Hank Williams Centennial
Hank Williams was born 100 years ago in 1923. His career was very brief: He died at age 29 on New Year’s Day 1953 in the backseat of a car. Yet Hank Williams left a lasting legacy with an impact far beyond country music. He and Bob Dylan are the two songwriters who received the Special Citations and Awards of the Pulitzer Prize.
I only recently started to appreciate Hank Williams’ contributions. For a long time, I only associated him with sappy heart disease songs: “Cold, Cold Heart”, “Cheating Heart”, “Chains Off My Heart”. (Incidentally, he died of heart disease, but with help from sedatives, pain killers, and alcohol). Embarrassingly, I have to admit that I had known punk and heavy metal versions of Hank Williams songs for years before even knowing about Hank Williams. Why did I pay so little attention to him? Maybe because of that unpleasant character Hank Williams Jr.
Hank Sr.’s songs broke out of country quickly, immediately. The same year as Hank’s original version of Cold, Cold Heart, two different jazz versions of that song were released (one by Louis Armstrong, the other by Dinah Washington) and one mainstream pop version with cheesy strings (by Tony Benett, the most commercially successful one of those four). Hank Williams was a country singer, but he made country music a national style and he wrote songs that became accepted by pop, jazz, and (much later) rock artists. His songs have been re-recorded by Ray Charles, James Brown, Joe Pass, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beck, Keith Richards, Tom Petty, Sheryl Crow, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Nick Cave, Norah Jones; hundreds, maybe thousands of of artists across all genres. Norah Jones has my favorite cover of Cold, Cold Heart.
The late 1940s, after WWII, were a creative period in the arts. Hank Williams created a new direction for country music (and the one that became most popular), but he was not the only innovator. In Jazz, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s blazed a new trail. And even in country music, there was competition: With the 1946/1947 Bluegrass Boys recordings featuring Earl Scruggs on banjo, Bill Monroe’s experiments coalesced into an entirely different country music style that would endure. And with a helping of Hank Williams. Isn’t “I Saw the Light” the prototypical bluegrass gospel? I had played it in countless bluegrass jams without realizing that this was a song written by Hank Williams.
The textures of these two new 1940s country music styles are very different. Bluegrass heavily relies on the banjo, which is entirely absent in Hank Williams’ music. Instead, an electric steel guitar defines his signature sound (often in a very high register, above the fiddle, Don Helms is the steel player on those songs). After Don Helms joined the band, the steel guitar provides almost all the fills and melodic background. The tempos are stately, slow to moderate, nothing fast. In contrast, Bill Monroe started with fast fiddle tunes and then increased the tempo to frenetic speeds with virtuosic instrumental solos (like Charlie Parker in jazz). Fiddle or steel guitar solos in Hank’s recordings are largely restatement of the melody, nothing flashy. One thing they had in common, though: Hank’s guitar or Monroe’s mandolin chop give the rhythmic drive; neither of them used a drummer.
(Acoustic) steel guitar was a mainstay in country/folk since the first field recordings in the last 1920s, including Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. Hank Williams stayed in that tradition, but now electrified. Steel guitar was absent in bluegrass, whether acoustic or electric, for many years. Eventually, Flatt and Scruggs added Uncle Josh Graves on Dobro (an acoustic type of steel guitar) – years after Hank Williams had died. Graves adopted banjo licks, resulting in a distinctive style of playing steel guitar, with no similarity to the steel guitar in earlier country recordings (like Carter Family or Jimmie Rodgers) or the electric country style at the same time. Far from being a reflection of tradition, bluegrass was the most innovative country music style of the late 1940s and 50s, virtuosic solos, fast tempos, and new instrumental playing techniques (especially for banjo and later Dobro/acoustic steel guitar).
Hank Williams was no Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen; writers of novel, complex, surprising poetry. Instead, his themes were pretty basic, trouble with women mostly. He has been called the Hillbilly Shakespeare, but that should not be understood as signaling complexity or sophistication. Hank was the working man/bluecollar/rednecks’s bard. The Pulitzer Prize citation was given:
“For his craftsmanship as a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity and played a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in American life.”
As simple as his themes and expressions may have been, the lyrics obviously resonated with many people. Some re-interpretations are only about the words with little resemblance to the original melody, like a rap version by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Or the Godfather of Soul’s take on one:
I tend to focus more on music than lyrics and do not relate to his themes either. But his songs have musical appeal as well, in the same way that traditional folk songs do. The melodies and chords are simple, but make a complete statement. They are catchy and often have sing-along choruses. Many of his tunes are instantly recognizable. I’m not alone to feel that way. Jazz guitarist Joe Pass and Roy Clark recorded a whole instrumental jazz album of Hank Williams songs, no words.
A much more amateurish approach, only the melodies or turnarounds, but I tried a steel guitar medley mashing up as many songs as I could remember. Some I played in different keys and lower than Don Helms, though. How many of the songs can you name (there are 10 sections)?
100 years since his birth and 70 since his death. That makes it only fitting have a Hank Williams Centennial at this year’s Topanga Banjo Fiddle Festival, May 21 2023 at the Paramount Ranch. So look for that, one hour of Hank Williams songs will be presented by Cowboy Dave and his Ruminators. In a separate workshop, Joe Lima will do a guitar-focused hour on Hank Williams. There may be additional workshops. And for sure, you will hear those songs in many jam circles.