Friday, September 15, 2006

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: SONGS FOR HANK

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
September 15, 2006



Hank Williams, whose 83rd birthday is Sunday, left behind country music’s greatest catalog of songs. But not only did he create mountains of great songs, he also inspired a bona fide subgenre of country music — songs about Hank Williams.

Hank’s body was barely cold before the tribute songs started pouring out of Nashville, Tenn., which virtually banished him during his lifetime. There were “The Death of Hank Williams” by Jack Cardwell, “Hank Williams Will Live Forever” by Johnnie & Jack, “The Life of Hank Williams” by Hawkshaw Hawkins, “The Death of Hank Williams” by Jimmie Logsdon, and many more.

And in the early ’80s, there was even some local yokel here in Santa Fe who did a song called “Hank Williams Conquers the Martians.”

The tradition continues today, though in recent times Hank appears more of an icon, Faust in a cowboy hat, a symbol of raw talent doomed by human frailties, a personification of the double-edged nature of fame, a lonesome-voiced indictment of the dark side of show business.

Two recent tunes by contemporary songwriters are prime examples of Hank songs. Canadian alternative-country singer Fred Eaglesmith, on his latest album, Milly’s Cafe, brings us “Mrs. Hank Williams,” a sad story of a woman traveling with some drifting cowboy band. Though Eaglesmith is sympathetic, the woman seems half Miss Audrey, half Yoko Ono. “When we got to Cincinnati/I had to put her on a plane/She was fighting with the band/And it was her or it was them ... She doesn’t watch the show/She just stays in the car/And watches the young girls/Outside the stage door.”

Even more poignant is “Hank Williams’ Ghost,” which can be found on Darrell Scott’s recent album The Invisible Man. This is a song of self-loathing, “rage and angst,” and “hillbilly sins,” a self-inventory of a man whose “coulda woulda beens” have been colliding mercilessly with his “shoulda knowns.” Though his name is in the title, Hank doesn’t appear until the final refrain. “Fare thee well and adios/We hurt the ones we love the most/And we blame it on Hank Williams’ ghost.”

I’ve got a feeling Hank’s ghost will continue to haunt songwriters for years to come.

Here are my all-time top 10 Hank Songs:

1. “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” by Waylon Jennings. Back in the mid-’70s, just about the time that outlaw bit was getting out of hand, Waymore unleashed this tune, one of his few self-written hits, which was an indictment of the Nashville machine (“Rhinestone suits and new shiny cars/It’s been the same way for years/We need to change.”) and a fearful look at the direction of his life and career (“Ten years down the road, making one night stands/Speeding my young life away ... Did ol’ Hank really do it this way?”)

2. “Nashville Radio” by Jon Langford. Hank inspired several songs as well as paintings by Mekon/Waco Brother Langford. The two pieces on this blog post are Langford's. His gorgeous art book Nashville Radio contains examples of visual art and music, with several tunes based on the Hank myth on the accompanying CD, including one “Oh No, Hank!” in which Joe Stalin plots to murder the singer. Also there is Langford’s finest Hank song, “Nashville Radio.” The perspective switches from Hank in his final days (“I can shake my hips, but I walk like a cripple and my body is getting too thin”) to the singer’s lonesome ghost (“I gave my life to country music, I took my pills and lost/Now they don’t play my songs on the radio, it’s like I never was”). Langford’s done a few versions of this, including one on his album All the Fame of Lofty Deeds. But worth seeking out is the limited-edition Gravestone EP, where the song is done as a medley with “The Death of Country Music.”

3. “Long White Cadillac” by The Blasters. If you went to the recent Thirsty Ear Festival you got to hear this song’s author, Dave Alvin, do a thunderous version of the song. The original version was by Alvin’s old band The Blasters. It’s a chilling tale of Hank’s death with frightening imagery: “Night wolves moan/the winter hills are black/I’m all alone/sitting in the back/of a long white Cadillac.”

4. “The Car Hank Died In” by The Austin Lounge Lizards. That long white Cadillac also appears in this humorous tune on the album Creatures From the Black Saloon. But this is mainly a stab at Nashville hawking pain and passion as a tourist attraction.

5. “Has Anybody Here Seen Hank” by The Waterboys. A honky-tonk is nothing but an Irish pub in this tribute song from The Waterboys’ best album Fisherman’s Blues. “I don’t care what he did with his women/I don’t care what he did when he drank/I want to hear just one note/from his lonesome old throat/Has anybody here seen Hank?”

6. “The Great Hank” by Robert Earl Keen. Hank is a benevolent ghost in this surreal tune from Keen’s 2005 album What I Really Mean. The song starts out, “I saw the great Hank Williams singing on the stage in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and he was all dressed up in drag.”

7. “Hank Williams You Wrote My Life” by Moe Bandy. This was a hit for Bandy in the early ’80s, and is best-known for the line, “You wrote ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ about a gal like my first ex-wife.”

8. “The Night Hank Williams Came to Town” by Johnny Cash. This was a hit for Cash in 1986. But it was rewritten from a song by T.C. Roberts (real name, Tabby Crabb), called “The Night Porter Wagoner Came to Town.” “Porter” was an early country video hit on the Country Music Television network in 1985.

9. “I Think Hank Woulda Done It This Way” by The Blue Chieftains. This irreverent answer to the famous Waylon song presents Hank as a proto-rock ’n’ roll wild man. It’s one of two Hank songs (the other being “Do It for Hank” by The World Famous Blue Jays) on the influential Rig Rock Jukebox compilation.

10. “Family Tradition” by Hank Williams Jr. Back in his heyday Bocephus seemed to spend half of his time complaining how hard it was being Hank Williams’ son and the other half proudly proclaiming he was Hank Williams’ son.

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