Hank Williams
Publicity portrait of Hank Williams for MGM Records / Wikimedia Commons

The Case for Country Music and Its Poetry of Pain

One has to go along with the flow of existence, no matter what suffering it brings. These country music artists give form to sadness and beauty to despair.

The great country singer-songwriter Hank Williams has been given many epithets over the years since his tragically early death. One that I find particularly appropriate is ‘Poet of Pain’. It occurs to me that it might well be applied to a great many other country artists. It is certainly worth emphasising this dimension of ‘pain’, as country is a genre that is frequently dismissed as a shallow form of diversion for unthinking and insensitive consumers. By ‘pain’ I refer here not only to physical discomfort but also to a range of emotions including depression, disquiet, distress, and despair – not forgetting everyday melancholy. 

Perhaps, before proceeding, I should add that the ‘poetry of pain’ is to be found in a great deal of 19th and 20th-century literature. One can recognise it across a broad range of writing: for example, Emily Dickinson’s ‘I Felt a Funeral in My Brain’, Thomas Hardy’s ‘During Wind and Rain’,  A.E.Housman’s ‘Into my heart an air that kills‘, Philip Larkin’s ‘This Be the Verse’, Robert Lowell’s ‘Skunk Hour’, and Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’. Moreover, there is probably no purer expression of the pain of human existence than the musical genre we call ‘the blues’. Listen to Blind Lemon Jefferson singing ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’, Lightnin’ Hopkins singing ‘Feel So Bad’, or Howling Wolf singing ‘Smokestack Lightning’, for example. It’s worth emphasising that Williams himself memorably defined country music as ‘the white man’s blues’.

He certainly understood the nature of suffering. His short life (1923-53) was one of persistent physical pain (due initially to a spinal deformity, but drastically worsened in his adult life due to a serious accident). In light of this, one can only marvel at the amount of impressive music which he produced. Moreover, some of his greatest songs were those for which he’d written the lyrics. Consider ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ (1949).

Here, the leaves dying, the robin weeping, and the lost will to live combine to give us a vivid sense of the sheer tragedy of existence. The economy of expression is remarkable both here and in the following verse – which sets the everyday details against the panorama of a ‘purple sky’ lit up by ‘a falling star’. Everyday suffering is put into a cosmic context. 

Williams did not compose all his own songs, but in choosing songs to record he showed an astute appreciation of the power of other people’s lyrics. For example, in the same year as ‘Lonesome’ he recorded Leon Payne’s ‘Lost Highway’ (1949), in which the story of the fall of the protagonist is summarised with powerful intensity.

The song gains much of its effect from the succinctness of the lyrics. The time limit of a country hit (about two and a half minutes) has been taken by Payne as an opportunity to deploy short, telling phrases that add up to a misspent life: that of ‘a rollin’ stone’ who has lived ‘a life of sin’.  Williams’ delivery does these lyrics powerful credit.

This is the poetry of pain for sure. Yet the lament over sin necessarily suggests the possibility of salvation. As with a great deal of country music, one finds the intensity of the suffering makes sense only by contrast with the healing power of religious belief. At the very outset of his career Williams himself wrote and sang ‘I Saw the Light’ (1948).

Here we have the ‘aimless life filled with sin’; but it is in the depths of the night – a night symbolising the miserable state of the sinner – that ‘my dear saviour’ comes to him. Just to enforce the message, the sinner is seen as ‘a blind man’ who ‘wandered along’ until ‘God gives back his sight’ to him. 

At the risk of simplification, we might say that with Williams, as with many other early country artists, there is pain, but there is also a hope for pity; and this hope is often informed by piety.

Nowhere is this combination more evident than in the work of probably the most famous country artist of them all, Johnny Cash. In ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ (1956), the sound may be very close to the ‘rockabilly’ of the early Elvis Presley but the vision is not far from that of Hank Williams:  a criminal regrets his crime, and he laments over the lack of freedom which is its punishment.

The most famous line in the song – ‘I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die’ – has often been misinterpreted as a callous boast. Rather, it is a humble confession. It needs to be considered along with another of Cash’s famous songs, ‘Man In Black’ (1971).

Here he explains his sombre attire as a declaration of solidarity with the wretched of the earth. He wears black for ‘the poor and the beaten down’ and for the prisoner who is ‘a victim of the times’. So the poetry is in the pity; but here it is also in the piety, as Cash makes clear. He wears black for ‘those who never read, / Or listened to the words that Jesus said’. Nor is this a sanctimonious gesture. He wears black ‘for the thousands who have died, / Believin’ that the Lord was on their side’; and also, more tragically still, for all those who have died ‘Believing that we all were on their side’.

Cash clearly has the Vietnam War in mind: ‘Each week we lose a hundred fine young men’ in the name of a false cause. Poetry, pity, piety … but also protest against a secular state that kills its youth in the name of God. This is a powerful challenge from someone who was unapologetically Christian, while familiar with the darker side of life – most notably, through drug addiction. If we were to generalise about Cash’s music, we might say that it explores both the depths of profane existence and the heights of sacred revelation: indeed, he explores the tension between them.

Someone else who was preoccupied simultaneously with darkness and with vision was Gram Parsons. Credited with the invention of ‘country rock’, he had a tragically brief career, cut short by a drug overdose. However, he left some remarkable work, most notably with the Byrds on their pioneering album Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968) and on his two solo albums GP (1973) and Grievous Angel (1974). From the first of these, we may single out ‘Hickory Wind’, co-written with Bob Buchanan (1968). Here the sense of yearning arises from nostalgia, a desire that life might be as simple and beautiful as it once seemed: 

There is the state of things in the present: ‘trouble is real’ in a city that is far away from the singer’s roots; but there is also the memory of his childhood, which arises whenever he hears the wind that used to blow through the leaves of the hickory trees he knew back then. This wind represents a healing power that the singer yearns for.

A more complex picture emerges in Parsons’ solo work, particularly that included in Grievous Angel. The very title of the album indicates the persistent thematic tension in Parsons’ work between the sense of sin and the search for salvation, between suffering and healing. The first song, ‘Return of the Grievous Angel’ (1974), explores the competing pressures on the protagonist as he journeys across the USA. 

He refers to himself as ‘the grievous angel’, accompanied by ‘the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels’ and finding ‘a good saloon in every single town’. Having seen both his ‘devil’ and his ‘deep blue sea’, and now wishing to go beyond them both, he aspires to a state of grace which he sees personified by the woman with ‘the calico bonnet’.

Here I am reminded of various scenes in John Ford’s great Western films, particularly My Darling Clementine (1946). Perhaps – if we might take the risk of appearing pretentious – we might also recall Dante’s Divine Comedy: she is Beatrice in the earthly paradise, while he is Dante journeying through hell then through purgatory towards her. 

By the last track on the album, ‘In My Hour of Darkness’ (1974), he feels able to pray explicitly for salvation, as in the chorus: 

Each verse concerns different lives with which the singer’s own has crossed: for example, a young man who died in a traffic accident; another young man who became a successful country artist but who remained a simple country boy at heart; and an old man who acted as a mentor to the singer. He hopes to have learnt something from each, and he now asks for divine guidance. So with Gram Parsons, we can see the poetry of pain informed by an improvised kind of piety, which seeks spiritual healing without thereby finding resolution.

It was this sense of unfulfilled promise that prompted Emmylou Harris, who had shared vocals with Parsons on his two albums, to celebrate the damaged life of a ‘grievous angel’ and to lament his early death at the Joshua Tree Inn, not far from the famous national park. ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ (1974) is a powerful elegy for the man who had taught her so much about the beauty of country music: it is full of pity for a damaged human being. It also honours his spiritual quest, with its explicitly Biblical imagery:

Appropriately, she recalls a time when she was in ‘the wilderness’ watching a canyon ‘burn’: a possible reference to the fact that Parson’s body was cremated in the desert by his friends, in order to avoid a conventional burial, but also a Biblical reference – perhaps the burning bush, encountered by Moses in the aforementioned wilderness. It is appropriate, then, for her to invoke Abraham, the father of the faith, and to express the desire to ‘hold my life in his saving grace’. From pity to piety, then; but the human relationship is also given its due, as she declares her willingness to ‘walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham’ if that would mean she could see him again.