Understanding the Hillbilly Shakespeare

Review: Mark Ribowsky, 'Hank: The Short Life and Long Country Road of Hank Williams'

Hank Williams
Hank Williams / Wikimedia Commons
December 17, 2016

How many ways can you write the great American song—the song planted deep in the soil of national experience?

Whether the style is blues or country/western, jazz or rockabilly, Stephen Foster or Bob Dylan, the nation is not in much danger of running out of lyrics and melody. But what we might call the template of true American music provides only about three patterns for what speaks to the deep stuff of the nation. The first is a weeper; call it "My Baby Done Left Me All Alone." The second boasts and struts, like maybe "Gonna Get Drunk and Wrassle a Bear." And the third reminds us that "God’s Great Fire Is Comin’, Sooner Than You Think." Just about every song you’ve ever heard in folk/roots/hillbilly/country/western/gospel/blues—what Gram Parsons once dubbed the "Cosmic American Music"—fits comfortably in one of those three camps.

On New Year’s Day 1953, a singer named Hank Williams died of a heart attack in the back seat of a Cadillac in Oak Hill, West Virginia. He was 29 years old, with a face that looked about 40 and the physique of a man in his 70s: a toothpick of a figure who had ruined his health about as systematically as any human being can.

This is someone, after all, whose friends and band-mates were already worried about his heavy drinking in late 1939, when he was 17—and that was before he added amphetamines, chloral hydrate, and morphine to the mix. He couldn’t read or write music. Couldn’t soar in his singing, in any traditional sense. He could play the guitar pretty well, having been taught when he was a child by an African-American street performer named Rufus "Tee Tot" Payne, who gave him lessons in return for meals during the Depression. But he was never more than a run-of-the-mill professional, lacking the superior skills of the studio players. Oh, add a little fiddling, a little tinkling on the piano, an ability to carry his part in the close harmony that Southern church music taught, and there isn’t much doubt that Hank Williams was a genuine musician. It’s just that there were dozens of others who were as good or better at all that.

What made Williams different, what lifted him above the other performers of his time, was his presence—a persona that came through in his singing and playing. Between his constant touring and his regular radio shows, he played perhaps a thousand of other people’s songs, and he wrote over 150 of his own before his early death.

Maybe more to the point, he managed to write not just songs but classics, following each of the templates of true American compositions. Has there ever been a weeper as good as "I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry"? Among his famous bouncers are "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)" and "Hey, Good Lookin’." And his Christian-driven music includes the much-covered "I Saw the Light"—although I think "The Angel of Death" is a better marker of the religious feeling that actually moved him.

The problem is how to make sense of the phenomenon that was Hank Williams. Recent months have brought us the biopic I Saw the Light, starring Tom Hiddleston, and Mark Ribowsky’s new biography Hank: The Short Life and Long Country Road of Hank Williams. Neither of them is a great success, and Ribowsky’s book in particular is a disappointment. The author of previous books on Stevie Wonder, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Otis Redding, and the Supremes (to say nothing of his volumes on Cowboys’ coach Tom Landry and sportscaster Howard Cosell), Ribowsky knows how to research a topic quickly and reasonably accurately. He does first-rate work on Rufus Payne and the quack doctor who got his hooks on Williams in his final months—real advances on what is still the best book on the singer, Paul Hemphill’s 2005 Lovesick Blues.

As it happens, Ribowsky makes a few outright mistakes in Hank. As the critic W.K. Stratton recently pointed out, to write of "semi-rapped ‘talking blues’ records like ‘Ramblin’ Man’" is to get wrong both the original genre and the subsequent influence of talking blues—while also missing the fact that "Ramblin’ Man" isn’t an example of those talking songs. But the real problem with Hank is that Ribowsky is over his head, paddling out unknowingly in deep waters. He’s capable of a quick mugging up, the kind that any solidly professional hack knows how to do. But the world from which Hank Williams sprang, and the times in which he sought his successes and his damnations, are simply alien to the writer.

You can see it right from the start, when Ribowsky insists that Hank Williams presents us with the problem of explaining how such a capacious talent could come from the benighted South—where, as we all know, their churches still want to lynch gays. Ribowsky’s sense of racial relations belongs to 2016, and a caricature-driven 2016, at that. Racism is a monolith for him, and he has no sense of the great public cruelties and the small personal kindnesses that could form relations in the 1930s and 1940s.

Neither does he have much sense of Christianity among the hillbillies. He knows that the South was "God Haunted," in the words of Flannery O’Connor. A major puzzle for anyone who listens to Williams is his religion. He almost always included what he called "hymn time" on his radio shows: a singing of a religious song, often apocalyptic. And around 1950 he adopted his "Luke the Drifter" pseudonym for his religious recordings, many of them recitations, spoken over his band’s quiet noodling in the background.

Faced with these obvious religiosities, Ribowsky adopts a pair of incompatible strategies. It’s obvious, he thinks, that the songs are rank commercialism: Williams knew his Grand Ole Opry kind of audience and figured he had to throw them a bone. Of course, it’s apparently also obvious that Hank Williams had been infected with Christianity as a child and associated his consequent religious dread with the undiagnosed spina bifida that made his life a misery. All Hank Williams needed, to be our kind of modern 2016 person, was a good psychologist to get him over his Christian faith and a good osteopathic surgeon to get him over his back pain.

There’s no useful picture of Williams down the path that Mark Ribowsky takes in Hank. Read the book for information, if you like, but you’ll find no help in understanding that thin figure—a kindly man with a shy smile, when sober, and a nasty man with an arrogant sneer, when drunk—who pulled himself up to a brief stardom in the 1940s before the ruin to which he’d put his body did him in.

The answer, if answer there is, derives instead from the deep stuff of American song. Hank Williams knew the music that Harlan Howard once simultaneously dismissed and lauded as "nothing but three chords and the truth." The real heart of American music lies somewhere in a mix of Civil War marches and Methodist hymns, African rhythms and British folksongs. It’s a kind of muddy cauldron of God and sex and death, joy and sorrow, class resentment and race, booze and barn-dancing. You do a little hell-raising Saturday night, a little church-going Sunday morning, and on Monday you pick out on your guitar something that tries to speak to it all.

Maybe we get from that just another entry in the endless category of "My Baby Done Left Me All Alone" songs. Or maybe we get another "Gonna Get Drunk and Wrassle a Bear" ditty, or yet one more reminder that "God’s Great Fire Is Comin’, Sooner Than You Think." But every onc’t, we get "I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry," or "Hey, Good Lookin’," or "The Angel of Death." Every onc’t, we get Hank Williams.

Published under: Book reviews