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June 14, 2006

Hank Williams: Tortured Genius

The inaugural entering class into the Josh Hornik Music Hall of Fame might look something like this:
- Ludwig van Beethoven
- Robert Johnson
- Frank Sinatra
- James Brown
- Bob Dylan
- Led Zeppelin
and one more: Hank Williams.

Hank Williams was the first giant of "hillbilly" music, writing many of the greatest songs of heartbreak and loss, creating hits with unmatched regularity, singing with a masterful blue yodel, and bringing freshly-named "country" music to the cities and into the mainstream. (OK, for the last accomplishment, now I think he should maybe be cursed, not praised.)

I just finished Paul Hemphill's short but neatly-told biography of Williams, Lovesick Blues. Where Greil Marcus battered the reader with his poetry, Hemphill's prose aims more at the everyman -- an intentional choice, because his main theme is Hank Williams as the songwriter for the everyman.

The Hank Williams story is pretty familiar, especially with the recent run of musical genius biopics. Growing up with nothing during the Great Depression, Williams found music early, interned on the street with a local street singer, and started drinking in his teen years. Motivated by an ambitious wife (who, Hemphill tells us in some of the more amusing stories, wanted to sing with her husband in a Carter Family-style act but had a horribly unlistenable voice), Williams hustled for radio shows and spots on local country music cavalcades.

Finally growing popular enough to get into a studio and record, Hank joined up with Fred Rose of Acuff-Rose Music, and together, they began an incredible run of hit-making. A legendary debut at the Grand Ole Opry followed. (A spot on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville is still marked to remember where Hank's debut took place.) After a few years of incredible success in music and incredible pain in his personal life (failed marriages, debilitating back pain, and even more debilitating alcoholism), Williams died at only 29 years old.

Here is what I left out of the story: the songs. In his few years of performing and recording, Hank Williams managed to record the following songs and more: Lovesick Blues, I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, Long Gone Lonesome Blues, Cold Cold Heart, Hey Good Lookin', Jambalaya, You Win Again, Kaw-Liga, and Your Cheatin' Heart. As recorded by himself, his songs were giant hits. But they were also covered by other country singers, and countless singers from other genres (Tony Bennett had a hit with Cold Cold Heart, Elvis did Cheatin' Heart, etc.)

Without whitewashing Hank's faults -- his drinking, especially, but also his womanizing -- Hemphill remains sympathetic to Williams. He wasn't perfect, true, but his problems stemmed from other things, like his back pain (he suffered from untreated spina bifida) and bad choices with women. And Hemphill doesn't skimp on praise for the Williams catalog (though, to be honest, I felt his book could have used more firsthand accounts of the power of Williams' songwriting).

If Hollywood hasn't started on the Hank Williams biopic yet, it should. His life was interesting (the twist could be that he never got clean, so we could avoid the tedious drying out scene) and his music warrants a tribute much more than Johnny Cash's, and at least as much as Ray Charles'.

Read the book, or, even better, buy the greatest hits on CD.

Posted by JoshHornik at June 14, 2006 12:27 PM

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