Sixty years ago, sometime in the night of December 31, 1952, or the early morning of January 1, 1953, Hank Williams died, cold and alone, in the back seat of his Cadillac. The world is a poorer place for his leaving it so early.
Hank died long before I was born, but his music is in my bones. When my father was growing up in inner-city Chicago, he listened to Hank on the WLS Barn Dance; when I was growing up in Indiana, he would play Hank’s records at night, after we kids went to bed. I’d lie awake and listen to these songs about crazy hearts, faithless love, and bedding down with the family dog after a fight with the missus, songs that opened a window into a strange and rather interesting world of adults behaving badly.
(Check out this post at Robot 6 for a fragment of a Hank Williams bio-comic and an intriguing insight into the inspiration for some of his songs.)
Country music in the 1960s and 70s was either goofy or slick, Hee Haw or sequins and big hair. Hank wasn’t like any of that. His music was straight up, no bullshit. (OK, sometimes there was bullshit, but Hank’s bullshit was better than most other singers’ best work.) Almost 60 years after his death, someone commented on a YouTube video, “How did you know my life’s story before I was born?” That’s a hell of a tribute.
The songs I grew up with were the chart-toppers: “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Crazy Heart,” “Move It On Over,” “Cold, Cold Heart.” And the Luke the Drifter songs. I know Hank liked those the best, but to this day I can’t handle them. If the measure of a good singer is that he can make you cry, well, Hank succeeded; let’s leave it at that. (The one exception: I love “Too Many Parties and Too Many Pals,” a cautionary-tale song originally written with flappers in mind, and I was probably the only kid in my high school who had the sheet music to that. I used to play it on the organ in the school chapel when no one was around.)
As a teenager, I pushed away from country music, and since I was 23 I have always lived in places where, frankly, most people don’t get country music at all: New York, Geneva, and now, Boston. People here don’t know their Willie from their Waylon, and what’s worse, they don’t care to know.
Then last spring I spent an evening in a music joint in Chicago listening to a decent country cover band, and that somehow fanned the dying embers and started me listening to country music again. What I discovered is that while I was away, a whole new catalog of Hank Williams recordings has shown up. I knew every song on my dad’s albums by heart, but I wasn’t prepared for the simple emotion of Hank alone with his guitar, singing “Someday You’ll Call My Name” or “I Told a Lie to My Heart.” That’s the purest country music there is.
There aren’t a lot of videos of Hank in action, and most of them are terrible, but this one is sort of sweet; it’s a duet with Anita Carter of the Carter Family.
Hank Williams lived life at full tilt. He drank too much, loved too much, fought too much. It’s easy to romanticize that from a distance, but it’s hard to escape the impression that he was just more human than most performers, more inclined to go along with his own failings and not worry too hard about the consequences. That purity of spirit is what made Hank’s music so compelling and his life so terrible. Roy Acuff told him he had a million dollar voice and a ten-cent brain. Actually, Hank strikes me as being smart but lacking in judgment. By all accounts he was a nice guy and particularly kind to children, but he was impulsive and a raging alcoholic. His biographers describe him as being on a downward spiral in the last part of his life, to the point where he refused to sing his gospel hit “I Saw the Light,” telling Minnie Pearl “There ain’t no light.” That’s Hank, too, going to the extreme even in his depression.
Despite the darkness that surrounded him in his final days, he still had that spark; he had the lyrics to a new song on him when they took him out of the car that chilly New Year’s morning. He probably was in no condition to write that night, but he could have tucked them into his pocket anytime on that last ride. In other words he died on the job. It could be that, like a lot of writers, he processed things by writing, and he couldn’t not write, no matter what else was going on.
That’s what makes an artist. It’s not the suffering, it’s what you make of it. Everybody goes through some shit in their lives. Hank may have gone through more than most, but he also wrote the songs that let the rest of us know we weren’t alone. I’m sorry he died so young, but I’m glad he lived long enough to sing those songs.
(Title for this post is taken from Billy Joe Shaver’s song Tramp on Your Street.)