Legends don’t look like legends when they’re being made…. They’re just folks.
—Former Hank Williams band mate Don Helms
When the lord made me, he made a rambling man.
—Hank Williams, “Rambling Man”
The life-story of one of country music’s most tragic luminaries is one as quintessentially American as the proverbial apple pie. It is a story that is recounted continuously because though it is undeniably calamitous, it also contains the kind of awe-struck heroism that we attribute to those visionaries who seem too purely inspired to live. Hank Williams was self-made, self-confident, and self-destructive. In the 50-odd years since his premature death at 29, the doomed quality that characterized his life has become intricately woven into the fiber of his music, attaching special meanings to his lyrics and giving the songs a life of their own that has long since outgrown the simplicity of their original place and time. The DVD Honky Tonk Blues released as part of PBS’s American Masters series does little to debunk the mythology that surrounds Williams’ life. But for those fans who crave the shapeliness of an official sequencing of events, the DVD offers a comforting structure and a kindly authoritative tone to Williams’ story. For all the rest of his fans, it offers a wealth of new images and footage than can only add to his living legacy.
Hank Williams was born Hiriam Williams in a small town in Alabama called Mount Olive West in 1923. His father Lon Williams was a soldier who was injured during the First World War, spending most of Hank’s childhood in a VA hospital. It is purported by some that his near-permanent convalescence was the result of Hank’s mother Lilly’s abandonment of him. It is alleged that she told many of their acquaintances that he had been killed. Lilly’s livelihood is a topic of some contention for relatives who were interviewed for the DVD. She ran a boardinghouse in Montgomery, but what is less clear is whether or not Lilly ran a call-girl business out of the place. There is no question however, that Hank spent many of his childhood hours on the streets alone while his mother tended the house and its guests. Photographs taken of the young boy at this time are chillingly telling, his unsmiling glare reflecting a lonesome world-weariness far past his age.
Williams occupied his time pestering African American street musicians to teach him how to play guitar. His primary musical influence was a man named Rufus Payne who everybody called Teetot. The blues chords that Teetot taught him soon became the backbone for Hank’s burgeoning repertoire and before long, Hank had quit school at 16 to pursue music full-time. It has been speculated that he decided to follow music because of back problems that are now believed have been Spina Bifida. This condition would have made manual labor impossible for him and made a musical career all the more attractive.
Williams began his career playing on the radio station WFSA and quickly became one of the station’s most popular performers. Soon after, he formed his first band, the Drifting Cowboys. They played beer joints, parties, and talent contests under Lilly’s meticulous management. His rise to success coincided with the rise of his drinking. Just as he began to make a name for himself as a first-rate singer, he also made a reputation for himself as cocky and unreliable. In the beginning, this only added to his mystique. The lonesome cowboy songs he loved to sing sounded all the more convincing when his audience thought his troubled nature was the real deal.
In 1943, met a woman that was to become the love of his life at a medicine show. Her name was Audrey Mae Shepherd and her fiery ambition made her more than a match for Hank’s iconoclastic spirit. She aspired to have a singing career or her own, and though her voice was mediocre at best, she soon became part of his act. Unfortunately, at this point the telling of his demise comes very close to falling to into the lamentably familiar terrain of the sensitive boy ruined by the strong and calculating women in his life. Interviews in the DVD emphasize the fact that many of Williams’ surviving friends and relatives blame Audrey especially for causing turbulence that took him over the edge. As one friend put it, “She deserved whatever kind of reputation she had. She was meaner than a snake. But they just wouldn’t seem to live with each other or without each other.” Audrey is also indirectly blamed for Williams’ drinking. One fellow musician even goes as far as to say of her, “I never knew if it was Hank’s drinking that caused her to nag, or her nagging that caused him to drink.”
Despite the increasing emotional turmoil in his life, Williams’ career took off with his first hit “Move on Over”. He followed this success with “Lovesick Blues”, a song that did not write, but whose bittersweet melody suited his sadly lilting yodel perfectly. Soon after he was asked to join the preeminent country institution at the time, The Grand Ole Opry. From that point, his fame skyrocketed, and he went on to record 66 songs over the next six years.
If his career was quick to peak, it was even quicker to collapse under the strain. His marital strife continued to the point where Audrey left him. Surgery he had undergone in an attempt to ease his back pain was a failure, leaving his health even worse. He had grown ambivalent about his fame and his drinking progressed to the point where he was missing musical engagements and was dismissed from the Opry. He married a second wife, Billie Jean Jones and they conceived a child that he would not live to meet. Williams died on the way to a show outside of Knoxville Tennessee as a result of a lethal combination of alcohol and pain medication prescribed by an ill-informed doctor.
Thus the legend of Hank Williams is recounted again. But this time the journey seems a bit more sweet then bitter. As the hapless singer is recalled lovingly by his surviving friends and family, his influence on country music, and his larger-than-life persona looms heavily in the background, but one gets the sense that a peace is being made as well with Williams’ memory. Particularly touching is footage of, Hank Williams III, a near spitting image of the grandfather he never knew. As he sings his granddad’s now classic songs, you get the feeling that he is trying to connect with his spirit as much as we are, to make sense the past while looking towards a brighter future, wiser for the experience, but a bit weary all the same.