He is considered by many to be the greatest country singer and songwriter who ever lived. The repertoire he assembled in his sadly abbreviated life includes such classics as "Your Cheatin' Heart," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Hey, Good Lookin,' " which transcended genre to become standards.
His songs have been recorded not just by numerous country performers (including Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison) but by artists from every shade of the pop spectrum: Elvis Presley, Linda Ronstadt, '70s soft-rock superstars the Carpenters, iconoclastic jazz chanteuse Cassandra Wilson, roots-punk troubadour Mike Ness, and great interpretive singers such as Ray Charles and Tony Bennett have all performed his material. He's been inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and is the subject of many biographies.
But the question lingers: Just who was Hank Williams?
The Smithsonian Institution addresses that question today with "A Tribute to Hank Williams," a program--the Smithsonian's first ever to deal with country music--that should shed some much-needed light on this enigmatic icon of Americana. Last night, the cream of the current country and roots-music scene performed a tribute to Williams at Lisner Auditorium. Today's all-day symposium at the Hirshhorn Museum's Ring Auditorium features Williams's daughter, Jett, also a performer, and his band-mate Don Helms discussing the Hank Williams legacy with Williams biographer Colin Escott, Billboard Magazine's Chet Flippo, Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau and moderator Paul Kingsbury, deputy director of special projects at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
"A Tribute to Hank Williams" comes as interest in Williams's career has shown a healthy resurgence. "The Complete Hank Williams," a brilliant 10-CD retrospective box set released last year, won two Grammy Awards. Next week Mercury Records will release "Live at the Grand Ole Opry," a much-anticipated new two-CD set featuring previously unavailable Williams concert recordings.
Despite Williams's significance in American music history, he remains, according to Christgau, "one of the most inadequately criticized and chronicled artists I've encountered. In his two biographies, each of which I think is heroic in its own way, neither even claims to get his story. His appeal, while undeniable, also seems to be unfathomable."
Escott, author of "Hank Williams: The Biography," concurs. "For all we seem to know about Hank, we know very little," Escott says. "He left almost no interviews--everything that he said that was reported would barely fill a page. There's very little footage of him, maybe 20 or 30 minutes total. It became very difficult to separate Hank from the myth. In a sense, Hank became a blank screen onto which people projected their vision of him. In some way, he is unknowable; he said so little, except in his songs."
Williams was born in Georgiana, Ala., in 1923, and died young from a lethal mixture of liquor and pills at the age of 29. Even before his death, his short life and career took on a puzzling, contradictory cast. In the mid-1940s, Williams burst onto Nashville's country music scene, with his music, shaped by hillbilly tradition, largely appealing to rural whites. But Williams also revered African American music, and claimed he received "all the musical training [he] ever had" from an older African American blues musician named Rufus "Tee-tot" Payne, which accounts for the clear blues influence in his playing.
Meanwhile, Williams was a dedicated trasher of hotel rooms long before Johnny Depp was born, a pop culture figurehead infamous for self-destruction well in advance of Jim Morrison's and Kurt Cobain's similar notoriety. Williams's epochal legend paints him as an expansive alcoholic and drug abuser, as well as a philanderer who divorced and remarried numerous times and fathered a child out of wedlock.
All the same, he remained a deeply religious man who wrote one of the most cherished gospel songs, "I Saw the Light," and who, in a truly idiosyncratic move, released many albums of somber religious recitations under the pseudonymous alter ego Luke the Drifter. Though he quickly became a superstar, Williams viewed himself as a simple man who preferred fishing and hunting to the vagaries of show business.
"Hank Williams was a country guy, not highly educated," explains Don Helms, the longtime guitarist in Williams's band the Drifting Cowboys. "Hank's wife, Audrey, had her eye on the big time, but Hank just wanted to go fishing. One time, one of the fellas in the band and Hank were way down in Kentucky Lakes, 70 miles from Nashville. They saw a seaplane coming, circling around lower and lower, and finally it landed. It was Audrey--some big-time person wanted an interview with him or something. He said, 'Damn, Audrey!' but he got out of the boat and away he went. She made unusual demands on his time, but he wasn't ready for that. He wanted to keep doing the same things he did before he was famous."
Williams's authentic down-home quality, in fact, remains a key element of his enduring appeal. He synthesized the musical styles of his Southern environment--Appalachian mountain folk, honky-tonk, blues and religious music--with casual innovation, and his quivering croon oozed infectious sincerity.
Yet it was Williams's confessional narrative songwriting that set him apart. "With a lot of country music prior to Hank Williams, the message was about 'Take me back to a cabin in the hills,' or it was about something to eat, like potatoes and gravy," Helms explains. "But Hank came along, and he started singing about a guy that worked at the mill; when he got off work, he had a couple of beers on the way home and got in dutch with his wife and had to sleep in the doghouse. There's a lot of people who can relate to that kind of relationship."
According to Kingsbury, "Hank's innovation in songwriting was that he took writing autobiography, or what seemed to be autobiography, so far that you felt you were hearing pages from Hank's diary. Listeners across the country felt that when he sang 'Your Cheatin' Heart,' they were hearing about the latest spat he'd had with his wife, Audrey. Hank pushed that farther than anyone had at that point, and did it so well that that kind of first-person testimonial has been part of country music ever since."
But Helms cautions against interpreting Williams's lyrics as documentary reportage. "He didn't necessarily write his own life. He just had an imagination about writing words that touched people. It didn't have to be something he experienced," Helms says. "Songs like 'Hey, Good Lookin' just [came out of] a country expression [that] a guy would yell at a girl. Hank wrote that in the car one Sunday; we were going to play a matinee in Birmingham, and he wrote it on the way. He got a paper bag and started writing and humming. He'd ask for a line here and there, and pretty soon he'd come up with something. He didn't see a good-looking girl. He just had a good imagination and knew what his audience would like to hear."
Helms claims the wild tales surrounding Williams's alcoholism are just that. "Most of the books written on Hank lead the reader to believe he was drunk all the time. That's far from being true," Helms says. "He would be drunk 6 or 7 percent of the time, and the rest of the time he would be sober: That's when he wrote, that's when he made personal appearances. He couldn't do anything when he was drunk."
Still, accurate or not, the legend of Williams's rebellious, hard-living ways quickly provided a troubled template that many of country music's most loved performers seemed doomed to follow (and write about in their songs). Artists including Johnny Cash, George Jones and "Tribute" participant Steve Earle all had their careers rocked by substance abuse.
And in a demise from alcoholism eerily similar to Williams's, the talented young country star Keith Whitley died in 1989 at the age of 34. Waylon Jennings even wrote the song "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?" comparing Whitley's cocaine addiction to Williams's problems. Williams's son, Hank Williams Jr., composed "Family Tradition," a song that humorously celebrated the clan's self-destructive ways.
"The recklessness of Hank Williams's life is completely tied up in the quality of his songs," Kingsbury says. "There are some that say if he had less trouble with alcohol, he might have been a greater songwriter. People who have followed him since then, however, feel that if you want to be remembered like Hank Williams, you have to live like Hank Williams."
Williams's legacy has proved remarkably profitable. Hank Jr., Williams's son by his first wife, was the first to capitalize on the family name, thrust as he was into the national spotlight and singing his father's songs when he was barely past puberty. Hank Williams Jr. went on to become one of country's most innovative and distinctive stylists. He presciently mixed country with rock, opening up the music to a new, younger generation, helped foment the longhaired "outlaw" tradition of the 1970s, and maintains a healthy career to this day.
Hank Jr.'s son, Hank Williams III, has also begun a music career (his debut, "Risin' Outlaw," was recently released). And Williams's illegitimate daughter, Jett, forged a performing career after establishing paternity. She will be a panelist at the Smithsonian event.
As for Hank Williams's influence on mainstream country music today, it's nearly nonexistent. Despite occasional references to him in country chart smashes like Alan Jackson's 1991 hit "Midnight in Montgomery," Williams's spare, immediate sound has no place in this era of slick, Garth Brooks-influenced overproduction.
Not surprisingly, his influence is most vibrantly felt by the new crop of "alternative" country and roots-oriented musicians: In addition to performers involved with "Tribute," such as Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Kim Richey and Kathy Mattea, artists like Greg Garing, Wayne Hancock, BR5-49, Jim Lauderdale, Robbie Fulks and the Waco Brothers all demonstrate Williams's influence in their love of traditional country, honest songwriting and a maverick bent.
"Country to me is Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn. The stuff they call country now isn't country music," Lucinda Williams says. "What I do isn't exactly country, but I do draw on old country music like Hank's. I like the simplicity of his songs. He just had this yearning in his voice that I identify with. You certainly don't hear that yearning, honesty and soul now."
Lucinda Williams--whose 1998 instant classic "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" was one of last year's most acclaimed albums--has been performing Hank Williams songs since even before her 1979 debut, "Ramblin' on My Mind," which contains a sterling cover of Hank's "Jambalaya."
"I've been listening to Hank Williams since as far back as I can remember. His music was some of the first music I was exposed to," Williams says. "My dad met Hank Williams three months before he died, right before I was born. They met in a bar, and Hank said, 'Do you want to go get a drink?' My dad was a professor, and he was drinking Scotch because he thought that's what professors are supposed to drink. The thing my dad remembers Hank telling him is 'Williams, you ought to be drinking beer because you've got a beer-drinking soul!' "
And how would the famously unpretentious Hank Williams accept being honored by an esteemed institution like the Smithsonian? Biographer Escott believes "he might've not been in favor of it. He resisted almost every attempt to ease him uptown, and made a point to not play above his raising. But whether he would've liked it or not, he's an American icon."