>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.