Are You Sure Hank Done It That Way?

An essential boxed set shows what was right about Hank Williams and what's wrong about country music today

Country music in the '90s is Alan Jackson inexplicably hyping Ford trucks by way of a rewritten version of "Mercury Blues," a venerable number covered during the early '70s by Steve Miller (a space cowboy rather than the ropin' and ridin' kind). It's Shania Twain, a singer whose producer/husband/Svengali, Robert "Mutt" Lange, made his name in British rock. And it's Garth Brooks taking over a generous chunk of network prime time to relentlessly pimp a double live album that has about as much in common with classic C&W as does the latest disc by the Three Tenors. Had Brooks not worn a Western-style hat during his mid-November television extravaganza, some viewers might have mistaken him for Billy Joel.

No doubt each of these warblers would claim Hank Williams as an important influence on his or her music. In fact, Jackson offers just such a testimonial in the booklet that accompanies The Complete Hank Williams, a just-issued 10-CD set on the Mercury imprint: He claims that he and songwriter Don Sampson penned the ditty "Midnight in Montgomery" after visiting Williams' Alabama grave, adding, "Most people, in or out of country music, are fans of Hank's and consider him a legend -- which he is." But although such boosters recognize Williams as an important historical figure, too many of them seem to feel that his tunes no longer speak to contemporary listeners. To them, his music is too raw, his voice too nasal and his approach too unvarnished for their liking. If they must hear a Williams, they'd prefer it be Hank Jr. belting out the question "Are you ready for some football?"

But the elder Williams' achievements are far too vital to be studied and set aside like some musty volume by Chaucer that's been loathed by generations of literature pupils. The singer was only 29 when he was found dead in the backseat of his powder-blue Cadillac on New Year's Day of 1953, and the span between his first studio session and his last was less than six years -- yet during that period, he still managed to create a country catalog that hasn't been topped to this day. The boxed set (issued to commemorate what would have been his 75th birthday) supplements his main body of recordings, which fill the first four discs, with a variety of demos and tapes from concerts and appearances for radio or television that vary in import and sound quality. But viewed as a whole, the package is both half-a-day's worth of pure pleasure and an eloquent argument against the slickness and superficiality that's running rampant in the genre that Williams all but defined five decades ago.

If Williams were a new artist now, he probably wouldn't get past a major label's reception desk. After all, he wasn't pretty (his ears recall those of the banjo-playing boy in Deliverance); he was in poor health (he had chronic back problems); he was deeply unstable (a typical problem when you're hooked on drugs and liquor); and he tended to sing about love and death as if there weren't that much difference between them. But he was also blessed with the ability to translate his deepest joys and fears into song, and the passage of time has done nothing to dull his work's power or lessen its significance. There's no music more American than his, and to understand the man who made it is to get a handle on the land from which he sprang.

Williams' childhood was a model of dysfunctionality -- perfect for a country tunesmith. He was born Hiriam King Williams in 1923 in Mount Olive, a tiny community in rural Alabama, to Lillie Williams, a bulldozer of a woman, and her husband, Lon, a disabled World War I veteran in such desperate shape that he took up permanent residence in a VA hospital when his son was 6 years old. Young Hiriam had a sister, Irene, but Lillie focused the lion's share of her energy on him, particularly after he began to display a talent for music. He learned how to play the guitar from Rufus Payne, a black busker known as Tee-Tot; in the boxed set's booklet, essayist Daniel Cooper quotes Williams as saying that he shined shoes in order to afford the lessons. Soon Hiriam was crooning for coins on street corners, too, and by the time he reached the age of 17, he was appearing as the "Singing Kid" on WSFA, a Montgomery radio station. By all accounts, he was already wild (his blood-alcohol level was rarely at zero), and his wandering ways didn't end when, in 1943, he met Audrey Sheppard Guy, a looker with a 2-year-old daughter, Lycrecia, from a previous marriage. Audrey and Hank, as he was known by then, were a volatile match: Her Lillie-like ambition and drive alternately attracted and repelled him, prompting just as many loving reunions as horrible scraps. During the next nine years they would marry, divorce, remarry and divorce again.

While performing, Williams could be just as erratic. In Hank Williams: The Biography, author Colin Escott, who provides the first-rate notes for the box, recounts a 1943 turn at which a drunken Williams was asked to introduce emcee Hardrock Gunter. Instead, he grabbed Gunter's guitar, charged onstage and played several unscheduled songs -- and the only thing that prevented him from walking away with the instrument after he'd finished was his inability to get through a doorway with it slung over his shoulder (he tried twice before Gunter stopped him). But even though he was stewed to the gills, he still wowed the crowd. This ability served him in good stead later, when he was seldom far from a bottle.

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