Eoin Butler: writer, journalist and Mayoman of the Year

Tripping Along The Ledge


Published: Village Magazine, September 2005

The lonesome death of Hank Williams

*Jun 01*
This year does not mark the fiftieth anniversary of the lonesome death of Hank Williams. That was over two years ago, on New Year’s Day 2003. Nor is this the centenary of his birth – that milestone won’t be reached until September 17th 2023. A glossy, overpriced compilation of his greatest hits is not in stores now. And it doesn’t include underwhelming “new” tracks, or feature inane liner-notes penned by the director of some lame biopic. But all the more reason to acquaint yourself with the hellraising country singer and his back catalogue. He is country music’s greatest exponent and a seminal figure in the history of popular music. Yet, several collections of his greatest tracks currently retail in shops for as little as four or five euros.

Someone else can explain why it is that recordings by classic artist are often available so cheaply. I suspect it’s because record companies know these CDs will continue to sell steadily well into the future and can therefore manufacture them in greater quantities at lesser risk. Whatever the reason, the fact is that there are great bargains to be had in record shops, and the back catalogue of Hank Williams is a better place to start than most.

Hank Williams grew up in Alabama during the Depression and was taught to play the blues by a black street musician named Rufus (Tee Tot) Payne, often shining shoes or selling newspapers to raise the fifteen cents for each lesson. He was a natural though and by eighteen he had secured a regular spot playing what was then known as “hillbilly music” – basically white blues – on a radio station in Montgomery.

Most of the source material for his songs came from his own troubled life, especially his tumultuous marriage to Audrey Mae Sheppard. (“I don’t know if it was his drinking that caused her to nag or her nagging that caused him to drink,” recalled Drifting Cowboy Don Helms recently. “Either way they just couldn’t get along.”)

It is sometimes patronisingly remarked of inhabitants of middle America that they say what they mean and mean what they say. Nowhere is that trait better exemplified than in the songs of Hank Williams. Hank tended not to equivocate. His songs had titles like ‘My Son Calls Another Man Daddy’, ‘You’re Gonna Change (Or I’m Gonna Leave)’ and ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’.

Half a century before the appearance of reality T.V., he was on television pouring his heart out about his real life pain in terms that even the least sophisticated member of his audience could understand.

His songs, therefore, are rarely complex. But persevere with them and you will appreciate that Hank was an artist possessed of a delicacy of touch matched by few before or since. In Chronicles, Bob Dylan wrote that Williams’ songs contain “the archetype rules of poetic songwriting… Even his words – all of his syllables are divided up so they make perfect mathematical sense. You can learn a lot about the structure of songwriting by listening to his records.”

Leonard Cohen too famously placed him “a hundred floors above me in the tower of song”. And when, in the 1990s, artists like Wilco, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Lambchop attempted to reclaim country’s soul from the bland Nashville establishment they did so in name of Hank Williams.

The writer Rick Bragg, speaking on a recent BBC documentary, probably put it best. Hank’s songs were dark, he conceded, “but instead of making you sad, it was the opposite. It was as though he pounded out all that agony and all that grief and that sadness thin enough to where you could stand it. That was his gift.”

See also here and here.

September 28th, 2010.

12 Responses to “The lonesome death of Hank Williams”

  1. Ponyo Says:

    Alone and forsaken by god and by man

    When said lame biopic gets farted out I reckon Christian Bale is up for the role, he knows how to lose the pounds anyways for that close to death stage, I know when he made that dung The Machinist he based his look on a picture he seen of Hank a couple of days before his death.

  2. Eoin Says:

    Wow, I’ve always thought (and God forgive me for saying it) that Hank and George W. Bush look rather alike. Really disappointed also to see that the script of unproduced film Paul Schrader’s Eight Scenes From the Life of Hank Williams is no longer online.

  3. Ponyo Says:

    might mean it’s a possibility for production if its been taken down off sites, then again might mean nothing.
    Have you ever given the rest of the family a go Hank Dos (Hank Harder) and Hank III (Hank hard with a vengeance). One or two Hank III songs is good.

  4. Eoin Says:

    It’s a really brilliant script, but I’d be very surprised if it ever gets made. I presume it was written in the 1970s, because the final scene takes place at his funeral and the script calls for the actors to be joined by the real life characters (including Hank’s mother and wife, both of whom died in the mid-1970s.)

    Hank II never my cup of tea, but, yeah, some of Hank III’s stuff is decent and, I think, closer in spirit to his grandfather’s music. Hank III also narrated a really good BBC documentary about Hank I a couple of years ago.

  5. Eoin Says:

    P.S. Reason Schrader’s script never got made, I imagine, might be that that (unlike, say, the Johnny Cash story) this one is unremittingly dark with no happy ending. Or Martin Scorsese just doesn’t dig country music.

  6. Ponyo Says:

    Yeah it’s a pity because it’s what a true country music film needs really. I mean even in the Johnny Cash one, where it ends is nowhere, he life was still going mental for a long time after that. My thinking on the Cash one was that it didnt just end there because it looked vaguely happy but more so because it avoided having to show his totally naff period where he was completely uncool for a decade or two. That era of his life is being shown less and less.
    I dont know if it’s just me, but when they show and artist playing in a film and it’s covers or whatever or sort of reconstructed.
    I dont know about anyone else but Im able to suspend disbelief enough for them to just play the actual recordings of the person whether it fits the scene properly. Does that make sense or is that written out badly? I cant tell.
    The first two songs I learned to play were Move it on over and Goodbye Joe.
    Scorcese likes blues enough anyways I’d have to imagine he likes country.
    He probably wouldnt do such a good job as he would’ve done in the seventies anyways.

  7. Ponyo Says:

    That reads like a monkey wrote it, apple polly loggies. Head’s not working.

  8. Eoin Says:

    Yeah, I hadn’t realised that about Cash. He relapsed on pills several times after the events depicted in the film. Darragh from Asleep on the Compost Heap lent me book about him, which I’m currently reading. And yes, I too would be willing to suspend disbelief and just listen to the original recordings in the films. Although I suppose the original recordings might be too polished and familiar if the film character is supposed to be playing live.

    I think the second Hank Williams song you’re thinking of is Jambalaya, which is some kind of regional stew popular in Louisiana. Not to be confused with the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza, which I visited in 2008 (and frequently confused with Jambalaya, to the bafflement of the war ravaged population.)

  9. Ponyo Says:

    Yeah that’s the one, forgot that’s what it’s called. Have you ever had that stuff, it’s tasty.
    You can get knock offs of it in Tescos now too.
    I have a Hank Williams book I bought for my dad, supposed to be class but we’ve both failed to get into it. Might give it a proper go soon.
    Have you ever heard Dock Boggs? You might like this, pretty short if you don’t. Love this guy


  10. Eoin Says:

    No, never heard of that guy before – cheers for that! I’ve read this book about Hank Williams, it’s pretty good:


  11. jax Says:

    If anyone is looking for a happy ending there’s a Thai massage lady I know who might be able to lend a hand.

  12. Ponyo Says:

    out of my league

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