Hank Williams: Lessons from the Lost Highway

By Russell, Rusty | Guitar Player, November 1996 | Go to article overview

Hank Williams: Lessons from the Lost Highway


Russell, Rusty, Guitar Player


"Who knows?" teases the down-home voice, in a radio spot dating from 1951. "There may be a great song out there somewhere in somebody's dresser drawer just waitin' to be sung." At the height of his popularity, the Grand Ole Opry's biggest star is hawking a booklet that bears his name, Hank Williams Tells How to write Folk and Western Music to Sell. Announcer Grant Turner continues the pitch: "I'm telling you, folks, I think that Hank Williams is one of the greatest songwriters that ever lived, and he really knows what a song has to have to make it click."

Anyone who read the book, continued Turner, would learn "just what he has to do to write a song that'll be acceptable to singers and publishers." In its 35 pages--most likely written entirely by "co-author" Jimmy Rule--the little volume did indeed offer hard advice on the nuts and bolts of songcraft. What it didn't reveal was the real-life torment behind so many of Hank's songs. They were, in fact, firsthand accounts of a simple man struggling with his inner demons as his personal life swirled uncontrollably around him. And had Rule written ten times as much, he could not have hoped to explain Williams' uncanny ear for the perfect phrase. That, as Hank once told an interviewer, was a mystery even to him: "People don't write music. It's given to you--you sit there and wait and it comes to you. If it takes longer than 30 minutes or an hour, I usually throw it away."

Whatever Hank understood about the origins of his gift, Turner was right about one thing He knew how to make a song click. Though his recording career spanned a mere six years, he placed32 singles in the fop 10,11 of which went to number one. His songs have been re-recorded by over a hundred singers, with no fewer than two dozen--from Tony Bennett to Ray Charles, Charley Pride to Linda Ronstadt--reaching the charts with covers of his tunes. They've proven adaptable to nearly any style--can any other writer claim covers by the Grateful Dead and the Lennon Sisters'

Hank's 24 Greatest Hits [Mercury] has been hovering near the top of the country catalog charts recently, with ten of his other collections enjoying brisk sales. The clearest testament to the universality of Hank's music, however, may be his 1987 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Hank Williams, self-described "Hillbilly Singer," died in the wee hours of New Year's Day, 1953, just as Alan Freed's moniker for the rowdy new music was entering the lexicon.

Had Hank lived longer, his own recollections of the fame-and-fortune yeas would no doubt be considered gospel. His early passing spawned a hopeless tangle of conflicting stories as even the most remotely connected bystanders clamored for inclusion in the legacy or a piece of the estate.

Fortunately, Hank's musical roots are among the least-contested details of his life. Born in Mount Olive West, Alabama, on September 17, 1923, Hiriam (a birth-certificate misspelling of Hiram) King Williams had moved to nearby Georgiana with sister Irene and their mother, Lillie, by 1930. It was there young "Harm" met and befriended Rute Payne, a local black bluesman known as "Tee-Tot." The fifty-fish Payne lived in nearby Greenville and often performed alone or with other musicians on the sidewalks of area towns. Most accounts put Hank's first guitar in his hands at around age eight and the aspiring musician almost constantly at Payne's heels shortly thereafter.

In Hank Williams [Little, Brown], a respected biographical source, author Colin Escott describes the youngster as fascinated by the street performer and his music. Hank himself would later credit Payne with giving him "all the music training I ever had." Undoubtedly, the strong blues thread in Hanks music owes much to the relationship. The word "blues" occurs frequently in Williams' song titles, but the connection runs much deeper. Hank's phrasing, subject matter and simple harmonic frameworks all bear an unmistakable blues influence. …

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