HANK : THE SHORT LIFE AND LONG COUNTRY ROAD OF HANK WILLIAMS
By Mark Ribowsky
Liveright Publishing. 472 pages. £22.99/$29.95. ISBN 978-1-63149-157-3
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Between 1954 and 1957 I was serving as a soldier with the British Army in Germany. I used to tune my radio to AFN (the American Forces Network) in preference to the dull programmes broadcast by the BFN (British Forces Network). AFN had more jazz, and it also had quite a lot of country music of one sort or another. There were plenty of Southerners in the American forces stationed in Europe.
It was while listening to AFN that I grew to enjoy country music, something that most of my fellow jazz enthusiasts disapproved of. But the records I heard were to my liking. Hank Snow’s lovely “The Garden of Roses (It’s You, Only You that I Love)”, and his “A Fool Such as I”; Hank Locklin’s, “Send Me the Pillow (that You Dream on)”; Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life”; Hank Penny’s witty “Bloodshot Eyes”. There seemed to be a lot of Hanks around, and most of all, I was always aroused by anything featuring Hank Williams. The others were usually entertaining, but Williams had a raw edge to his singing that seemed to go beyond the sentimental or amusing. There was an intensity missing in the work of the rest of them. The irony was that, by the time I was getting to appreciate Hank Williams, he was already dead, a casualty of the fast and hard living that success brought.
Williams was born in 1923 into a poor family in Alabama, living in a town that was largely a centre for “farmers, cotton pickers, migrant workers, loggers”. His parents were well-mannered, church-going Baptists, with his mother the dominant person in the family, something that had a significant impact on his later life. Mark Ribowsky says that Williams was “brought up believing that he was white trash”, though his mother always had aspirations towards respectability. But as Williams himself said when commenting on his singing: “To sing like a hillbilly, you had to have lived like a hillbilly. You had to have smelt a lot of mule manure”.
Williams was probably exaggerating when he seemed to be suggesting that he had “smelt a lot of mule manure”. It’s more than probable that he had little experience of hard, physical work. Ribowsky says that Williams suffered from back problems from an early age. They weren’t properly diagnosed then, and it was only much later that he was shown to have a form of spina bifida. It’s likely that the pain he constantly experienced was, in part at least, the cause of his heavy drinking and recourse to addictive pain-killers as he got older. It was the more easily-available alcohol that came first and he was drinking from an early age and probably an alcoholic before he was twenty.
He was introduced to black music by a local store-owner, and he picked up guitar lessons from an itinerant black musician called “Tee Tot” (real name, Rufus Payne) who, ironically, would have liked to have played hillbilly music (“white man’s blues”) but had to work the streets to scrounge loose change. Williams was also hearing gospel music, country singers like Jimmy Rodgers, and the more-commercial sounds of cowboy singers like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry who appeared in Hollywood films. I saw many of their less-than-wonderful performances in the local cinemas of the industrial town I grew up in during the 1940s, and can’t honestly say I was all that impressed by either Rogers or Autry. Perhaps I was waiting for something better to come along, as it did in Germany?
Williams never was a good student and soon dropped out of school. He was working with local musicians in his mid-teens, touring with a rodeo show, appearing on local radio, and playing in some rough places, usually referred to as honky-tonk joints. And drinking hard and beginning to gain something of a reputation as a ladies man : “One of the reasons he got into so many fights in the honky-tonks was that when a sweet thing came waltzing though the door, Hank disregarded the man whose arm she was on”. His mother admitted to “being a little jealous at times,” when she heard about his womanising, and that comment may have caused a few raised eyebrows. And she went on to say that she was always Hank’s “first girl, and he never forgot it”.
His mother, Lillie, certainly tried to control him, and he had to hand over any money he earned, and in return she would give him a small allowance. Things began to change when, in 1943, he met Audrey May Sheppard Guy, “a tall, striking, and married woman and mom, with curly blonde hair, high cheekbones, and an aquiline nose”. Williams fell for her in a big way, and she began to exert an influence on his life and songs. She had ambitions to be a singer herself, but her talents were limited, and Audrey and Hank’s insistence on her being allowed on stage to perform with him led to dissension among his backing musicians. But there’s no doubt that much of his inspiration for composing music was due to his feelings about her : “At any given moment, he loved or hated Audrey Sheppard, but that mix of bravado and fear would be at the crux of almost every song he would write and sing from now on”.
Needless to say, there was always friction between Williams’ mother and his wife, as Audrey (another dominant personality) soon became, though there were always doubts about whether or not the marriage was legal. She had filed divorce papers, but the couple jumped the gun and got married before the divorce was properly finalised. It would come back to affect Williams’ future actions, and even the legal tussles after his death. Various parties laid claims to different parts of the Williams estate, including royalties from the sales of his records and sheet music. Williams married more than once, and fathered children with several women. Ribowsky provides full details, should anyone be interested. They’re probably among the more sensational aspects of the singer’s story.
In between his drinking and womanising, Williams attempted to further his musical interests, despite being his own worst enemy. He antagonised his fellow-musicians, turned up late for engagements, sometimes even missed them altogether, and when he was there, no-one could guarantee that he’d be sober enough to perform. Fred Rose became his manager and promoter, as well as occasionally assisting with the composition of songs. Ribowsky thinks that Rose and Frank Walker, President of MGM Reords, “found all sorts of ways to stiff him on `expenses’ and deductions for studio time and records that were returned by store owners. Even though Hank would clear almost $20,000 more in royalties in 1950, he likely never made nearly what he was owed”.
For Williams, the money he did get allowed him to live it up, but his drinking was out of control, and he had additionally taken to using drugs, including morphine, to deaden the pain he increasingly experienced from his back. A curious character named Doctor Horace Rapol “Toby” Marshall, had appeared on the scene, and could be relied on to supply Williams with a steady flow of drugs, of one kind or another. It later transpired that Marshall had no medical qualifications.
Williams had achieved his ambition of appearing on the Grand Ole Opry show, though he soon caused the people in charge to stop hiring him because of his unpredictable behaviour. Some musicians withdrew their service after experiencing his unreliability. Others would jump at the chance to work with him, at least until they realised what a chore it could be and how many jobs they lost when managers of clubs and theatres refused to employ Williams. He threw away an opportunity to go to Hollywood to appear in a film. There is a story that Williams, ill and certainly only too aware that his reputation was in ruins, walked on stage at one gig, looked at the audience and said, “Ya’ll paid to see ole Hank, didn’t ya? Well, you seen him”, and walked off. Promoters lost thousands of dollars when he did things like that.
With Williams increasingly suffering, the end came on New Year’s Day, 1953. He was being driven to an engagement in Canton, West Virginia, and was drinking, as usual, and picking up whatever drugs were available. There were problems because of the inclement weather conditions, and stops had to be made for food and other reasons. At one of them, Williams, lying in the back seat, was checked and found to be dead. It wasn’t that simple, though, and some witnesses said they’d seem him outside the car, and even inside the roadside diner where it was parked. Williams might have been amused by the chaos that ensued as much when he was dead as when he was alive.
I’ve already referred to the bitter disputes that occurred when his estate came up for grabs, so won’t waste any time discussing the details. What is more important is the music he left behind. There are a large number of recordings, some of which are admittedly more interesting than others. I recall (and after over sixty years my memory may be faulty) that among the records I heard in Germany were “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, “Half as Much”, “Cold, Cold Heart”, and “I Can’t Help it (if I’m still in Love with You)”. These were very much the songs that Williams either wrote or at least used to express his feelings about Audrey. Even after she divorced him, he still continued to hope that somehow they’d get back together again. And she, perhaps, never completely terminated their relationship, even though she knew that his drinking and womanising would always be there. His recording of “Ramblin’ Man” could well have been his signature tune. He was simply too far gone to settle down, and they would always fight.
It could be that the songs I’ve referred to were heard more due to a couple of them having been picked up and moved out of the country scene and into the wider pop music world. Tony Bennett had a hit with “Cold, Cold Heart”, and Rosemary Clooney with “Half as Much”. There were other transfers from country into pop, with Jo Stafford recording “Jambalaya”, and Frankie Laine “Hey, Good Lookin’ (Something for the Boys”). The point I’m making is that, leaving aside the question of royalties payable when Williams was the composer (“Half as Much”, wasn’t one of his), he would have benefited from the extra exposure to his music that other artists’ recordings could lead to.
Songs such as “Jambalaya”, “Setting’ the Woods on Fire”, Kaw-liga”, Hey, Good Lookin”, “Move it on Over”, “Honky Tonkin”, and others like them, indicated that Williams wasn’t just a writer and singer of sad songs of unrequited love and unfaithful women. Touring honky-tonks around the southern states had taught him that people liked to have a good time, and hard-driving music was one way to ensure they did. It’s easy to see the origins of what was known as “rockabilly”, the combination of country and early rock-and-roll, in some of Williams’ recordings.
There are other aspects of his music worth exploring, such as the sounds of the gospel music he’d heard as a child. “I Saw the Light” is probably the best-known example of Williams’ religious recordings, if I can call them that, but he recorded many more, including some with Audrey. Despite all his transgressive behaviour, the drinking, fornicating, swearing, and violence, he couldn’t shake off the religious influence, and in his own idiosyncratic way, he was a believer.
Hank takes an exhaustive look at the singer’s life and music. Some might say that it’s also exhausting in the way it piles up the details of marital battles (often of a physical as well as verbal nature), irresponsible behaviour in terms of missed engagements and lost opportunities, endless drinking, financial irregularities, numerous women, forgotten children, and the curious relationships that Williams had with his mother and Audrey. They were both dominant women and he seemed to need them. It’s all very interesting, but I have to say that, in the end, I go back to the music. For all his failings as a man, Hank Williams created something that has lasted.