Entertainment Music

Wednesday 21 February 2018

Music: Hank Williams - The man of song who Saw the Light

On song: Hank Williams inspired musicians like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.
On song: Hank Williams inspired musicians like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.
John Meagher

John Meagher

We have been seeing an awful lot of Tom Hiddleston this year - whether it's been on the BBC's lavish Le Carré series The Night Manager or bringing JG Ballard's dystopian vision to the big screen in High-Rise. And soon, this plummiest of English actors will be seen in a very different part, the lead role in the Hank Williams' biopic I Saw the Light.

The movie has just opened in the US - it's set for a May 6 release here - and Hiddleston has been attracting enthusiastic reviews Stateside for his portrayal of the troubled troubadour. The clips I've seen suggest he does a very good job in trying to nail Williams' distinctive vocal style - he was apparently coached by the film's musical director, the country singer Rodney Crowell - but, as always with such matters, to truly appreciate the original's contribution to music you have to go back to the source.

And, while Williams did not record a great deal of music in his short life, the songs he did leave behind represent an important oeuvre whose legacy lives on in singer-songwriters to this day.

Bob Dylan was once moved to say "if it wasn't for Elvis and Hank Williams, I couldn't be doing what I do today", while a young Johnny Cash demonstrated what the singer meant to him on his album of covers, Sings Hank Williams, back in 1960 - seven years after Williams' untimely death.

The Alabama native's authenticity was one of the attributes that appealed to both Dylan and Cash, and to all those who still revere his music. Here was a man who, as a child in the 1930s, learned the guitar from black street performer Rufus Payne, and whose deeply personal songs were inspired by a hard life characterised by drug and alcohol problems and a crippling back pain as a result of undiagnosed spina bifida.

There was also the hardship of a childhood during the Great Depression where, if some reports are to be believed, the guesthouse his mother ran also doubled as a brothel. As the Guardian put it: "The undisputed King of Country didn't so much live life as endure a series of catastrophes."

And he certainly mined those hard experiences in song. It's impossible to listen to one of this most emblematic recordings, 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry', and not conclude that he was looking deep into his soul. Its power is all the more pronounced when one bears in mind that its writer could be a rough diamond who regularly fought while on the road. It's said that he played the cheapest guitars he could find because he was in the habit of using them as weapons when brawling.

Another country music standard, 'Your Cheatin' Heart', was reportedly written about his first wife, musician Audrey Sheppard, in the wake of their (second) divorce. Colin Escott - author of Hank Williams: The Biography, on which the I Saw the Light movie is based - argues that "the song, for all intents and purposes, defines country music". It's hard to argue with such an assessment: 64 years after its initial release, it feels like one of the greats of 20th-century American song.

'Cold Cold Heart', meanwhile, is said to have been inspired by Audrey's attempted home abortion. Both had been unfaithful, and there were rumours that the baby might not have been his. While their marriage ended in acrimony, it should be remembered that Audrey was pivotal in getting Hank a record deal. She immediately recognised the extraordinary talent possessed by the then 19-year-old - and his difficulty in getting his music to the right people. It was she who organised a meeting with influential record company man Fred Rose.

Audrey would go on to manage her husband for the next 10 years - taking over from a role his mother fulfilled in his teen years - and she regularly played stand-up bass in his band, the Drifting Cowboys. The pair would sing together, too, and Colin Escott notes that "her duets with Hank were like an extension of their married life in that she fought him for dominance on every note".

Williams was just 29 when he died in 1953 en route to a concert he was scheduled to give in West Virginia. Sedatives and alcohol where found in his bloodstream and the autopsy blamed "insufficiency in the right ventricle of the heart".

He recorded 31 singles in his lifetime, including the song of redemption 'I Saw the Light'. There were just two studio albums and he would miss out on the sales phenomenon of long-players by just a few years. His record company certainly cashed in, with several posthumous albums released over subsequent decades.

Audrey would outlive him by 22 years, but she, too, had substantial problems with drink and drugs and died from heart failure in 1975 aged 52.

The Williams name lives on in both his son, Hank Jr, and grandson, Hank Williams III, although the former has had his own demons. Four years ago he was dropped by his record company after accusing Barack Obama of being a "Muslim President who hates the US".

Granddaughter Holly Williams, meanwhile, has won acclaim in her own right and her most recent album, The Highway, features collaborations with Jakob Dylan, Jackson Browne and, oddly, Gwyneth Paltrow.

* Twitter, for once, appeared convulsed in positivity. RTÉ's special 1916 theatrical show, Centenary, had normally caustic types reaching for the purple prose on Easter Monday. And it really was special, not least because of the stunning contributions from some of the country's finest musicians.

Conor O'Brien of Villagers was in haunting form at Kilmainham Gaol, while Iarla Ó Lionáird, of the Gloaming, demonstrated the power of sean-nós singing at the Garden of Remembrance. Both performances were beautifully filmed and recorded by Philip King and his Other Voices colleagues.

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