Mon November 14, 2005
Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams, by Paul Hemphill
Hank Williams was, in his own way, an enigma. He was also a kind of genius. Hardly educated, a high-school drop-out, neither a reader nor a writer, he was a poet. Hank was writing songs in his teens that will be played for another hundred years.
By Don Noble
Those of you who really don?t want to read another nonfiction book by an Alabamian starring a lucky, brave, indeed heroic mother who raises children with little help from anyone, especially from her drunken, useless husband, have no fear. You may commence reading Paul Hemphill?s new biography of Hank with no trepidation at all.
Hank?s mother was awful, a monster. She was ?of lumberman proportions,? six feet tall, over two hundred pounds, violent and bossy. She managed boarding houses, and several of Hemphill?s interviewees suggested she was a madam. When Hank married, he chose Audrey Mae Sheppard, ?a headstrong force of nature with a mind of her own, a virtual clone of the mother who had bedeviled him for most of his life.?
Hank Williams was, in his own way, an enigma. Hardly educated, a high-school drop-out, neither a reader nor a writer, he was a poet. A Mozart of the Wiregrass. A Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie. Why this gift comes to some people, we do not know. But Hemphill has caught it beautifully.
This biography, only 207 pages, mercifully does not try to tell us what Hank ate at every meal (not much, would be the answer). Hemphill, author of The Nashville Sound, captures the essence of Williams, I think, and tells the story in flowing and seamless prose.
This is Hemphill?s best book of more than a dozen, better even than Leaving Birmingham.
Near the end of 1916, Alonzo ?Lon? Huble Williams married Jessie Lillybelle Skipper. The marriage turned to be ?a union from hell,? Hemphill tells us.
Hiram Williams, pronounced ?Harm,? later changed to Hank, was born in West Mount Olive, outside Georgiana, Alabama, on September 17, 1923. Lon was history by 1930, and young Hank, weak, skinny, with a spinal deformity that was probably mild spina bifida, was essentially fatherless and avoided his mother as much as possible.
The boy had a gift for music that was discovered early, and in church Hank would learn to play the guitar and sing, although he would never learn to read music. (It didn?t seem to slow him down any.)
The self-destructive drinking, which would of course destroy Williams, began early.
On Saturday nights in Fountain, Alabama, there would be dances in the country schools, and since ?Baptists...don?t like to drink in front of each other,? the men would stash their whiskey outside in the bushes and visit their bottles from time to time. Young Hank hid in the bushes, watched where the men hid their whiskey, and then drank it, passing out ?stone-cold drunk in the woods.?
At 11, Hank would receive some musical instruction and further drinking lessons from a very talented itinerant black musician called Tee-Tot who played for coins and drank a mixture of whiskey and tea. (Although there are at least two previous biographies of Williams, uncovering the relationship between Hank and Tee-Tot is one of Hemphill?s original contributions to ?Williams Studies.?)
By the time Hank Williams was old enough to legally buy a drink, he was an alcoholic.
He was also a kind of genius. Hank was writing songs in his teens that will be played for another hundred years. The Williams Songbook is over fifty songs. (Elvis never wrote one.) Thirty-seven made the Billboard charts. He had ten #1 records, four of them posthumous, and he never drank while recording.
Williams the songwriter is a mystery. Sometimes he could write a song in two hours, and he discovered that he could write just as well sober as drunk. But he could not write if he was happy.
He had nothing to worry about, though, because his relationship to Audrey provided very little happiness. They argued and fought, bitterly and physically.
Over time his painful marriage and Audrey?s infidelities would provide the inspiration for dozens of ?lovesick blues?: ?I Can?t Stop Loving You,? ?Cold, Cold Heart,? ?I?m So Lonesome I Could Cry,? ?I Heard That Lonesome Whistle,? ?Honky Tonk Blues.?
Hank Williams, who died, as all Alabamians know, on New Year?s Eve, 1952, in the back of his Cadillac, probably of a heart attack, at age twenty-nine, had THE meteoric career. From rough roadhouses like Thigpen?s Log Cabin on Highway 31, Montgomery?s radio station FSA, to the Louisiana Hayride, to the Grand Ol? Opry, and back again to one-night stands, binge drinking killed first his career, then his body.
Upon Hank?s death, Mother Lillie, ex-wife Audrey, and new wife Billie Jean fought over the money. Lillie even had dead Hank?s ankles broken so she could bury him in his cowboy boots.
There?s a song in that.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.