Doomed Transcendence 

A new book considers the life and death of Hank Williams

Paul Hemphill narrates Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams with admirable speed and compression.
Paul Hemphill narrates Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams (Viking, 224 pp.) with admirable speed and compression, and in a lightly sardonic tone that never tips over into condescension toward its poor, doomed and strangely joyless subject. The Birmingham-born Hemphill writes with great empathy both for Williams and for the “mean country” of 1930s south Alabama that produced him, so that while Colin Escott’s Hank Williams: The Biography (Little, Brown, 1994) remains the most comprehensive study of the singer’s life, Hemphill’s new book provides valuable insight into the relationship between Williams and his audience. Hemphill frames Hank Williams’ story with his own, an obvious device that in the author’s hands adds immeasurably to our understanding of the effect Williams had on Southerners in the late 1940s and early 1950s. “Prologue: Summer of 1949” gives us the 13-year-old Hemphill as he takes his first journey with his truck-driving father: “Hank Williams’s songs were cries from the darkness; made to be heard, it seemed to us, while running through the lonely night, racing with the moon, the wind whistling through the cab, gliding past See Rock City barns and Burma Shave signs and spooky pastures milling with dumbstruck cows.” Father and son pick up a load of tires in Akron, Ohio, and try to outdo each other by imitating Hank’s yodel. Whereas a more mannered writer—Nick Tosches comes to mind—would have played the story for irony, or for laughs, Hemphill is extremely evenhanded, so that his description of Williams’ wife, Audrey, attempting to fit into Nashville society comes across in the same horrifying way as his account of Williams’ untimely death does: “She would show them what real class looked like. Oriental was her thing. Why, they could have luaus, those little Hawaiian parties where you wear leis and grass skirts and go barefoot.” As for Hank Williams, “He wanted everything now, not later. He couldn’t have just one Cadillac, one woman, one aspirin, or just one drink.” The most fruitful relationship of his life wasn’t with a woman, but with Fred Rose, a former alcoholic who, like Hank, had grown up “virtually fatherless,” and who functioned as the most enlightened of editors on classics like “You Win Again” and “Move It on Over.” As Hemphill writes, “Where Fred truly excelled, as a producer, was in the arrangement of a piece of music, and it hadn’t taken long at all for him to discover the secret to a Hank Williams song: the simpler the better.” This commitment to simplicity would result in Williams’ songs becoming the foundation texts of modern country music. The most fruitful relationship of his life wasn’t with a woman, but with Fred Rose, a former alcoholic who, like Hank, had grown up “virtually fatherless,” and who functioned as the most enlightened of editors on classics like “You Win Again” and “Move It on Over.” As Hemphill writes, “Where Fred truly excelled, as a producer, was in the arrangement of a piece of music, and it hadn’t taken long at all for him to discover the secret to a Hank Williams song: the simpler the better.” This commitment to simplicity would result in Williams’ songs becoming the foundation texts of modern country music. Would Hank Williams have been able to sustain his career? Hemphill thinks not: “He was too much a poet for his particular time, and that time had passed.” But it wasn’t just that. Through his attempts to escape his time and place, Williams had created a brand-new audience: one that, inspired by his doomed project of transcendence, had already begun to outgrow him. Paul Hemphill appears at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Sept. 15 at 6 p.m.

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