Friday, September 10, 2010

Hank Williams

I found myself getting a little emotional while reading this biography. Country singers will do that to me, I've noticed. It's not just that Hank Williams was only 29 when he died -- sick and exhausted and an alcoholic to boot. A lot of my sad feeling came from running to Youtube every time author Colin Escott went into detail about a song Hank recorded. As a result, I had a strong sense of immediacy, as if this was the first time I'd ever heard Hank sing. In some ways, it was.

I'm not the only one who had trouble holding back feelings. Author Colin Escott has massive sympathy for Hank Williams and heaps of scorn for the people in his life that didn't believe in him or saw him as the goose that laid the golden egg or as a springboard to their own careers. Most of the time, he's on the mark -- Williams' first wife and mother of Hank, Jr. deserved all his bitter (and often wickedly witty) comments and much more -- but sometimes he's quite unfair and mean-spirited with his speculations as in the case of Cowboy Copas, who, upon Hank's death "gave the performance of a lifetime, possibly sensing that there was an opening at the top." I was kind of surprised because Escott is English, and one would think he'd have incredible restraint, but from Audrey to Roy Acuff to Toby Marshall, the criminal doctor who hastened Hank's death with liberal prescriptions of chloral hydrate, Escott calls them like he sees them and takes no prisoners.

Escott was probably correct is when he wrote that Hank Williams came along at just the right time. If he had come along a few years earlier, he wouldn't have found that post-war, newly urban audience that was receptive to songs about heartbreak and cheating in addition to the folk music they'd grown up on back in rural America. If he'd come along a few years later, he would have been "too hillbilly" for slicked-up pop-attuned Nashville, who, by that time, was trying desperately to compete with the invasion and culture-changing onslaught of rock and roll.

One thing that's amusing is that Escott often comments on Hank's countryfied pronunciation -- he points out more than once that Hank pronounces "poor" as "purr". An American author probably wouldn't have focused on that with such clarity. (I noticed that in the There's a Tear in My Beer demo Hank says "mebbe" for "maybe" but I thought that was just the EFL teacher in me coming on strong.)

Although I discovered some Hank Williams songs I'd never heard before and listened to others with a fresh ear, my favorites are still the same: I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You) is still my favorite slow number (I found a short but really sweet version of Hank dueting with Anita Carter). I definitely got that old-time feeling.

Jambalaya narrowly edges out Hey Good Lookin' as my favorite of Hank Williams' upbeat numbers. I finally took the time to look at the lyrics to Jambalaya...for years, I couldn't make out the second line, "Me gotta go pole the pirogue (a boat like a canoe, I learned) down the bayou..." or the second verse's beginning, "The Thibodaux, the Fontaineaux, the place is buzzin'..." In the biography, Escott discusses how many of Hank's songs couldn't be recorded or had to be changed because references to alcohol and drinking wouldn't sit well with the more strait-laced audience. I was amused to notice that Hank slyly stuck a drinking reference in Jambalaya: "Pick guitar, fill fruit jar..."

The tale of the cigar store Indian Kaw-Liga irritated me the first time I heard it in second grade and still grates on my nerves all these years later. According to the book, Hank came up with the germ of the song and his producer and publisher, Fred Rose tarted it up with that absurd Hollywood-like war drum beat. Rose can also be blamed for the annoying minor-key verses that shift jarringly into a major-key chorus.

With all the music biopics that have come out in the past few years, one would think that a movie about Hank Williams' life would be a winning choice. Unfortunately, that was done in 1964 with a sorry effort (headed up by Audrey, who transforms herself into the heroine of Hank's life) called Your Cheatin' Heart. Although he would like to see Hank's story done again and better, Escott holds out little hope "because 4-5 different people and corporations with different agendas who often are in opposition must all sign off on the way Hank Williams is portrayed."

Hank Williams is an intense and engrossing biography that provides an interesting look at country music as we know it today as it transitioned from a strictly rural audience to include an urban one that still stubbornly clung to its roots and the haunted young artist who seemed to know exactly what the audiences needed and would burn both ends of the candle making sure they got it.

11 comments:

Sam Sattler said...

Wonderful review...and I know what book I need to find next. I've been a fan of Hank Williams as long as I can remember liking music and I still listen to an hour or so of the man's music just about every week. Some new material is hitting the market these days: live recordings, radio transcripts and the like, with the promise of more to come now that Hank Jr., Jett Williams and others seem to be willing to negotiate rather than continue their fight about the unreleased stuff.

Kathleen said...

My dad was and is a big Hank Williams fan. He just loves the old country sound and hates the slicker more pop country of today. Sounds like the book does a good job capturing the short and tragic life of Mr. Williams. I think my dad would be interested to read it.

Michele at Reader's Respite said...

How did I not know that Hank Williams died at 29? I've listened to his music for most of my adult life and am just realizing how little I know about the man.

SFP said...

I knew he died young, but hadn't realized young meant he was still in his twenties.

Great review. I did the same when I read the book about the Browns--kept going back to YouTube to listen to songs mentioned in the text.

Rodney Crowell has a memoir coming out next year. . .

Bybee said...

Sam,
I didn't realize that there's still so much more stuff. Escott mentioned that a lot of it is on acetate which doesn't hold up too well.

Kathleen,
This would definitely be a good read for your dad. It gets a little dense with the information when he talks about the music business and sometimes that's hard to follow, but it also shows that Hank Williams actually had a good head for that aspect, not just the music.

Michele,
Part of it is that he doesn't look late 20-ish in his pictures. He looks a decade older. Sounds it, too.

SFP,
Even though Rick Bass missed the mark with that Browns book, I'm glad his publisher did the smart thing and called it a novel instead of getting caught up in an unneccesary lawsuit.
Hmmm, Rodney Crowell! I definitely have to read that because of the Cash connection as well as reading about the many songs he's written for other singers.

Unruly Reader said...

Bybee,
Reading your review makes me feel all wistful about Hank. Probably reading the book would have me sobbing into my beer.
Isn't it interesting how the singers of that era can evoke feelings that can't be reached these days?
(though not an altogether sad sigh; a wistful one)

Heather said...

I don't know Hank Williams at all though have heard his name so many times I just imagined that he had lived to a grand old age. I am shocked that he has such staying power yet he passed away so young. Thanks for the terrific and informative review.

jenclair said...

I'm also a Hank fan and the biography sounds very good. I'd like to look into the man and his music a little more. When we put on Hank, we also include The Texas Playboys...such fun!

Heather J. said...

I love when reading can become a multimedia experience. :)

Care said...

Fascinating! A wonderful review; I really enjoyed reading this. I'm now going over to youtube...

Anonymous said...

I have a hard time believing what Escott said about Hank coming around at just the right time. He said that if Hank had come around years later, he would not have been accepted in Nashville due to the emergence of the Nashville Sound which was trying to compete with rock and roll. In my opinion, Hank's music paved the way for rock and roll; so if he had not been recording music from 1946-1952, rock and roll may never have developed the way it did. It is like saying the egg was hatched before the chicken laid it.

And another thing - for someone who apparently came around at precisely the right time, his voice, music, image, and lyrics sure have a crap load of staying power. No one can deny that.