Sunday, March 4, 2018

Lingering Darkness – Hank: The Short Life and Long Country Road of Hank Williams

Hank Williams performing on The Perry Como Show (November 14, 1951).

The worst part about reading a biography of country-music legend Hank Williams is that if you know anything about the history of music, you know how his story ends. Mark Ribowsky’s new biography, Hank: The Short Life and Long Country Road of Hank Williams (Liveright), was published last year. It’s thoroughly researched and thoroughly engaging because the author is deeply connected to his subject. In fact, Ribowsky’s tome is constantly looming on the dark side of Williams’s life, yet he succeeds in telling the tale of the beloved son of Alabama, who, in spite of his alcoholism and ramblin’ lifestyle, was “fresh, taut, [and] vibrant” on his recordings. To him Williams was a man who had “an instinct for turning pain into commercial gain” and expressing that pain with a degree of authenticity few of his peers, such as Ernest Tubb and Eddie Arnold, possessed. For Ribowsky, Williams changed the sound of country music, bringing “hillbilly” to the mainstream of American culture by wearing his heart on his sleeve. Yet his talent couldn’t save him from his inner struggles often expressed by his destructive, mood-swinging behaviour.

Ribowsky’s efficient research and assessment of Hank Williams's life and career makes for a painful yet captivating book, but did it have to be that way for Williams to succeed? Could he find some modicum of peace in his life through his art? Ribowsky tries to answer these questions in his biography, but I’m not certain he succeeds. Perhaps it’s because the author tells Williams's story so well that he often gets lost in it himself, insisting on reporting the facts with little heed to concluding anything about Williams that we didn’t already conclude ourselves. That said, Ribowsky weaves significant details about Williams’s life into his narrative easily, making each chapter as factually dynamic as possible. His deep research pays dividends in every section but particularly in Chapter 24, “Then Came That Fateful Day.”

Williams died in the back seat of his 1952 blue convertible Cadillac on a long road trip from Montgomery, Alabama to Charleston, North Carolina for a gig on December 31, 1952. He was 29 years old. His chauffeur was Charles Carr, a young man who knew the roads and wasn’t afraid to tackle the highway under extreme weather. What followed was the tragic story of Williams and the mysterious circumstances of his final hours, which Ribowsky points to as the creation of the Williams myth: “Ensuing police reports and investigations only served to sow doubt and confusion, keeping the Hank legend appropriately and eternally, necromantic, aptly bathed in a dark, cold, pitch-black midnight.”

Ribowsky’s book does have plenty of light in spite of its dark passages. He clearly loves the songs Williams recorded. (A discography is not included in the book.) His critical comments are balanced by excellent historical fact-finding including Williams’s radio shows, the Acuff-Rose partnership (publishers of his output), and his unique style of composition. In this regard, his best year was 1951 according to Ribowsky, after the singer released his first big hits “Lovesick Blues” and “I Saw the Light,” which were in heavy rotation on radio. Nevertheless, it was also a miserable time for his dysfunctional home life. Williams is depicted as being in constant conflict with his controlling mother, Lillie, his stern sister, Irene, and his unpredictable first wife, Audrey. But for Ribowsky, Williams could occasionally overcome the strife by way of his performances, “the depth of his natural and created personality evident in what are by turns humble and swaggering charm and withering empathy, the stuff of which sold his records.” That sound and that feeling of empathy, which often included great phrasing in his music, best defines Hank Williams and even if the public knew nothing of his long and sorted life when he was alive, his powerful songs reached them. In a way they were pleas for help, but Williams, who drowned himself in alcohol and painkillers for a chronic back issue, couldn’t ask for help, because he was lost in the shroud of his own loneliness.

But such was the life of the alcoholic entertainer, who “had a million friends but not one he could trust . . . " As Ribowsky tells it, even Williams’s band mates in The Driftin’ Cowboys thought he was ambitious but aloof. Joe Pennington, his guitar player, said it best: “He just didn’t let you get close to him. He kept you at a distance, as if friendship would get in the way of his plans for himself.” Yet he had no trouble giving money to strangers or tipping waitresses and bartenders generously. When he was sober, often for weeks at a time, he was funny, creative and generally relaxed among people. But as soon as he had that first swig of beer or whisky, he was out of control – often drinking himself into a stupor at any time of the day or night. He regularly missed shows or performed badly because he was so loaded. For instance, after a failed concert in Peterborough, Ontario, Williams pissed off his paying customers so much that he had to have a police escort back to the U.S. border for fear of being chased off the road by angry Canadians.

For me the question becomes: did Hank Williams suffer for his art? His songs certainly showed that he was vulnerable. For Ribowsky most of Williams’s hits such as “Cold, Cold Heart,” “You’re Cheatin’ Heart” and “Mind Your Own Business” were written by a troubled soul. Williams found temporary solace and financial success in his music but it wasn’t enough to sustain him. Consequently we may never know if he had to live and die the way he did to advance a new form of music. As Ribowsky concludes, the answer lies deeper in the final analysis: “When Hank Williams gets into the bloodstream through the ears, you don’t hear him. You hear the sound of your own beating, cheating heart.”

– John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He’s the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left To Know About The Father of Invention (Backbeat Books).

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