Is dying young, as author Paul Hemphill suggests, a “good career move?” Hank Williams, poet and singer, tormented by disease and drugs and alcohol, died mysteriously in the back of his Cadillac somewhere in West Virginia on January 31, 1952. His fans, holding out in rural pockets all over the South, still commemorate his passing with little New Year’s Eve shows and a few drinks. He was their spokesman.
Hank was plagued from birth by ills that would never let him loose – a form of spina bifida, never properly treated, provided the physical agony that wracked his slender frame from childhood. A domineering mother, Lillie, and a voracious hustler of a wife, Audrey, rounded out the picture for the man who wrote about good women gone bad and a man’s attempts to hold on to them. The booze was secondary, one of the hazards of life on the road that many a stronger man succumbed to; but with Hank, always battling both physical and emotional pain, it was all or nothing, and he lost money and fans by showing up to gigs too drunk to sing, too far gone to care. The sad story is told of Minnie Pearl trying to sober him up by singing with him his signature gospel hit, I Saw the Light. “Then he stopped and he turned around and his face broke up and he said, ‘Minnie, I don’t see no light. There ain’t no light.’”
Everyone who knew about Hank’s tortured relationship with the flamboyant Audrey knew that his songs – Your Cheating Heart, Lovesick Blues – were for and about the mink coat-wearing Cadillac driving would-be singer who wanted not merely to help Hank’s star rise but to rise with it. She really believed she could sing, and she really couldn’t. At his best he tolerated her whims, to the fan’s general dismay; at his worst he fought fire with fire. There was no saying who was fooling who most of the time. When Audrey got an abortion (possibly to eliminate a child conceived in one of her many affairs, embarked
upon to counter her husband’s many casual liaisons), Hank appeared in her hospital room with gifts and tender wishes. She launched into one of her standard tirades, and not much later he poured out Your Cold Cold Heart, clearly composed by a man driven mad by love.
Hank Williams, Jr., never the artist his father was but shamelessly foisted on the fans by Audrey, used to boast on stage that “Every month I get a check for forty thousand dollars from songs my daddy wrote.” The royalties were shared with Hank’s iron-cast stage mother Lillie, Audrey, Williams’ second wife, Billie Jean, and a love-child who now calls herself Jett Williams and who seems to have some of her father’s spark as a performer.
But as a poet/songwriter, few are his equal, nor ever will be. The question of whether he could have survived Elvis, who hit the scene gyrating about a year after William’s tragic death at age 30, is a question about apples and oranges. Hank could sing – beautifully – and present his own songs better than anyone (he used to laugh at how the pop artists slaughtered his ditties, even as he happily collected the royalty checks). But Elvis was only a crooner. Williams would never have lost his base, would never have worn out the fame and admiration that his songs engendered.
Paul Hemphill is a blue-collar redneck writer who has given Hank his dignity without a sugar-coating. This is a book for all fans of Hank and country music. Hey, ain’t that everybody?