‘Before Elvis, there was nothing,’ John Lennon once said. But before Elvis there was Hank Williams, the biggest country star ever, who paved the way for rock and roll. Mike Gerrard takes a personal pilgrimage to Hank Williams Country in Alabama and Tennessee.
Long before Elvis was shaking his pelvis, Hank Williams was drawing crowds in their thousands, and also shaking up a storm on the stage. He sent female fans wild, and was the first music star to live the sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, living fast and dying young: he was only 29 when he died on New Year’s Day, 1953, in the back of a Cadillac on the way to a show, with an empty vodka bottle by his side.
Hank was also one of the few great stars who, till the Beatles came along, wrote most of his own songs. They were songs from the heart, too, that spoke in their simply way to millions, with titles like Your Cheating Heart, Long Gone Lonesome Blues and I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. One of his best-known songs, Cold, Cold Heart, was beautifully sung on the multi-million selling Norah Jones album, Come Away with Me.
Although he was out-and-out country, with his gaudy stage costumes and stetson hat (worn mainly to conceal his receding hair), Hank Williams operated on the edge of country and blues and the emerging rock music of the early 1950s. People forget that in his early days, Elvis Presley was billed as a country singer, appearing on shows like the Louisiana Hayride, and recording country standards such as Blue Moon of Kentucky, albeit in his own inimitable style.
Many of the artists who recorded alongside Elvis in the famous Sun Studios in Memphis sang both country and rock: names like Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Jerry Lee, ‘The Killer’, recorded many Hank Williams songs, and still features them in his stage act today.
Hank learned guitar from a black singer, Rufus ‘Teetot’ Payne, and if you listen to his songs you hear the white man’s blues in the mournful lyrics, and in some the driving rhythms of what would become rock and roll.
Hank grew up in the small town of Georgiana, Alabama, about 60 miles southwest of Montgomery and the first stop for any visitor on the Hank Williams trail. Hank’s childhood home can still be visited as today it forms the Hank Williams Museum, with a great collection of memorabilia. Across the street are the offices of the Hank Williams Fan Club, and every summer the town hosts a Hank Williams Festival.
By the age of 12 Hank was writing songs, and one of these, WPA Blues, won him a songwriting contest. He was barely into his teens when he formed his own country band, the Drifting Cowboys, and his extraordinary talents were soon recognised.
He was apparently a charismatic performer on stage, the kind of singer that you can’t take your eyes off, and combined with his good looks, his musical ability and his powerful lyrics, it was inevitable he would one day be called to appear on the show that every country singer aspired to, Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.
Hank had some hurdles to overcome, however, as he also had an early reputation as a hard drinker, and the powers that be at the Opry took some persuading before they would trust him to turn up and be sober. But when he had his first huge hit with Lovesick Blues, they couldn’t ignore him and he brought the house down. Legend has it that he sang six encores of the song before the audience would let him go, but as it was a live show, timed to the minute, that story has to be taken with a pinch of salt.
He performed many times on the Opry stage when it was in Ryman’s Auditorium, an essential stop on the tourist trail in downtown Nashville. Nearby too is Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a honky-tonk bar where Hank would often slip between sets for a drink or three. And from Tootsie’s it’s only spitting distance to the Country Music Hall of Fame, which houses the biggest collection of Hank Williams artefacts you can find.
There are more on display at the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, run by a devoted fan and which contains the car in which Hank died.
Ask at the desk and they’ll give you directions to Hank’s last resting place, in the Oakwood Cemetery, on the edge of town.
It was a personal pilgrimage I made to Hank’s rather ornate grave at the top of the hill, someone whose music had spoken to me all my life, as it has done and continues to do today, to millions worldwide.
For Alabama visit the official travel site of Alabama. For Tennessee visit the Tennessee Department of Tourism.