»  National Review Online

January 29th, 2003

  The Old, Weird America


[Note: Several readers pointed out that since Tennessee and West Virginia are not contiguous states, my opening sentence is wrong. Yeah, yeah, everybody's a critic …]

Hank Williams died in either 1952 or 1953, in either Tennessee or West Virginia. The confusions arise from the fact that he was in the back seat of a car, late on New Year's Eve, being driven from Montgomery, Alabama to Charleston, West Virginia, by a young student hired for the purpose. At some point, most likely before midnight, Hank Williams died, from a combination of booze and pain-killing drugs — he suffered from a chronic back problem. Hank was twenty-nine years old.

Last Saturday, fifty years and three weeks later, I went to see the play Hank Williams: Lost Highway at the Manhattan Ensemble Theater in New York City's SoHo district. "Play" isn't quite the right term here. There are a score or more of full-dress songs performed, and a number of song fragments. In between times, ten actors tell the story of Hank Williams' life.

It wasn't much of a life. Hank was born to poor whites in south-central Alabama, off Route 31 between Montgomery and Mobile, as deep as the Deep South gets. His ancestry was Scotch-Irish and Cherokee. His father was invalided out of the family when Hank was six, and spent the rest of his life in VA hospitals. Growing up dirt poor in Georgiana, shining shoes and selling newspapers, Hank took guitar lessons from a black street musician named Rufus Payne, from whom he learned all about the blues. Putting that together with the hillbilly folk tunes and hymns of his own people, Hank Williams pretty much created the modern style of Country and Western music.

If I told you I am a country music fan, I'd be lying. A little country music goes a long way with me. Oh, I like it well enough, can put up with C&W as background music, and there are a few songs I really like, but my personal tastes run more to soft rock and Italian opera. With Hank Williams, though, I go way back. When I was a little kid in England, we lived in a two-family house, the two families side by side in the style English people call "semi-detached." This was public housing and the walls were pretty thin. (My Dad used to say that if the family next door pushed an electric plug into a socket in the common wall, one of our own plugs would fall out.) Well, the next-door family had a teenager in residence, and he was a big Hank Williams fan. He must have had other records too, I suppose, but for some reason it was Hank Williams who came through the wall most clearly. I can recall Sunday mornings, Dad engrossed in his News of the World, the house filling up with wonderful cooking smells — we adhered to the English tradition of a huge lunch on Sundays, with a roast joint of meat and all the trimmings — and through the wall:

Another love before my time
Made your heart sad and blue.
And so my heart is paying now
For things I didn't do …

The song I particularly liked was a bluegrass-style prison ballad titled "I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow." I liked it for childish reasons: worked in with the lyrics is a simulation of a train whistle, that I could imitate:

Just a kid acting smart,
I went and broke my darling's heart —
I guess I was too young to know.
They took me off the Georgia Main,
Locked me to a ball and chain.
I heard that lo-o- whoo! whoo! -nesome whistle blow.

This doesn't work on the page, but when you hear it, even at the age of five or six, it brings surging in with it all the thoughts and feelings of a kid lying in bed late at night in a tarpaper shack in back-country Alabama, listening to a distant train whistle. It still has that effect today: I just listened to it — a direct injection, staight into the heart, of loneliness, regret and longing.

Twenty years later I somehow acquired a two-cassette collection of Hank Williams songs and soon found I was mildly addicted to them. For the most part they are very easy to sing, and the words go together with the tunes in a way that makes them especially easy to remember. There is in fact a clarity and simplicity about a Hank Williams lyric that you don't often find in pop music, a complete lack of affectation.

I could say it's over now —
That I was glad to see you go.
I could hate you for the way I'm feelin' —
My lips could tell the lie, but my heart would know.

This is folk art, of course, not high art, and I'm not going to make any exaggerated claims for Hank Williams as a poet. The lyrics stand well by themselves, though, which is more than you can say for 95 per cent of pop music.

The best of those lyrics are very sad. They deal with loneliness, failure in love, despair and hopeless yearning. Since all of us are afflicted by these misfortunes at one time or another, they have universal appeal. Hank Williams knew this territory all too well. His life was a train wreck. He already had a drinking problem when, at age 19, he met the love of his life, Audrey Mae Sheppard. A spirited and, on indirect evidence, highly-sexed Southern girl from the same background as himself, Audrey Mae was too much for Hank. The general tenor of their relationship can be gathered from statements in the papers they filed for their divorces in 1948 and 1952 (they were married twice and divorced twice):

Audrey, 1948:  Hank Williams my husband is twenty-four years of age. He drinks a great deal, and during the past month he has been drunk most of the time. My nervous system has been upset and I am afraid to live with him any longer.

Hank, 1952:  I have suffered every humiliation, abuse and mistreatment that a man could possibly take from a woman. Audrey has always been possessed of an ungovernable temper, and would fly into fits and rages. She continuously refers to me as a "son of a bitch" and many other names too vile and vulgar to mention. She has cursed and abused me, thrown furniture, and inflicted violence upon me in almost every conceivable fashion.

It is of course true that testimony filed in divorce proceedings should be taken with a large pinch of salt. In this case, though, there are good reasons to think that these statements reflect reality pretty closely. It is hard not to notice, for example, that a surprising number of photographs of Hank — who was sickly and frail, by no means a street-fighting man — show him with facial cuts and bruises. And yet there is no doubt Hank loved this woman with all his heart. It's there in plain sight in the songs:

You'll never know how much it hurts
To see you sit and cry.
You know you need and want my love,
Yet you're afraid to try.

The situation was aggravated by Audrey's desire to be a singer herself, a desire that stood in direct conflict with her utter and absolute lack of talent. At this time Hank was touring the South, playing at cheap honky-tonk dives — the kinds of joints of which Hank's manager Fred Rose observed: "People don't go to those places to listen to music. They go to get drunk and fight." It was a common thing for the stage to be protected with chicken wire, so if the audience started throwing bottles they wouldn't hit the band. On the road for weeks at a time, playing places like that, with mostly liquor for company, it is surprising that Hank stayed married as long as he did.

It is a wretched life to read about (there is a very good biography by Colin Escott), illuminated only by religious faith. Hank was raised in the spasmodic, repenting, all-consuming but occasional Christianity of the South, and as he sank into pain and despair in his last days, it was all he had left to cling to. One of his last recorded remarks was: "Every time I close my eyes, I see Jesus coming down the road." The wretchedness and the booze destroyed his personality. I don't think Hank Williams was ever an easy person to get on with, but by his late twenties he was impossible.

Except on stage. The life was nothing, a disaster, best forgotten:  all of the man, everything that mattered, was in his music. One thing you see clearly, reading about Hank Williams, is that he had a stage presence of terrific power. He could wrap an audience, even a very big audience, round his little finger. People who saw him in concert all testify to this. It doesn't really come through on film, of which there is anyway very little, and so this aspect of Hank Williams is lost for ever, except in the recollections of the dwindling number of people still alive who saw him. You get something of it on the recordings, though, and with an effort of imagination can get a glimpse of the man's charisma from his music.

Or you could go to see the play Hank Williams: Lost Highway. Probably not in New York: the Manhattan Ensemble Theater production closes next week. It's a small theater, only 120 seats, and they tell me they are all sold out. (The performance we caught, there were extra seats set out in the aisles.) If the company takes the show anywhere else, though, try to see them. Jason Petty is simply terrific in the name role. He has spent years researching and performing Hank Williams, and enjoys the great advantage of actually looking like his subject — same bony Cherokee face, same lean frame in clothes that always look a size too big. He has the voice down right, too — at times you could almost think you were hearing the original. My wife is C&W-phobic. When I play Hank Williams around the house, she sniffs: "White trash music!"  Still, when Jason Petty pulled out all the stops on "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry,"  she was crying herself. Who wouldn't?

The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky.
And as I wonder where you are
I'm so lonesome I could cry.

The veteran Shakespearean actor Michael W. Howell plays Rufus Payne, and turns out to have a good blues voice. There is a great supporting cast, fine homely Southern faces, and the music is mostly live — no lip-syncing.

When the cast took their bows at the end, I found myself full of sad reflections. Part of that was induced by the melancholy lyrics, of course, and I suppose another part was nostalgia for my childhood. Most of it, though, was thoughts about America, and how things were in the irrevocable past.

They mostly weren't too good, of course. I am perfectly familiar with the miseries and evils of life — for poor people, white and black alike — in the Jim Crow South. I would still say that something's been lost, though. When you look around at the miserable wasteland of contemporary popular culture, where is there a Hank Williams, to tell us in the simple words of a plain man how it feels when life goes horribly wrong?

A picture from the past came slowly stealing
As I brushed your arm and walked so close to you.
Then suddenly I got that old-time feeling —
I can't help it if I'm still in love with you.

Reading back over this piece, I see that all the lyrics I have quoted are sad. That's a bit unfair to Hank, who wrote some fun songs, too. Nobody can be miserable all the time.

You're my gal and I'm your feller.
Dress up in your frock of yeller.
You'll look swell, but I'll look sweller —
Settin' the woods on fire …

And one of my favorites:

Hey, good lookin'.
What ya got cookin'?
How's about cookin' somethin' up with me?

Sad or gay, though, the songs Hank Williams wrote all came from the same place — from what Greil Marcus called "the old weird America,"  a place where "multiculturalism" was not an empty cant phrase mouthed by social-engineering bureaucrats, but a daily reality of white, red and black, hillbilly and cajun, bluegrass and blues, all jostled together — bickering, fighting and oppressing, to be sure, but also working, drinking, singing and coupling.

That America has now gone for ever, paved over with strip malls, industrial parks, community colleges and trimmed suburban gardens. We gained a lot in the process, no doubt, but we lost something too. We lost it, and it will never be seen again in life: but the ghost of it is still there for anyone who seeks it, in the songs of Hank Williams.