure in popular music. A few examples: Tim Hardin, Dion, Roy Orbison, Leonard Cohen, and Willie Nelson.
Sure, Bob Dylan may be the better writer, but Dylan writes to conceal himself (and for good reason); Hank wrote to reveal everything: not just the standard drinking, cheating lore of your average country song, but songs of the wanderer, the prisoner, the gambler, the heartbroken, the faithful and the faithless. Hank‘s songs were the first genuine antidote in popular music to the maudlin fantasies that pervaded the pop charts in the late forties and early fifties. He wasn‘t scared to be the bad guy, the idiot, the fool, the wastrel, the loser, the ladies‘ man, the religious sinner, the drunkard, or the last one to see the truth about himself. And damned if he didn‘t have a sense of humour about it all too. “Move It On Over”, later covered by George Thorogood, is the tale of a man forced to sleep in the doghouse, literally, with his best friend, his dog. “Move over cool dog, the hotdog‘s movin‘ in”.
And: maybe most important of all. Hank wasn‘t afraid to do things with his voice that people thought weird or ugly or strange: he would whoop, yodel, stretch out notes, weep, moan, and generally “rip it up”. Someone once said that great singers need to have the courage to sing ugly; I‘ll come back to this idea from time to time, but it‘s one of the secrets of Hank‘s success. I believe that without Hank Williams there‘d be no Elvis (who never sang ugly but performed onstage like no one before or since, with no regard for convention or propriety), no Bob Dylan, no Tim Hardin, no Dion, no singer-songwriter movement, and no substance to country music. He‘s that important.
Hank‘s singing wasn‘t pretty. What makes him stand out (then and today) is the deep sincerity that gave the listener the experience of Hank‘s performance by-passing the brain entirely. You can‘t analyze Hank‘s singing; you can only respond to it, the way you might respond when the person in your life whom you love deeply says something personal, mysterious, and powerful. He is living proof that music changes you.
Hank‘s productive writing and singing career lasted a tragically short time –around 6 years. His output during that time was vast. Some of his best-known songs were written in as little as twenty minutes, some during intermissions at shows, others while riding in the touring Packard sedan with his band, pounding out the beat of a new tune on the dashboard as they drove on to the next gig. He could not stop doing what he did best; writing, singing, playing, and drinking. And he knew he was good (great talent is always aware of its gift), yet he was known for his modesty and his willingness to be one of the boys.
“When I wrote about Hank Williams ‘A hundred floors above me in the tower of song’, it’s not some kind of inverse modesty. I know where Hank Williams stands in the history of popular song. ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, songs like that, are sublime, in his own tradition, and I feel myself a very minor writer.”
— Leonard Cohen
When I think of Hank Williams, I think of Shakespeare and the great question: how could an uneducated, small-town guy burst upon the scene and make such an impact, one that will endure for centuries? Genius, my friends: pure, unadulterated genius. Some Saturday afternoon when the sun is shining and you feel like washing your car down by the river, take along your favourite girl, a couple of cold ones, and turn up the music.
It‘s always time for a little Hank…
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