Paul Hemphill put in a lot of time and research to write this book. I am not really a true country music fan, but because country music is in part the history of the US working class, it’s an important book for me to read (and of course, I love memoirs and biographies in general).
Williams grew up during the Depression. Whereas some who would be music stars gave up a great deal for their shot at fame, Williams had nothing to lose. His father had departed, and his mother was a bully and a user who would later ask about his car, when he was dead, before inquiring about his death or the disposition of his remains. He learned that he could at least earn enough money singing and playing the guitar to earn his food and some pocket money…which would go for booze. LOTS of booze.
Before he was out of school, Hiram, whose name became “Harm” once the local accent was accounted for, had renamed himself the cooler-sounding “Hank Williams” and had jobs playing at road-houses and other local venues in Alabama. He had a small band which included the “new” steel guitar, and he had his own sound. At first he and his roadies were always safely stowed back at home by 10 PM so that he could be present at school the next day, but his genius was not a conventional one, and music meant more to him than anything the classroom of the time period could offer him. His illiteracy was in fact so complete that even after he began making a lot of money, he would trustingly empty all his pockets onto the counter at the local bank and instruct the teller that “I make it. You count it.” Before his life and career were over, he would play in concert venues all around the continental US and Europe.
Some of the places he played in initially were tough enough that chicken wire surrounded the band so that the talent would not be cold-conked by a flying beer bottle. Don Helms, his best-known steel guitarist, told the author that in some of the places that hired them, a prerequisite to playing was proving that one was armed, either with a billy club, bowie knife, shot gun, or even a broken bottle; the point was to show that no other protection was required and that the musicians could survive the night on their own.
Hank’s first wife, Audrey, who badly wanted to be his singing partner but appears, by all accounts, to have been talent-free and tin of ear, figured out that the best way for Hank to make himself known was to write (meaning create; he could not read music). In this way he became a scion of rural culture. Before his death at the tender age of 29, he had written 50 songs, and 37 of them made the Billboard charts.
As a child of the sixties and seventies myself, I did not listen to traditional country music except when bumming a ride from my father. In reading Hemphill’s biography of Williams, I was startled to find the origin of one of my dad’s favorite sayings, “…good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.” (“Creek” is pronounced “crick”.) I was also surprised how many songs I knew that turned out to be composed by Williams.
Hemphill offers a readable narrative, enough details to make the reader feel like a fly on the wall, at least at times, in Williams’ life, and he documents everything thoroughly without slowing the tale. It’s hard to tell whether his comparisons and speculations at the end are intended to provide filler, or whether there really has raged a Hank versus Elvis debate to which I have never been privy. I also found his unflattering description of Hank, Jr. and Hank III a little abrasive.
When all is said and done, I would respond, history marches forward, whether it is political, cultural, military, technical, or musical history. Nobody sings like Hank now because it isn’t the fifties, and cowboys are no longer in vogue. Hank’s death didn’t affect the style. I think if he had survived, he would either have had to adapt or seen his career wane.
My own musical tastes have tended more in other directions, and I never bought a Hank Williams collection, but I do own one by Hank, Jr. I got onto a popular computer thread and streamed some music by each of the three Hanks. The original Hank Williams is immortalized primarily as a song-writer, but also as the first American artist to add a yodeling type of element to his style, and of course for pioneering the use of the steel guitar in country music. Tee author classifies Hank III as a head-banging punk rocker, but when I watched a streamed performance, if anything Hank III appears to have really played up the rural working man’s angle to the hilt. The original Hank spent a bundle on clothing for his performances; Hank III flaunts a battered felt hat and sings in a stylized drawl that at least to me, appears to be unmistakably country in flavor. But of course it is not the same; technology, tastes, and the world of entertainment have all changed, and nothing in this world, including the music world, will ever stand still.
The argument about whether or not Hank “could have survived Elvis” is specious. One might as well ask whether he could have survived the Beatles. They are different, and the music world has held a time and place for each. It isn’t an exclusive category.
To sum up, it’s a good biography. I was lucky to find it; apparently (and this sounds crazy), the UK published his life story before any credible source in the USA got around to it. Whether or not you read, or believe, the speculations that take up the last 10% or so of the book, it’s worth your time and your money.