The soldier must have thought he was dreaming. There he was, driving down a pitch-black road outside Shreveport, La., in the early hours of Oct. 18, 1952, when he saw a figure in a hat, boots and white suit. It was Hank Williams, out of gas and hitchhiking to the nearest filling station. Williams was at the height of his fame, but at that moment, he was like any other chump who forgot to check the gauge before heading out into the darkness. He had also just gotten married; he and his latest woke up a justice of the peace who performed the ceremony at 1 a.m., even though the bride’s previous marriage wouldn’t be dissolved until 10 days later. And Williams was less than three months away from his death by heart attack in the darkness, on another country road, in another car. He was 29 years old.
Except musically, almost every choice he made was wrong, as Mark Ribowsky shows in “Hank,” a compassionate yet clear-eyed study of the iconic country star. Williams didn’t always know where he was or what he was doing, but he did it so damned well that he continues to drift through our culture like a ghost, a raggedy, knee-walking drunk who sang like an angel when he was sober enough to stand in front of a mic, which was less and less often. He was the last person on Earth you’d want for a brother-in-law, and he might have worn us out and allowed us to forget him if only he had lived longer.
But there was never much chance of that. One of the musicians who played with him in the early days noted that “Hank’s drinking problem was getting worse,” and Hank was only 17 at the time. Not much later, he was kicked off a regular radio gig when he showed up continually drunk for the show’s 6 a.m. start. Later, he added Nembutal and Demerol to the mix, alternating downers to numb himself with uppers so he could perform. From childhood on, Williams suffered terribly from back pain, but it wasn’t until he was an adult that he was diagnosed with spina bifida, a condition not many rural Alabama doctors knew about back then.
Like many a roots musician, Williams got his start singing in church as a child. In the early days of country music and the blues, the distinction between the two genres wasn’t as hard and fast as it is now, and Williams learned from performers as different as Rufus Payne, who played guitar in the streets of Montgomery for spare change, and Jimmie “the Singing Brakeman” Rodgers, a country star known for his yodeling .
Williams’s list of hits is astonishing, given his short life. It includes foot-stompers such as “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” and come-to-Jesus rousers such as “I Saw the Light,” as well as what just might be the saddest song in the world, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” As a songwriter, Williams always seemed to be on duty. After yet another monumental spat with his first wife, Audrey, he said, “She’s got the coldest heart I’ve ever seen,” and then sat down and wrote “Cold, Cold Heart,” which charted at No. 1 on the 1951 Billboard Hot Country Singles list.
Perhaps because he was always composing in his head, Williams struck others as distant. People who worked with him found him impossible to know. And in one of her more charitable moods, Audrey recalls him sitting by himself in clubs and arenas “like a little boy lost.”
Ribowsky is the author of a number of highly acclaimed books, including ones on the Supremes and the Temptations, and it’s to his credit that he gets as close to Williams as any writer could. Ribowsky is a master of the appropriate image, pointing out that hard-drinking Hank was “as skinny as a swizzle stick” and at one point describing his cantankerous mother, who was at least as much of a handful as Audrey was, as “two hundred pounds of horned-toad complication.”
In a variation of the story of hitchhiking Hank being picked up by a soldier, David Allan Coe’s song “The Ride” tells of a drifter getting a lift from a hollow-eyed stranger driving an ancient Cadillac. The driver lets him out just south of Nashville, and when the speaker in the song calls him Mister, the gaunt figure at the wheel says there’s no need, that everyone simply calls him Hank.
As figures such as Poe, Melville, Kerouac and Springsteen have shown, there’s a shadowy restlessness to American culture, a yen to go where nobody is quite sure where you are, especially yourself. The next time there’s no moon, step out your front door and don’t be surprised if a car rolls by and a skinny guy in a cowboy hat touches the brim and gives you a knowing smile. Hank Williams was a tortured poet who died before most Americans today were born, but he’ll outlive us all.
David Kirby is the author of “Crossroad: Artist, Audience, and the Making of American Music.”
By Mark Ribowsky
Liveright. 472 pp. $29.95