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'Hank Williams: Honky Tonk Blues'
The Documentary is Part of the "American Masters" Series on PBS

Colin Escott
Co-writer/Co-producer, Author
Thursday, August 11, 2005 11:30 AM

Featuring the life and career of country music legend Hank Williams, the American Masters film "Hank Williams: Honky Tonk Blues" airs on PBS on Wednesday, August 10, at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings).

During the film, friends and family recall the singer's personal and professional life as being one long series of jagged jerks between periods of highs and lows that inevitably led to hit songs. Within the span of one year, Williams enjoyed his first hit with "Move It on Over," landed in a sanatorium because of his drinking, his band left him and his wife filed for divorce for the first time.

Colin Escott, co-writer/co-producer and author of "Hank Williams: The Biography," was online Thursday, April 11, at 11:30 a.m. ET to discuss the life of Hank Williams and the American Masters film that features it.

Williams released 66 songs under his own name and half became hits within a five-year period. "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Your Cheatin Heart," "Cold Cold Heart," "Jambalaya," "Hey Good Lookin" and "Move It on Over" continue to play around the world. During his lifetime, Williams released just two LPs, but his songs have been recorded by artists across the musical spectrum, including Norah Jones, Beck, Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Willie Nelson and Ray Charles.

Colin Escott is the author of "Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records & the Birth of Rock & Roll." He produced and annotated the CD collection "Hank Williams: The Original Singles Collection...Plus" and works as a consultant to several record companies.

The transcript follows.

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Colin Escott: Hi

Thanks for joining in this discussion. Unfortunately, director Morgan Neville couldn't join us. I'm the cowriter, coproducer on the PBS show, Hank Wms Honky Tonk Blues, and they tell me it's airing again tonight. We did it with the idea that so much of Hank's life was bound up in personal memories (he left no journals and no interviews of substance), and that...sadly...in 5 years or so, the number of those who knew him will make a program like this impossible.

Colin Escott

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Breaux Bridge, La.: When compared against other country recordings made during Hank's era, the quality, clarity and forcefulness of Hank's music seems to stand out far above the others. Was this due to just the caliber of the Hank and his musicians, or was this the result of some special recording technique?

Colin Escott: Hank used the same studio that the other country artists of the era used (there was only one in Nashville back then). But you're right, clarity, forcefulness, and quality are exactly what made those recordings stand out at the time and survive all the changes of the last 50+ years. Hank seemed to have a unique ability to project himself into a song, together with an overriding concern to keep it simple. Listen, if you have a chance to the vocal/guitar demo's on THE COMPLETE HANK WILLIAMS. You'll hear him pouring everything into a performance that he thought would only be heard by (at most) one or two people.

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Washington, D.C.: One of the things that surprised me when I first saw "Honky Tonk Blues" was the link you drew between Hank Williams and sacred harp singing. This is a connection I would never have drawn on my own, even though I love Williams' songs, and have heard some extraordinary sacred harp singing on collections like the Harry Smith Anthology and Dust to Digital's "Goodbye Babylon." Could you be a little more specific about the link you see between the two?

Also, fifty years after the fact, since neither Kate Smith nor Hank Williams are going to be coming back to collect their royalties, is it too much to ask that the entire, extraordinary performance of "I Saw The Light" that closes your film be placed in the public domain?

Thanks for your extraordinary work in preserving American musical history! I'm a big fan of the Sun Records work you've done for Bear Family Records and others.

Colin Escott: Hank went to a shape note singing school when he was a kid, and I think I can hear the cadences of shape note hymns in his own hymns. Mostly, though, we included the footage to give people a sense of the music that Hank heard as a kid. It's very different from the sacred music you'd hear up north.

Placing the Kate Smith footage in the public domain is not up to me, unfortunately. Smith willed her footage to Boston University (I think), and they control it. There are discussions over whether TV shows that old are actually public domain now, but I'm not an intellectual property lawyer, so I really don't know where they stand...legally. The bottom line, though, is that I'd love to see those shows (which have some great Opry footage) available in their entirety.

And thanks for your kind words. I appreciate it.

Colin

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Breaux Bridge, La.: Although your book suggests that Hank's legacy may have been enhanced by a number of factors, including the change in the country music industry at that time and that Hank's demise occurred before Elvis and rock-n-roll, do you think that Hank had the unique "stuff" to make it in a changing world? Look at songs like Jambalaya and Kaw-Liga that were huge hits despite their radical departure from the norm at that tim.

Colin Escott: Excellent question, and of course we could discuss it all day. I guess the point I was trying to make in the book is that, in the era of the Nashville Sound, Hank would have been too COUNTRY for country music. Yes, he was becoming a very accomplished songwriter, but he didn't sound much like Marty Robbins, Sonny James, Jim Reeves and the others who made it big in the mid/late 1950s. But then you could argue that Ray Price did well through that era with a hardcore sound, so it's hard to say. The other thing I was trying to say in the book was that Hank's contemporaries, like Webb Pierce, Hank Snow, Faron Young, Lefty, etc., tried to bend with the times and make R&R records, but in dying when he did, Hank was spared the indignity of trying. As a result, what he left was very pure and true to himself.

Colin

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Kansas City, Mo.: It has been revealed that many country stars were influenced by black musicians. Some, like A.P. Carter and Hank Williams, were even mentored by black musicians. To your knowledge, was there ever any public acknowledgment by Williams or others of the influence blacks had on their music and careers?

Colin Escott: Well, there are no published interviews with AP Carter that I'm aware of, but in conversation he mentioned Esley Riddles..the black guy who went with him on his songcatching trips. But Hank did mention the blues guys. In an interview in Corpus Christi in 1952 he said that his music was based on the "nigger blues" he heard as a kid, and I don't believe he said that in a pejorative way at all. Insensitive as it sounds today, I think it was the only term he knew. He also told journalist Ralph Gleason that he learned guitar from an old black guy, and went looking for his mentor Tee-Tot at his '52 Greenville Homecoming. His wife, Billie Jean, said that he'd often stop the car to play with blues singers on the street. And of course at his funeral he had a black gospel quartet. I can only believe it was his wish that they be present, and he must have been the only prominent white citizen of Alabama at that time with a black gospel quartet at his funeral service, wouldn't you think?

Colin

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Alexandria, Va.: Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to see the program last night. I am a Hank fan and hope to catch at a later time but it is my understanding that there is not much actual "footage" of Hank performing. I have read that there is only two known performances documented on film/video. Can you confirm this and did this present a problem for you when you decided to produce your show?

Colin Escott: There's very little footage, and basically every second of it that we could find is in the show. There must be a kinescope of Hank on the Perry Como Show somewhere (it's well documented that he appeared), and we thought someone would announce they had it after we aired, but no one did. Frustratingly, there's a kinescope of the Como show from the week AFTER Hank was on. There's some footage of Hank in a record store in Texas that was bought by Warner Bros in the 1970s and has been lost in their storage. And there was reportedly some footage from the Hadacol Caravan, but again we were unable to locate it. There is some previously unseen footage in the show, but not as much as we would have liked.

Colin

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Orlando, Fla.: How is it that a man as prolific as Hank Williams only released 2 LPs? Were most of his recordings recorded radio shows? Where did his recording come from if not from LPs?

Colin Escott: Hank recorded in the 78/45 era. Hank started recording in Dec '46 and LPs were intro'd in 1948. At first, they were mostly classical, shows, and pop. The country audience didn't have players that could handle the 33RPM speed. Country, R&B, and gospel sold better on singles than LPs right into the 1960s and beyond. And so after Hank's death, LPs were compiled from his singles and from songwriting demo's and radio shows.

Colin

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Some alcoholic performers still were able to keep themselves together when they are on stage. Did Hank Williams's drinking problem ever become noticeable while he was performing, or was he able to hide it from the viewing public?

Colin Escott: Yes, Hank's drinking problem WAS obvious on stage many times. It embarrassed his band and his costars. It seems as though his contemporaries like Ernest Tubb and Red Foley could stay drunk but functioning for days or weeks at a time, but Hank was a binge drinker with a low tolerance for alcohol, and he'd become incapacitated very quickly. Sadly, though, people tend to remember the times he was drunk and not the 90%+ shows for which he was sober and absolutely riveting.

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Maine, N.Y.: As a former country/blues singer who included several Hank Williams numbers in my sets, I really looked forward to and enjoyed the program. A few questions:

Are there many air checks of the Louisiana Hayride programs on which Hank appeared? How difficult was it to locate the Drifting Cowboys who appeared in your documentary? Also, I wasn't sure, but was the blue Caddy that appeared several times in the reenactments the actual car in which Hank died? Thank you.

Colin Escott: There are very few airchecks from the Hayride. Some Johnnie Fair Syrup Shows from KWKH that he prerecorded in 1948 (before he went to the Opry) were issued complete and undubbed on THE COMPLETE HANK WILLIAMS, but without the chatter, which was edited out in the 1950s and lost. There are almost no KWKH Hayride appearances. Fans trade copies of his "return" to the Hayride in 1952, and that's the only one I know of.

It wasn't hard to locate the Drifting Cowboys, at least those from the later incarnations of the band. A few of the guys from Hank's earliest bands might still be around. It's only in the last 10 years that Pee Wee Moultrie has turned up after I and others looked for him. It's harder to hide in the internet age, though.

The blue Caddy in the film isn't Hank's. The transmission or some other integral part has been taken out of the real car. The one in the film is one of just two or three that survive, though.

Colin

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Port Neches, Tex.: Your work on this project has brought you in touch with a number of people who claimed "to know Hank." Can you describe some of the more euphoric moments in some of those interviews? Moments where you learned and saw things that were totally unanticipated.

Colin Escott: Well, any interview with his widow, Billie Jean, is usually guaranteed to hold some surprises, but I think the most moving moment in the i/views for the show was when Big Bill Lister talked of Hank trying to give some money to an old black couple at a barbecue stand in Montgomery who'd presumably given him food when he was younger. I found that a profoundly moving moment, mostly for what it said about Hank and his compassion.

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Lumberton, N.C.: Question #1. Why is it so difficult to find (or view on TV) Hank Williams complete home movies or the few complete TV appearances he made? Occasionally you will see a 'song video' of Hank, but it is 'mostly' improvised by an actor portraying him. I have read that his estate is divided up by several people, and this is the problem. Question #2. I've read that when Hank was found dead in the back seat of his car that the coroner stated that parts of his body were bruised due to someone beating on him. What information do you have pertaining to this? Thanks, Joe

Colin Escott: Every second of footage that we could find is in the show. As I said in an earlier answer, there's rumored to be more, but believe me we really beat the bushes trying to find it, and couldn't. It's possible that Hank Jr has more that he has decided not to share with the world, and I guess that's his prerogative.

At present, Hank's estate is divided between Jr. and Jett Williams. Billie Jean had a share of the music publishing income (though not the record royalties), but she recently sold that. And that's the situation as I understand it.

And yes, the autopsy did mention bruising on Hank's body, but nobody came forward to say they did it, and so it remains a mystery. A guy who appears briefly in the film, Brian Turpen, is writing an extensive book on Hank's death that should be out within the next couple of years. He might have unearthed more info, but all I know is what the autopsy stated.

Colin

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Breaux Bridge, La.: After all the research you've done and stories you heard, what do you think made Hank's persona in song and on-stage stand out so much, yet be so counter-successful when he was not performing? Just watching the few videos on Hank and listening to his recordings, it almost seemed likely performances transformed him into something almost bigger than life. What do you think was that special "thing" that made that happen for him?

Colin Escott: People who knew Hank say that he reserved and hard to know on a personal level, but he seemed to have a unique ability to project into a song or a performance all that he couldn't say in person. I guess he's not alone in that, but he took it to a higher degree than most. He seemed to me like a thermos...scalding hot inside and cool outside. I think the same might well be true of other great artists. Miles Davis comes to mind. But then if Hank had submitted himself to latter day psychoanalysis etc., then he might not have been compelled to write and perform as he did.

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Austin, Tex. : I remember reading that Hank also performed on other television shows, such as the Perry Como show. Although fair quality copies of the 2 Kate Smith shows are traded among collectors, I have never heard of any other television shows featuring Hank being found (outside of those referenced in your documentary).

Do you have any information on any other available performance footage from Hank?

Colin Escott: Thanks for your question, but I can best refer you to a previous answer where I set out everything that we know.

Colin

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Baltimore, Md.: With the recent success of Shooter Jennings, why do you feel Hank Williams III's music has been poorly received by critics and fans?

Colin Escott: Well, Shooter came along in a blaze of publicity, as did Hank III, but it has yet to be proved that he's here for the long haul. It's so terribly hard for children, grandchildren, etc. of famous performers to make it on their own. Hank Jr. and Sammy Davis Jr. are two of the very few examples of offspring who used the family name to get going, but then carved out unique careers of their own.

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Fenton, Mich.: Hi, I really enjoyed the show and thought it was very well done. To continue the thought that was posed in an earlier question, do you really think Hank would have tried to adapt his music to the changing tides? As the show pointed out, fame wasn't all that important to him. I'm of the feeling that he could have traveled a similar path to Bob Dylan, falling in and out of favor with the pop culture, but staying true to his art.

Colin Escott: The thing is, you could well be right. No one knows. I gave my opinion, but it's only an opinion. Personally, I have a hard time seeing Hank in the 1960s writing songs like "I Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Was In," but perhaps he would have become a writer like Harlan Howard or Bill Anderson, still cranking out the hits 40, 50 years later.

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Mobile, Ala.: From what I have read, Hank's steel guitarist Don Helms, may be the last remaining member of Hank's recording band. Your book indicates that they played together for quite a few years. What are some of the stories that Don shared with you about Hank that did not make it to the final cut?

Colin Escott: Yes, Don is the last member of the recording band, and time's running out here. I don't want to turn this into an infomercial, but I think Don has just written a book, and I'd guess that he has shared all he knows in there. If you subscribe to Hank fan Web sites, you'll find details as and when....

Colin

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Colin Escott: Thanks to everyone for joining in this online chat. It was the first I've ever done. I hope the answers made sense, and I apologize to anyone we didn't get to.

Colin

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