DON NOBLE: Rheta Grimsley Johnson Writes about Hank Williams

The Tuscaloosa News, April 8, 2012 | Go to article overview

DON NOBLE: Rheta Grimsley Johnson Writes about Hank Williams


'Hank Hung the Moon...and Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts'

Author: Rheta Grimsley Johnson

Publisher: NewSouth Books

Pages: 192

Price: $24.95 (Cloth)

Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a widely syndicated columnist of all things Southern, well known to readers in 50 newspapers for her commentaries. In 1991, she was a finalist for the Pulitzer in that category.

Recently, Johnson has turned to memoir, publishing "Poor Man's Provence," the story of her years living among the Cajuns in south Louisiana, and "Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming" -- a memoir mainly of her childhood in Montgomery. Although her memoirs seemed to me thoroughly heartfelt, she announces that in "Hank," she will "let down (her) journalistic hair and, for once, write about a passion: Hank Williams."

This volume is a kind of hybrid, part of it biography. Johnson covers Williams' upbringing, his mom, Lillian, his singing career, drinking, tempestuous marriage to Audrey, second marriage to Billy Jean, his death at 29 and so on, but a reader could get Hank's story complete from several different biographies, most recently "Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams," by the late Birmingham native Paul Hemphill.

This volume is also, however, the story of the place Williams, and country music in general, holds in the life of Johnson and her friends and family. And make no mistake, it is an important place. Music got Johnson through good times and, more importantly, bad times: "We needed Hank the way some need bottled oxygen to supplement their lungs."

Not any music will do. Country -- and Hank in particular -- "spoke our language and knew our secrets and made us feel better about our troubles and foibles." Hank wrote of "the verities, not things that do not matter next week ... loss ... love, loneliness and guilt."

Johnson praises Williams a great deal. After all, he hung the moon.

Some readers less entranced by Williams might say she goes too far.

Johnson says, Williams, like Beethoven, was "of a special breed and knew it ... writing for eternity."

And: "There is something almost startling about seeing Hank's actual handwriting, akin to looking at Charlotte Bronte's longhand manuscript of 'Jane Eyre' in the British Museum. …

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