Classic Music Review: 20 of Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits

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Skinny guy from the South builds a cultural bridge to a bisexual babe in Paris. Click to buy a collection from one of the great songwriters in popular music history.

I think I’ve already mentioned that any interest I had in country music died before I was born.

What a curious statement! That sentence would imply that either I was between lives in my form as an eternal soul floating around on the astral plane who tuned into the earthly music scene while waiting to reincarnate, or that I was born with a gene that decreed that I loathe the sound of twanging singers. Isn’t syntax fascinating?

What I really mean is that my studies of popular musical history have led to me to conclude that the quality of country music plummeted some time in the late 60’s or early 70’s. My research uncovered several clues that could explain this phenomenon. The first was the appearance of a dreadful variety show called Hee Haw in 1969, a show that celebrated stupidity, cornpone humor and superfluous airhead broads with ratings-positive big jugs. Another is the appearance of counter-revolution songs like Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” (1968) and Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” (1969). These songs celebrated female oppression and blind patriotism, two features that automatically come to mind whenever I hear the twang of a Baptist preacher. The third clue takes us to the same source that is always present during the decline of any form of music: big money. All three seemed to converge at about the same time, leading me to conclude that the true source of the decline in the quality of country music began with deep resistance to change. Once the backlash against those filthy, flag-burning, bra-burning hippies gained momentum and people started looking for traditional sources of comfort and entertainment, country music began to grow in popularity. When the fat cats saw that, they did what they always do: remove any signs of life from the music and produce precisely packaged pap for the dumb fucks who never developed a sense of aesthetics that would enable them to distinguish between good music and bad. Country music has never been a particularly imaginative art form, and given its existence within a culture that looks backwards instead of forwards and cherishes old-fashioned values (just like Al Qaeda!), it’s highly unlikely you’re going to see much in the way of development. There really isn’t anything substantial that distinguishes country music of the 70’s between country music today except that it’s louder, slicker and bathed in all the debilitating recording effects that suck the life out of most forms of music today.

I have a lifelong gay male friend who still lives in The City and keeps me in touch with happenings in my old stomping grounds. I generally look forward to his emails because he’s full of wit and tells great stories about what’s happening with the people I left behind. I say “generally” because he is also a rabid modern country music fan and he is forever sending me links to YouTube videos and MP3’s of people like Shania Twain, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, George Strait, Miranda Lambert and a host of others whose music I find despicably dreadful. Country music today, like what’s left of rock music, is seriously overhyped and seriously overproduced. The best country music, which you hear in artists like Patsy Cline, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Chet Atkins and pre-70’s Johnny Cash, has a sincerity that is completely missing from what I hear today. The opportunities for more depth and richness in country music vanished when Nashville chose to ignore those who tried to offer it, most notably Townes Van Zandt.

Today’s Nashville doesn’t have any songwriters who come within light years of approaching Townes Van Zandt . . . or the subject of this essay, Hank Williams.

This collection of twenty of his songs is a superb compilation of many of his best tunes and a couple of covers. There are one or two misses, but serious students of Hank Williams can grab a copy of the 40 Greatest Hits collection if the omissions are too troublesome. The primary problem I have is with the cover, because the bust makes him seem like an old fart. Due to a combination of alcoholism and serious back problems that led to drug abuse, Hank Williams, like Ronnie Van Zant, didn’t live to see thirty. He was another young musician who died way too young.

He started his musical career in his early teens, after learning guitar at the hands of Rufus Payne, a black street musician who taught him the blues. More than anything else, the blues influence added a depth, texture and rhythmic quality to his work that makes it unique and accessible to a larger audience . . . as I hope to demonstrate to the skeptics in the reading audience.

“Your Cheatin’ Heart”: Written about his first wife, Hank dictated the lyrics to his about-to-be second wife as they drove to Shreveport to meet her parents. Man, I’d love to see a full transcript of that conversation! Considered one of the great songs of country music, Hank gives a heartfelt performance backed up by exquisite steel guitar and fiddle from his backup band, The Drifting Cowboys. The tone is more sadness than bitterness, and what I love about the lyrics is that the suffering he predicts for his ex is the same suffering he experienced as the victim of her cheating: sleepless nights, pacing the floor, plenty of tears and that curiously-expressed emotion called “pining.” There’s a certain karmic justice working here that gives the song an artistic wholeness.

“Move It on Over”: A tune later repurposed by Bill Haley and the Comets into “Rock Around the Clock,” “Move It on Over” was a monster hit way back in 1947, in no small part due to the playfulness of the lyrics and the mythical eternal conflict between rule-making, civilizing women and those wild and crazy guys. In this case, the guy has stayed out too late, no doubt cheatin’ or drinkin’ or both, and is literally sent to the dog house to sleep with the mutt. A lazy songwriter wouldn’t have bothered, but Hank Williams felt the need to vary his instructions to his canine roommate in each chorus: move it, get it, scoot it, ease it, drag it, pack it, tote it, scratch it, shake it, slide it, sneak it, shove it, sweep it on over. He does the same with the last line in the chorus several times (“Move over ____ because the _____’s comin’ in.”): little dog/big dog, skinny dog/fat dog, old dog/new dog, nice dog/mad dog, short dog/tall dog, good dog/mad dog, cold dog/hot dog. In addition to the language play and overall good fun, the first lead solo is honky-tonk hot, and my detective work led me to an old-time rockabilly picker with a stage name of Zeke Turner aka James Cecil Grinshaw. Then again, it could have been his brother Zeb, who was really William Grinshaw. Shee-it! Whoever it was, I’ll bet it made a lot of southern boys want to pick up the gee-tar . . . it is one hot piece of guitar work.

“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”: As close to a poetic masterpiece as you will find in modern popular music, this is my #1 favorite Hank Williams song. I was amazed to find that he had originally intended this to be a spoken word song, which would have been one of the worst mistakes in musical history. His vocal here is so deeply expressive that it achieves a symbiosis with the melody and lyrics like few vocals I’ve ever heard, and the only cover of this song I will abide is Bill Frisell’s instrumental version. The lyrics, full of crisp images from nature and colors that evoke both personal and universal isolation, are a masterpiece of poetic economy, and deserve to be quoted in full.

Did you hear that lonesome whippoorwill?
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I’m so lonesome, I could cry

I’ve never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind a cloud
To hide its face and cry

Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves begin to die?
That means he’s lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome, I could cry

The silence of a falling star
Light’s up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome, I could cry

“Ramblin’ Man”: This song stands out because it’s in a minor key, something you don’t hear too often from Hank Williams. Similar in theme to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” Hank takes the theme a step further by painting the rambler as a social outcast (“Some folks might say that I’m no good/That I wouldn’t settle down if I could”). Also in contrast to “Free Bird,” where the choice of freedom over the structure of civilized life is an existential choice, Hank’s excuse is “that’s the way god made me,” as if he’s trying to deflect blame. The minor key paints the narrator of “Ramblin’ Man” in dark colors, like he is a condemned man rather than one with a passion for the open road, emphasizing the reach of the social oppression he longs to escape.

“My Heart Would Know”: The steel guitar is best used in establishing the motif for a song and providing counterpoint fills. The introduction here is classic steel guitar, just a few bars based on the final line of the chorus, which is the line people most remember in a popular song. I like Hank’s honesty here: he could hate the broad who’s putting him through hell, but putting his machismo aside, he croons, “My lips could tell a lie but my heart would know.” Way to own up to emotions, dude!

“Kaw Liga”: This novelty piece is a fanciful tale of a wooden statue of an Indian who remains “wooden” and cold though he is facing another lifeless statue of a beautiful squaw perched outside an antiques dealer’s shop. The brave remains stolid and impassive even when the squaw is sold off. Although it does confirm his active imagination, this is not one of Hank’s strongest pieces, falling in the same sad class as The Big Bopper’s “Running Bear,” which somehow became a #1 hit for Johnny Preston during the peak years of the American fascination with Wild West barbarism in the early 60’s. Prior to the development of any sense of responsibility for the destruction of Native American culture, Americans spent hours in movie theaters and in front of their televisions watching macho white guys like John Wayne and Clint Walker ride to the rescue of settlers and damsels threatened by the country’s legitimate inhabitants. Going in this direction really isn’t a stretch for Hank; after all, the genre used to be known as “country and western” to include the many popular songs about gunfights, saloons and Indians. Marty Robbins is a good example of the “western” half of the equation. Don’t expect a review of Marty Robbins any time soon.

“Cold, Cold Heart”: Anticipating Bill Withers’ “Let Me in Your Life” by a couple of decades, this is one of those rare B-sides that kicked up a disk jockey revolt and proved to be a more durable tune than the A-side, “Dear John,” a cliché-ridden number that didn’t even make the cut for this album. “Cold, Cold Heart” is far superior, for after the steel guitar intro, we hear some positively brilliant musical decisions. Hank’s choice to hold the note the length of a dotted half note on the third line of the verse heightens the emotional build tenfold. The abbreviated steel guitar fills add a sweetness to the mix without wasting time better spent on the powerful emotional narrative. That narrative, dealing with Hank’s attempts to help a woman he loves overcome her bitterness about her last romance, is told in simple rhyming couplets consisting of carefully chosen images depicting the enslavement of overwhelming passion and the paradox that love often pushes the person we want in the opposite direction:

There was a time when I believed that you belonged to me
But now I know your heart is shackled to a memory
The more I learn to care for you the more we drift apart
Why can’t I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart?

“Lovesick Blues”: Okay—y’all know me, right? Y’all know me as a sophisticated, educated, literate, erudite, fashionable and reasonably attractive young woman with discriminating taste, right? Y’all know in the matter of sexuality that I am “inclined to acts refined,” to borrow a phrase from Ian Anderson, indulging in a form of pleasure-seeking that evokes images of secluded chateaus where adults gather to engage in erotic pursuits beyond the comprehension of the average Joe and Jane. And given the previous two sentences, you have probably (and somewhat accurately) identified a streak of snobbishness that is often part of the package in a woman of French descent. Y’all think I think I’m pretty hot shit, right?

Okay, I’m going to blow your image of me to smithereens. I love the fuck out of yodeling!

Personally, I don’t care that Hank Williams, in the fashion of Slick Willie Shakespeare, “borrowed” this song from an old 1920’s musical. Hank Williams could yodel “100 Bottles of Beer” and I’d scream in ecstasy as each bottle was pulled from the wall. My only regret here is that Hank doesn’t do a full yodel that lasts the length of a verse like Jimmie Rodgers . . . only “spot yodeling.” Hank Williams, you insufferable tease! You’re killing me! Cigarette!

“Honky Tonk Blues”: Country blues at its best! Po’ boy’s all tuckered out from all-nighters at the honky-tonk and headed back to his daddy’s farm! Hank sings this sucker with hard-edged confidence, showing just how much he learned about bending the blue notes from Rufus Payne. The steel guitar and fiddle respond to his voice with some fire of their own, making this one goddamn hot song that deserved its spot at the top of the hit parade. And how can you not love that phrasing, “I got the haw-aw-wonky-tonk blue-oohs?” Shee-it!

“Honky Tonkin'”: Recorded in 1948 before Hank abandoned that honky-tonk scene, this is a lively little number that his kid took to #1 over three decades later. Hank’s version is more suited to allowing The Drifting Cowboys show their stuff, and the highlight is the blue-note fiddling in the second solo.

“There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight”: Recorded in the old Herzog studios in Cincinnati around the time of “Lovesick Blues,” the highlight is hearing Hank deliver some unexpected and extended blue notes in the mini-bridge . . . it’s like he wanted to let loose more than the song’s structure permitted. Well, just wait a spell and I think good ol’ Hank will get his mojo workin’ faster than a knife fight in a phone booth . . .

“Jambalaya (On the Bayou)”: Un air du français cadien! Hank borrowed the melody from a Cajun French song called “Grand Texas,” and All Music (among others) claims that Moon Mullican, an old C&W singer and piano player, should receive half-credit. I won’t dispute that, but let’s be honest: there’s no way you can identify “Jambalaya” with anyone else but Hank Williams. A wedding celebration song full of likker in old fruit jars, crawdads and gumbo, it’s a hoot to hear Hank croon this tune about “ma chaz ami-o,” a phrase that would explode the language centers in the brains of present-day Parisians. This is one of his most varied vocals, combining free release of sheer joy with tender tones of bayou romance.

“Hey, Good Lookin'”: This was the first Hank Williams song I ever heard, the song that ended Ray Charles’ masterpiece, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Ray also covered Hank’s “You Win Again” on the same album, and that is what led curious little me to find out more about Hank Williams at the ripe old age of twelve. My father, much to his everlasting discredit as a music collector, had NO Hank Williams albums in his vast library, so I had to cough up the bucks for the CD from the hard-won income earned through babysitting (one experience that helped turn me into a card-carrying member of the Never Have a Kid League). Another “borrowed” tune (this time from Cole Porter), Hank has good, clean fun (if there is such a thing) with romance, drinking “sody pop” instead of hooch. I’ll take “Jambalaya” and party with those Cajuns any day, but I have to admit this is a fun song to sing. The long instrumental passage with the steel guitar and fiddle is one of the best in Hank’s catalog.

“Window Shopping”: This was written by someone by Michael Joseph, who had the nerve to berate a woman for “window shopping” for a male partner. Well, fuck you, Michael Joseph! If Smokey Robinson can shop around, so can the ladies! Hank really should have let this one slide.

I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)”: Hank had a hard time letting go of lost love, but though his heart broke a hundred times, we did get some fine music from the experience. I prefer Patsy Cline’s version from a musical perspective, as her silky voice has always been irresistible to me. Then again, there’s nothing I love more than a man who knows when he’s licked, so I’ll pass along some kudos to Hank as well.

“Half as Much”: Most famously covered by Rosemary Clooney, this time I have to go with Hank’s version as more sincere and a lot less over-the-top. Rosemary runs every syllable through the wringer and is backed up by those sickeningly sweet strings that scream melodrama. I also love men who show vulnerability, and Hank had no qualms there. The fiddle is a little more rough-sounding here, reminiscent of the Roy Wood form of attack on ELO’s first album. The song features a great melody that could have been greatly enhanced by simple harmony, but I guess Hank just wasn’t into that sort of thing.

“Why Don’t You Love Me”: A lot of folks have covered this one: Jerry Lee Lewis, Van Morrison, even My Morning Jacket. The most offensive of the bunch was the cover by my hero Little Richard, and believe me, it’s not Little Richard at fault here. Vee-Jay Records (remember them, Beatle fans?) released a total ripoff compilation album called Friends from the Beginning: Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix, using the fact that Hendrix had been a session man on some of Little Richard’s recording sessions in 1964-1965 to justify exploiting a dead rock star. One of the most ghoulish acts in an industry given to ghoulishness, they managed to tarnish Hendrix, Little Richard and Hank Williams in one shot.

Getting back to the song, although Hank is struggling again with female rejection, this is a paradoxically cheery little number that he sings with great verve and plenty of octave leaps. I get a kick out of the line, “What makes you treat me like a piece of clay?” to which I always respond, “Because that’s how women are supposed to treat men, silly! Everyone knows men are for molding! Sheesh!”

“You Win Again”: Up to this point, I’m willing to believe that Hank had serious potential as a submissive male, with the proper training. After listening to this tune, I’m afraid I’d have to reject him as being far too masochistic for my tastes. A heartless, shameless woman is cheating on him with abandon and all he can say is “I love you still, you win again.” That’s not the way it’s supposed to work, Hank! I need that self-esteem to rise, baby, or what’s the fucking point? What’s remarkable here is that I think this is one of Hank’s best vocals, one loaded with emotion and character. By the way, what’s with all this sneaky, behind-the-back sex in The Bible Belt? I thought Southerners actually obeyed the seventh and tenth commandments, but there sure seems to be a lot of cheatin’ and covetin’ goin’ on down there!

“Baby We’re Really in Love”: Hank’s finally in love, and boy, is he one cheerful dude! One of the features of Hank Williams’ music is that his songs are so singable. This one is perfect for the morning shower when you’re in a gay and silly frame of mind.

“Take These Chains from My Heart”: Hank’s last #1 hit was written in part by Fred Rose, who wrote “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” I love the way Hank pronounces the word “care”: kyeer. No one delivered these broken-hearted ballads as well as Hank Williams. Released posthumously, it’s easy to interpret this in the context of Hank’s often painful existence as a liberation song, in the sense of breaking free of the mortal chains. True artists like Hank often find it difficult to reconcile their sensitive natures with a cold, cruel world, so I think the interpretation has solid biographical validity.

With barely five years of recording to his credit, Hank Williams had an enormous impact on music in multiple genres. His songs have been covered by artists identified with rock, R&B, soul, pop and easy listening in addition to the endless covers by country artists. When you have the talent to write so many songs that cross boundaries to reach so many people, you’ve found the key to the universal language of music. Hank Williams is one of the few to do just that.

5 responses

  1. […] 20 of Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits […]

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  2. One small quibble, this is the best version of “I Cant Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hw8lVU0m0XI

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    1. Quibbles accepted—thanks for the new link!

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  3. Okay, it probably wasn’t on the record you are reviewing, but how can you ignore “Setting the Woods on Fire”? That’s one of the more cheerful and charming songs I can think of.

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    1. No, it wasn’t in the collection and it’s a great song that’s been covered by people like Jo Stafford and Frankie Laine, so I was surprised it wasn’t included.

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