Monday, September 19, 2011

Tragic Legacy: Hank Williams, Sr.

For the last few weeks I've been reading Paul Hemphill's biography of Hank Williams Sr. "Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams."  Published in 2005 by Penguin Books, Hemphill takes a unique approach in his analysis of the elder Williams in that he speaks to the special bond he had with his father through his early exposure to Hank Williams Sr.  The approach makes for a very interesting read, as it's clear from the outset that Hemphill has more than just a monetary interest in the quality of this project.  This is a project from the heart, as much a tribute to his father as it is to the legacy of Hank Williams.  This is not a bad thing.

I picked up this book when I was at the local library.   The covering artwork caught my eye at first and then I realized, I had never read a book on Hank Williams, Sr.  I'm a huge fan of Hank Williams, Jr, and I like some of Hank III's stuff, but I had never seemed to take the time to read a proper biography on the first superstar in all of music.  It struck me that it was time to correct this error, and so I set out to read Hemphill's take on Hank's life.  

I do like how Hemphilll starts the book off by relating personal childhood memories of being introduced to Hank Williams, Sr.'s music from his truck-driving father in 1949.  This was long before the days of satellite radio and truck cabs with luxury sleepers in the back.  The road was long and lonesome, with all-night radio a truckers only company.  Hank Sr. sure gave them something to listen to, and Paul Hemphill and his father listened up in a hurry.  

Hemphill had a lot of valued assistance in writing his book from Hank's right-hand of the Drifting Cowboys, Don Helms, as well as Marty Stuart and a host of other Nashville historians.  This allows Hemphill to paint a vivid picture of the tragic life that was Hank William's Sr.'s existence for virtually his entire all-to-short life.   Growing up in a home with a controlling and (one could argue) unloving mother, Hank spent his whole life trying to find the love that he never really received at a young age.  Following an accident, his father had been pushed out of the picture by his mother.  Never receiving a proper education, somehow he managed to channel his creativity into singing and songwriting.  Along with this natural talent however, came an early and lifelong addiction to alcohol.  It's well known that this addiction would ultimately cost him his life in the early morning hours of New Year's Day in his Cadillac en route to Canton, Ohio.  But what is not as well known, at least to my generation, is how crippling this addiction really was.  

Hemphill's book paint's a picture that is at times beautiful, yet so tragic at the same time.  He speaks in detail of the times where Hank would stay sober for an extended period, then he would fall completely off the rails to the point where his career would suffer immeasurably.  Hemphill is quite critical of the women in Hank's life, specifically his mother Lillie and his first wife Audrey (the mother of Hank Williams, Jr.), however, Hemphill portrays the elder Hank's second wife Billie Jean in a rather sympathetic role.  From Hemphill's account, Billie Jean really does seem like the only woman who truly loved and supported Hank Williams, Sr. during his lifetime.

At the time of his death, Hank Sr. was arguably the first real superstar in all of music.  What may not have been known at that time is what a mess his personal life and career had become.  It did seem like he could have turned his life around when he met and married Billie Jean.  I found myself really pulling for him to get it together, almost willing a different outcome that the world has known for almost 60 years.  Sadly, like the story goes when most stars fade at the height of their prime, Hank's popularity would soar higher than it had ever been.  It remains strong to this day, 58 years after his death.  Truly, an amazing legacy that may or may not loom as large as it does had he survived.   

Paul Hemphill does a great job putting together this story, which makes for a nice read.  This book is a great start for anyone who is looking to begin their journey in learning about arguably the greatest singer-songwriter in history.  Check out "Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams" at your local bookstore or library.

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