“Hank: The Short Life and Long Country Road of Hank Williams”
Author: Mark Ribowsky
Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corp.
Price: $29.95 (Hardcover)
Over the years I have read at least three books about Hank Williams by Alabamians. Paul Hemphill put out a biography, “Lovesick Blues,” in 2005, Wayne Greenhaw published a fictionalized life in 2007, “King of Country,” and Rheta Grimsley Johnson used Hank and the love of Hank Williams’ music to bind together “Hank Hung the Moon and Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts,” her memoir of growing up in Monroeville and Montgomery.
For Johnson, as for many Alabamians, Hank was loved not “so much as a celebrity in our minds as a distant cousin or close friend who had died far too soon. He spoke our language and knew our secrets and made us feel better about our trouble and foibles.”
Williams’ latest biographer, Mark Ribowsky, is the author of 15 books on sports and music, with books about Howard Cosell, Phil Spector, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Otis Redding The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Satchel Paige and others. Ribowsky is a thorough, businesslike biographer who has encountered both genius and wretched excess in his previous books, and tells the story as he finds it.
And what a story.
Hank Williams, born Hiram, on September 17, 1923, was raised in Georgiana and then Montgomery, in tough times. His father, Lon, was absent most of his childhood, often in mental hospitals, suffering perhaps from what we now call PTSD. Even as a five-year-old, young Hank wrote rudimentary songs about loneliness and the chief subject was “I wish I had a dad.” Young Hank loved cowboy outfits and he loved to sing. Beginning at age 10, he sang on the streets for coins and then got an opportunity to sing on a local Montgomery radio station.
Ribowsky, like all Hank’s biographers, gives a lot of credit to Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, a black street musician who taught Hank, although Williams would never learn to read or write music at all.
Hank’s voice, utterly convincing and compelling, and his ability to create songs, seem to indicate a kind of genius, a savant. He learned only three chords, but that’s all he needed. Williams was a hit on radio, performed and drank in dives and honky-tonks, then the Louisiana Hayride, then the Grand Ole Opry and on national television shows.
Ribowsky, a musicologist, discusses how Williams blended the blues with hillbilly, which was itself kin to the Appalachian folk of groups like the Carter Family.
Looking forward, Hank is the wellspring from which will come rockabilly, and the crossover, finally, of country into pop.
Although Williams lived only 29 years, his influence was prodigious. Why it was only 29 years is a complicated and unhappy story.
Williams was born with an undiagnosed case of what would develop into spina bifida occulta, which got steadily worse, causing him constant back pain.
Hank liked to drink anyway, and medicating himself with alcohol came naturally, as did the pills: barbiturates for pain and then uppers for performing, chloral hydrate for sleeping. Williams became famous for being unreliable, failing to appear or showing up drunk.
Sadly, besides being a forerunner for the blending of musical genres, Hank also seems to be the first famous entertainer to fall into the hands of an unscrupulous doctor, in this case a complete fraud.
Toby Marshall, a high-school dropout and felon with no medical training who had forged credentials and a forged prescription pad, gave Williams morphine and developed a dangerous regimen of drugs and purgings to get Hank onstage.
Hank’s personal life was as disastrous as his medical history. His mother, Lillie, was a cold and greedy woman. They fought. Hank and his first wife, Audrey, had violent, physical fights, and she sent him to the emergency room to get stitches in his head. Hank remarked she had “the coldest heart I’ve ever seen.”
After divorcing Audrey, Hank married Billie Jean Jones, several times but perhaps never legally, and at the time of his death, girlfriend Bobbie Jett was pregnant with his daughter. These women continued their feuding in a most indecorous way, at the funeral and for decades beyond.
(Hank had been a complete fool with money, made and wasted a fortune. In 1949, when he had put together enough for a down payment, he and Audrey bought a three-bedroom place outside Nashville. Applying their personal tastes, they expanded to seven bedrooms, six and a half baths, all with marble sinks, a master bedroom with white velvet walls and a heart-shaped headboard. The entire house was painted gold.
The wrought iron fence was carved with musical notes for “Lovesick Blues.”)
But as Lillie and Audrey both knew, his posthumous royalties were very valuable.
Ribowsky is clearly both astonished and horrified by Hank’s life. Writing about how the bodies of British and Free French soldiers killed while training in Alabama during WWII were disinterred at Oakwood Cemetery to make room for Hank, he laments this disgrace was to “serve the interest of an alcoholic, philandering country singer.” Ribowsky does NOT think Hank hung the moon.
But, drunk in the back seat of his car one day, he wrote “Kawaliga,” “Lonesomest Time of the Day,” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.