Nicole and I settled in to read last night, and we needed some music we were so familiar with that, while we’d feel pleasure, we wouldn’t be distracted. I chose Polydor’s three-disc Hank Williams: The Original Singles Collection…Plus, programmed just the indubitable classics and undeniable rareties, and stretched out to…try to read. Thoughts swept down on my head, aggressively. Like blue jays after a cat.
I can imagine some folks saying, “Hank’s songs…they all sound the same.” Same as they might say about the Ramones. Nonetheless, I can usually recognize a Hank hit within three notes, or three rhythm-guit chops.
When I dream of playing the guitar, which I occasionally do, I always land on the same realistic strategy: “Just learn the rhythm guitar parts for Hank’s greatest hits and what else will you really need to know.” I feel assured this is wisdom
I think Kinky Friedman dubbed Hank “The Hillbilly Shakespeare.” That is entirely accurate. One classic piece of evidence is “Crazy Heart,” which, if it isn’t a soliloquy, I don’t know what is: You livvvvvvvvvvvvved on promises / I knew would fall apart / Go ownnnnnnn and break / You crazy heart.
I identify with so many of Hank’s songs because they so often deliver a message of fatalism with clarity, directness, and a weirdly positive forward motion. Due primarily to my obsessive reading and listening (they are my religion; they explain the human world to me), I have no illusions about the futility of human strivings across history. Due primarily to white male privilege, but also to my cultural upbringing and personality, I am catapulted out of my bed into forward motion each morning (I could start teaching when my right foot hits the bedroom hardwood) by unstinting optimism. Hank’s my familiar. Listen carefully to what he says in “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive”; listen to how he says it. His is no Nick Drake or Ian Curtis trip–he projects aggression in the first syllables he looses, and his grim humor is also determined: These shabby shoes I’m wearing / All the time / Is full of holes and nails / And, brother, if I stepped on a worn-out dime / I bet a nickel I could tell ya / If it was heads or tails! I flat-out love that nickel bet under the circumstances.
The past near-forty years have not been kind to our working class. I’m surprised Hank hasn’t emerged more fully as its patron saint. While he didn’t really write songs that explicitly addressed its state of oppression (though do take a look at that verse I just quoted), its desperation, pain, suffering, uncertainty, intensity, and survival instinct are all wrapped up in his singing, which still and always will cut through any room. And though throughout his greatest performances he asserts a master’s control over his instrument, listen to his last notes on “Settin’ the Woods on Fire.”
Though it’s true that Fred Rose and sometimes others helped shape the songs and snatches Hank brought to recording sessions, the consistent excellence of the huge spool of songs he unrolled before stepping on a rainbow at 29 is the 56-game hitting streak, the 100-point game, and the 215 points in one season (imagine if Gretsky had died at 29) of country music. Catchy, pithy, complex, deep-hued emotionally, and universal in the dilemmas they present, they boggle the mind. Hell, Willie Nelson at damn-near 85 is only just now catching up with Hank on a quantity-of-quality level.
Yes, I was talking shit about Drake and Curtis above. Hank could go there, though, when he wanted to, with twice as chilling effect. “Ramblin’ Man”? “Alone and Forsaken”? “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”? “I Can’t Escape from You”? “The Angel of Death”? Dude invented the pop abyss. You might have to overlook “Dark Was the Night, Cold was the Ground” or “Strange Fruit” to accept that argument, though.
I have been very fortunate to have sidestepped sustained romantic heartbreak by finding a good and true-lovin’ mate 28 years ago. But between my 22nd year and 28th year, I took some crushing hits. After one of them, I was in a fetal position crying openly on a dirty, beer-and-cig marinated carpet in a house I shared with two other bachelors. I did not fucking care if I was seen. My heart had been stomped flat. It was my first real step toward becoming a man, but I didn’t know it yet (I didn’t know, too, that I hadn’t really even been in love–it was about lack of worth). Neither logic nor literature nor libations could quell the pain; music was just a hot poker thrust into the wound. I was so far down I was considering monkdom. I recall this because Hank’s music can and does take me right back to those feelings. It’s not pleasant. It’s disturbing.
I didn’t get much reading done. I stared at words and pages for 45 minutes.