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Hank Williams: Lost Highway
NOTES ON HANK WILLIAMS
by Daniel Cooper,
co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Country Music

Certainly no country hero has inspired as much contemplation of the meaning of his life and art and, yes, his death, as has Hank Williams. To date, some twenty-odd books about the man have been published, ranging in scope from straight biography, to sideman memoirs, to collections of his lyrics, to a book-length analysis of his religious beliefs and gospel songs. His life has been mythologized in film, theater, and any number of songs of varying insight or appeal.

Truly, few artists have had to carry the burden of an entire genre’s romantic mystique to the degree that Hank Williams has for country music. Like Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Robert Johnson, and a small handful of others, Williams, alone and in absentia, has had to absorb Americans’ need to localize psychic demolition, even as his music has fostered a cultural legacy that continues to grow. Recorded when many homes in the rural South were still awaiting electricity, his songs have proven vibrantly resistant to millennial obsolecence. On the contrary, from George Jones to Alan Jackson, Ray Charles to Cassandra Wilson, Tony Bennett to Beck—countless artists have found in Hank’s music the spark of emotional currency. His voice and image, both so archaic and spectral, have nevertheless become embedded in the commerce and information of the late twentieth century.

The mystery in all of this is how the music of a poor, sickly white kid from the Jim Crow South could become so universal. His career slots in at a strange time in history, just on the verge of the societal and musical upheavals that followed him out of the South and into the lives of Americans everywhere. A year and a half after Hank’s death, teenaged Elvis Presley recorded his first single for Sun Records in Memphis. And in late 1955, the town where Hank grew up, Montgomery, Alabama, brought the civil rights movement into the streets as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others led a successful boycott of the city’s segregated bus system. Hank’s music was not the cultural dynamite that Presley’s was, and he was never a world historical figure in the sense that Dr. King was. Yet, at some level, one can hear Hank’s long-gone lonesome blues as sounding the penultimate death-knell of Southern romanticism, his poor boy’s vision of Armageddon as a worried man’s repudiation of the old ways.

He was born Hiram Williams on September 17, 1923, in Mount Olive, Alabama. His mother, Lilly Williams, was a domineering woman whose charms were apparently few. His father, Lon Williams, was a disabled veteran whose appearances at the Williams home were apparently fewer still. Hank became interested in music at an early age and was tutored in Montgomery by Rufus Payne, a black street musician otherwise known as Tee-Tot.

By the early 1940s, performing on Montgomery radio, Williams had developed into a fairly well-known, locally popular country singer. In 1943 he met his first bride-to-be, Audrey Sheppard Guy. Their marriage (or rather marriages, there were two) and divorce (or rather divorces) would cause Hank no end of torment and inspire a number of his most famous songs. He joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1949, was fired from it in 1952, and was discovered dead in the back seat of his Cadillac while being driven from Montgomery to a show in Canton, Ohio, on the morning of New Year’s Day 1953. The circumstances of his death have remained shadowy, and some of the evidence points to the possibility of his having already expired before the clock struck twelve on New Year’s Eve. It could be the car Hank was ound in carried a dead man for many miles.

From his early teens until the day he departed for Canton, Hank Williams drank to excess. Like many alcoholics, he could sometimes maintain long stretches of sobriety. But in the end such episodes would do nothing but raise false hopes among his friends and family. Serious back troubles, probably stemming from a degenerative spinal disorder, tormented him throughout his life, ultimately becoming so severe as to lead him to chloral hydrate, a hideous sedative that would briefly kill the pain but would go a long way towards killing him. Through the alcohol, drugs, and pain that fogged his life, it was often hard to discern the contours of Hank’s true personality. Photos of him as a bespectacled adolescent hint of a wide-eyed sensitivity and warmth, an early openness to the very same world from which he would spend his final years retreating. Looking back, some who knew Hank are quick to recall his sense of humor, others remember him as a man of frequently sour temperament. Many are proud to say they knew him, but few claim to have really understood him. Like every great artist, Williams drew his work from some core inner self that remained hidden, even when, as in his songs, his emotions seemed most transparent.

Perhaps this, then, is why his music remains so powerful, so universal—because in that wakeful moment Hank knew so well, the human heart is most exposed. It’s no accident that some of his most moving performances are contained among the demos he recorded with just his voice and guitar. For without the support of the Drifting Cowboys, Hank himself, “alone and forsaken by fate and by man,” stands similarly exposed. One can hear what a flawed artist he really was; paradoxically, one can hear what a great and courageous artist he really was.

And that may be the essence of Hank Williams’ music: emotional courage. His spirit buoys a listener, providing the strength to face one’s self and ask the hard questions and not have it feel like self-pity. For Hank, the questions got harder and harder, but he never quit asking.

From the liner notes to:
The Complete Hank Williams boxed set
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