Whiskey-Bent and Hell-Bound

Hank Williams gets out of this world alive

The Complete Hank Williams
(Mercury)
Hank Williams was a drunk, a mean drunk who died at 29 in the back seat of a Cadillac. He was a semiliterate plagiarist, a whoremonger, a brawler, and an egomaniac. He was a stingy manager of top-flight musicians and a notoriously unreliable employee who somehow managed to get canned from the Grand Ole Opry at the height of his own popularity.

And Hank Williams was one of the greatest popular songwriters in American history. In his brief recording career, from 1947 to 1952, he cut 66 songs in his own name, about 50 of which he wrote whole or in part. Thirty-six of those were Top 10 country hits. He was a sensitive, deeply religious man and a doting father. He loved western movies and comic books, suffered from a degenerative spinal disease, and spent his entire life under the influence of domineering, grasping women.

Such are the contradictions of country music's most troubled legend, contradictions encoded in country music itself. From the very beginning, from the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers' Bristol Sessions, country music has had two souls. One is pure, pious, and sentimental; the other "whiskey-bent and hell-bound." The best country artists -- Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, George Jones -- have a little of each. But no single artist has encompassed both halves of this spirit like Hank Williams. He loved Jesus, women, and the bottle about equally. It's hard to say which passion caused him the most grief.

The Complete Hank Williams, a limited edition, 10-CD box set of 225 recordings, illuminates the singer's prodigious gift for channeling the warring factions of his personality into song. He wrote of deep compassion ("I'm Sorry for You, My Friend") and terrible vengeance ("My Love for You [Has Turned to Hate]"), intense longing ("I Can't Help It [If I'm Still in Love With You]") and glorious redemption ("I Saw the Light"). He wrote about the exhilaration of new love ("Howlin' at the Moon") and plain old lust ("Hey, Good Lookin' "). And, of course, he wrote and wrote and wrote about the devastation of a love gone rancid ("Your Cheatin' Heart," "Cold, Cold Heart," "You Win Again"). His body of work has defined country music for half a century.

Williams has often been called "the hillbilly Shakespeare," and even if the moniker is an insult to both writers, they do have much in common. Their influence is so pervasive, so much a part of our culture, that their contributions are almost invisible. Williams' lines -- "Hey good lookin'/ Whatcha got cookin'?" -- are common parlance, just like "All the world's a stage." Trainspotters claim that neither man wrote his entire catalog. And Williams is now a specialty taste even more so than Shakespeare, while legions of imitators -- including Williams' own son and grandson -- have enriched themselves on his genius.

And yet of all the American musical icons of this century -- Elvis, Dylan, Sinatra, Armstrong, Ellington, Bernstein, Gershwin -- Hank Williams is fading fastest from our national memory. His songs are no longer aired, even on so-called country radio. That's why The Complete Hank Williams, released to coincide with what would have been his 75th birthday, is as stunning to its genre as The Complete Works of William Shakespeare is to literature. The Hank Williams set locates the artist behind the legend and, without sentimentality, without hero-worship, without varnishing over his many faults, restores him to vibrant life.

Hiriam Williams was born Sept. 17, 1923, in Mount Olive West, Ala. He would recall in interviews that his first experience with music was at age 5 or 6, sitting by his mother's side in church and singing along while she played the organ. His first nickname, given to him by his mother, was a beautiful piece of literary foreshadowing: "Harm." Williams' mama, Lillie, was a tough, hard, and greedy woman, the stereotypical stage mom, obsessed with forwarding her son's career. At 11, Harm was already playing guitar on the streets of the small towns of southern Alabama. When, at 14, his family moved to Montgomery (because there was a radio station there), he changed his name to Hank because he thought it sounded more like a cowboy singing star's name.

From the beginning he wrote songs, and even his earliest lyrics show a mastery of rhythm and absurdist humor. In Hank Williams: A Biography, Colin Escott -- who also provides notes for the box set -- unearthed this verse, written when Hank was 11: "I had an old goat/ She ate tin cans/ When the little goats came/ They were Ford sedans."

From the beginning, he also drank. He took his first drink when he was 10 years old. By 1948, when he left Montgomery as a minor regional star and moved to Shreveport, La., to join The Louisiana Hayride radio program, his reputation as an unreliable lush had already preceded him. Sometimes on the evening of a show, band members would find Williams passed out in the street, traffic swerving around him like he was a pothole.

In 1943, Hank met his first wife, Audrey. (He would marry Billie Jean -- after two divorces from Audrey -- in 1952.) In 1946, he met Fred Rose, a Nashville-based songwriter and music publisher. It's only a slight oversimplification to say that Audrey, as temperamental as Williams and as overbearing as his mother, supplied the daily grist for his songs, while Rose milled them into gold. Rose was the producer on all of Williams' recording sessions. More important, though Williams would sometimes claim that God wrote his songs and "I just jot 'em down," Rose collaborated with Williams on crafting his misspelled, hand-scrawled lyrics into full-fledged hits.

However, as Fred Rose always insisted, and The Complete Hank Williams proves, Williams was the primary architect of his own career. He walked into the studio knowing exactly what he wanted, and even his very first record, a gospel number called "Calling You," has his trademark sound almost entirely in place. His first recording session for a major label, MGM, yielded two of his greatest songs, "I Saw the Light" and the seminal, proto-rock 'n' roll "Move It on Over."

The formula was simple. A lap steel played counterpart to Williams' vocals. A bass, an acoustic rhythm guitar -- which Williams played in concert but didn't mike in the studio -- and a lead guitar that kept a slap rhythm in place of a snare drum drove the songs. Fiddle and electric guitar provided occasional fills. The songs themselves were set almost entirely in major keys ("Kaw-Liga," with its explosive minor-to-major construction being the most famous exception), with three or four chords the standard. Williams rarely wrote bridges for his songs and had to be constantly encouraged to do so by Rose.

Early on, Rose tried to get Hank to take a more "uptown," jazzy approach, but Williams' instincts told him better. A huge migration was under way in postwar America as hundreds of thousands of men and women left the family farms for the city factories and mills. Farm boys who had seen France and the Philippines were not inspired to resume plowing the same dirt their daddies had turned.

But even as the northern cities filled, Hank Williams understood what Fred Rose didn't. As the saying goes, you can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy. The new city slickers were more inclined than ever to buy and listen to music that reminded them of home.

Blessed from the start with infinite confidence and low cunning, Williams turned every disadvantage to his favor. He was born with spina bifida occulta, a disease that curved his spine and would eventually cause him to turn to the pain medication that helped kill him. Instead of apologizing for his infirmity or trying to disguise it, in concert Williams would lower the microphone and accentuate his hunch, leering and lewdly rocking his hips and legs back and forth as he sang. (A young Elvis Presley, who joined The Louisiana Hayride when Williams was its biggest star, could not have failed to notice the reaction this display produced among the women in the audience.)

Williams' sex appeal lay in the contrast between his appearance and the outrageous hyperbole of his songs. Though the piety of the times required a pass at respectability, both sexes knew that to promise a woman the moon was exactly the same as promising her nothing. Almost any audience could decipher the suggestive lyrics of "Baby, We're Really in Love": "If you're thinking of me like I'm thinking of you/ Then I know what you're thinking of."

Each volume of the 10-CD box set shows that Williams' music, for all its traditionalism, was very much the work of a young man. The lows are bottom-of-the-bottle low. The highs are giddy, lick-the-world high. Every song, in every hue, is utterly self-centered. No fewer than 28 songs contain the word "I" in the title. "Like a piece of driftwood on the sea/ May you never be alone like me," he sang in "May You Never Be Alone," and though the song is as bleak as anything Williams ever recorded, it's hard not to laugh when it's followed up by "I Won't Be Home No More," "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive," "I've Been Down That Road Before," and so on. Unlike other masters of this confessional style, such as Merle Haggard, Williams wasn't personalizing universal sorrows. He was singing about Hank Williams.

It's also striking how well Williams avoided the classic country cliches. He rarely sang about prisons, getting drunk, or his mama (although he did love a good train song). And even though he sang about the poverty of the South, he didn't waste sentiment on the simple joys of hillbilly life or the virtue of a hard day's work, or any of the other patronizing, family-values themes that dominate country music today. As the comprehensive liner notes in the Mercury set point out, whatever cliches we now hear in Hank Williams songs are cliches because of his songs.

The best of his work captures the torture of heartbreak, but it's not of the morose, my-baby-done-left-me variety. The breakup in songs like "Cold, Cold Heart" and "You're Gonna Change (or I'm Gonna Leave)" is always just around the corner, and the pain and immediacy of life at the edge of disaster make his music at once intimate and intuitive. This feeling came from hard experience: Audrey scrapped with Williams -- verbally and physically -- until the last year of his life, when she threw him out after he allegedly shot at her.

For all his genius, Hank Williams had an uneasy relationship with the truth. The Young Fresh Fellows sang that Williams "stole all he knew/ From a black man who/ Spent his life on the corner/ Shining white men's shoes." Which isn't exactly true. Escott's biography points out that Williams was almost unique among Southern white artists of his time. He not only acknowledged his debt to black music, but he often told the story of how he had to beg and pester his mentor, street musician Rufus Payne, to teach him to play the easy-rockin' rhythm guitar that would evolve into his own honky-tonk. It was Williams, not Payne, who shined white men's shoes, just to get enough money together for another lesson.

But if Williams did not steal, he borrowed awful liberal. His first big hit, "Lovesick Blues," landed poor Fred Rose in a lawsuit. Williams told Rose the song was his. Actually, it was written a year before he was born. Williams would occasionally buy songs from other writers, and would freely lift song titles from lists of upcoming releases. More often, he would "borrow" a melody out of the public domain and write new words to it. (Woody Guthrie was famous for doing the same thing.)

While critics have commented on how much Bill Haley's version of "Rock Around the Clock" owes to Williams' melody for "Move It on Over," the country star lifted that melody straight out of the public domain. He liked it so much, in fact, that he even borrowed it from himself for another hit, "Mind Your Own Business." Such indiscretions are more than a minor point. Nonetheless, if someone were to systematically remove from Williams' catalog all of the songs that borrow or steal from others, the remaining work would still be monumental.

Of all the great Hank Williams drinking stories -- and there are hundreds of them -- the best one is this: Even in his last years, when his life had spun out of control, even after he had drunk himself off the Grand Ole Opry and had missed as many concerts as he'd made, he didn't miss a single recording session. Not one.

An astonishing number of his songs, including "Your Cheatin' Heart," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Hey, Good Lookin'," "Cold, Cold Heart," "I Saw the Light," "Move It on Over," and "Jambalaya (on the Bayou)," distill the pain and joy of life in a way that no songwriter, not even Dylan, has been able to surpass. This is Hank Williams' lasting legacy. He was the greatest proponent of the idea that, to some people, popular music meant more than a bouncy melody and "moon/June" sentimentality. To them it was literature, a way by which they understood themselves and the world around them. "A song ain't nothin' in the world but a story just wrote with music to it," he once said.

Of all the many contradictions that made up his turbulent career, the ultimate contradiction is that somehow, throughout an undignified life, Hank Williams brought dignity to so-called "hillbilly music." It is a dignity that has been conferred on his fans, the farm boys and girls who, like him, left their homes out on the rural route and found nothing but a lost highway.

It's almost impossible to look at the hard men in fading postwar family photographs, the coal miners, the shipbuilders, the lumber-mill workers, the drifters, and the honky-tonkers, without a measure of respect. Hank Williams spoke to them, and now he speaks for them. His words are their lives.

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