Continuing Education: Hank Williams, Sr.

There is no figure in late-20th century country music that towers nearly as high as Hank Williams.  That doesn't mean he had a happy life.  He was an alcoholic, refused service in WWII because he was injured in a rodeo, a man whose band dissolved around him because they were all drafted, and whose replacements refused to work with him because he was so often drunk; and a man dead at the age of thirty from a combination of an ice storm, alcohol, and morphine.

When he sings about being "a rolling stone" on the lost highway?  That's 1948.  Bob Dylan did that line in 1965.

It's almost impossible to overstate the importance of Hank Williams to country music.  You can attribute to him most of the focus on drinking and lost love, and lives wrecked by these same things.  Even today, you'll hear the old joke:  "What happens if you play a country record backwards?  You get your job back, your wife back, and your dog back."  He's why that joke means anything.

Here is a famous duel inspired by the idea of love at the honky tonk, and who was at fault for the end of such love:

Even Patsy Cline sang about the longing for adultery:


Draw a line there.  Everything that follows is from a later period, and is just to show how important the earlier things were to them.

One of the most popular singers of the 1970s made this tribute, which sums it up.  The sexual revolution brought the dissolution of alcoholic honky-tonkers to middle class life:  and Hank Williams was their poet, the one who managed to put how it all felt into words.

Or take David Allen Coe's word for it.  An important part of his claim in this song is that he can sing "every song that Hank Williams ever wrote."  And he can:  but we'll get to him, and the Outlaws, in due time.  For now, the point is that Hank Williams is the touchstone.

Well, let's do one more Outlaw song to make the point.  This is genuflection to the thing that was gone by the time they were singing:  but they meant every word of it.


Gringo said...

Hank doesn't need much commentary. His songs speak for themselves.

As a preschooler, I played Kawlija over and over again on a small record player. I didn't realize until decades after that it was Hank Williams playing the song.
The Austin Lounge Lizards wrote and recorded The Car Hank Died In. It may not be to everyone's taste.

Nearly 20 years ago, Ray Wylie Hubbard put out an album titled Loco Gringo's Lament. The song titled Loco Gringo's Lament referred to the death of Hank Williams. Unfortunately, I couldn't find Ray Wylie's rendition of the song on YouTube. This one is from Rob Dokter.

Grim said...

Waylon Jennings had a similar song, himself.

It's amazing how central one guy could be, especially one who died so young. But Mozart died at roughly the same age.

Dad29 said... you're saying that Williams' boozy/womanizing stuff simply 'mainstreamed' in the '60's country music scene?

IOW, the same thing that happened in rock?

And isn't "blues" distinct from "country" music?

Grim said...

It's not quite the same thing. But the influences are the same -- the culture was changing here as there. You'll understand more as we continue.

Blues is different from country music; it's a whole system that I'm not undertaking to address at this time. But they grew up together, you might say; there is some cross pollination.

Gringo said...

Your posting of Waylon Jennings's song Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend about Louis Armstrong.

I remarked to her that while Wynton Marsalis was a good trumpeter, he just didn't compare to Louis Armstrong. She replied, "There's only one Louis Armstrong."

Similarly, there is only one Hank Williams, Sr.

Grim said...

That's a good point.

There were a lot of people who wanted to be like him, though. As your song says, everybody who went to Nashville wanted to ride in that car.