Patsy Cline was my kind of woman.
In the pre-feminist 50’s and early 60’s, when a woman’s career path was pretty much limited to the kitchen and the nursery, Patsy Cline forged a career through a combination of sheer talent and brazen assertiveness. She didn’t wait around for someone to discover her: she went to a local DJ and asked if she could sing on his show. Her first husband wanted her to stay home and raise a family—she said, “See ya, Hoss!” Even before she’d made the big time, she negotiated for creative control of her music, and while she made a few compromises along the way, she was always able to make her case. She didn’t wait for the Grand Ole Opry to call her—she called them and asked to join the cast. She absolutely refused to let concert promoters screw her or her fellow musicians out of their performing fees, a common occurrence at the time. “No dough, no show!” became kind of a motto for her. During her peak years, they stopped introducing her in traditional sexist fashion as “Pretty Miss Patsy Cline” but as “The One and Only.” Patsy simply didn’t fit the mold—she liked to hang out with the guys, have a few beers and tell dirty jokes. As her music morphed into something more sophisticated than country, she dumped her cowgirl get-up and performed in satin gowns or skin-tight gold lame pants accompanied by spiked heels.
Dottie West said of her, “It was common knowledge around town that you didn’t mess with ‘The Cline!'”
In contrast to the tough image she cultivated, she was terribly generous with her time and money. She’d spend hours after concerts chatting it up with fans, and became a mentor to many young women who were trying to break into the country field. When involved in a head-on collision that nearly killed her, she insisted that the EMT’s treat the others first. Also in contrast to her strong woman persona, most of her material consisted of torch songs: women holding out hope that the man would come back or at least stop screwing around. Whether that was empathy for the women in her fan base or capitalizing on her natural affinity with the style, it is a curious twist in the life story of a woman who didn’t take shit from anyone.
Sometimes her stubbornness got in the way of her potential. She resisted doing some of the songs that turned out to be her biggest hits because they wandered outside the parameters of country music. The timbre of her contralto voice contrasted mightily with the thin twang of most of the female country singers of the era and gave her a golden opportunity to extend her range into jazz and blues, but she only dipped a toe into those waters. Had she chosen to expand her repertoire, she might have prevented country music from getting stuck in a musical cul-de-sac by opening the field to new influences.
We’ll never know, as she died in a plane crash at the age of thirty.
The Definitive Collection is probably the best of many compilation albums summarizing her too-short career. What’s quite noticeable in all of her recordings is that the other musicians on the record are in deep background. The mixes and arrangements all focus on the star of the show. Given the strength of her personality, I doubt that any mix or arrangement could have contained her. Patsy Cline was a presence, and one of the greatest female vocalists in any genre of popular music.
“Walkin’ After Midnight”: Originally written for jazz-pop singer Kay Starr but rejected by her label, the song languished in nowheresville for a couple of years before one half of the songwriting team wound up working for the record company that had just signed a promising singer named Patsy Cline. Four Star Records wanted her to record “Walkin’ After Midnight,” but Patsy demurred. At this time Patsy had recorded several country and honky-tonk songs that had done next to nothing, but despite having no chips on her side of the table, she held her ground, refusing to do the song unless they allowed her to do another that she thought was more her style. They wisely decided not to throw her spunky little ass out on the street and agreed to her terms. Later she successfully auditioned for a shot on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts in January 1957, planning to sing the song she favored. The producers preferred “Walkin’ After Midnight,” and this time Patsy had to fold. Good thing she did—her performance caused the applause-o-meter to hit its peak and “Walkin’ After Midnight” was released to general acclaim, going all the way to #2 on the charts.
Artists can be awfully stubborn, even to the point of self-destruction, but Patsy’s stubbornness here is curious. The song isn’t that big of a leap from the country tunes she was doing and it’s absolutely perfect for her rich, folksy voice. Her phrasing is dead-on perfect, her articulation exquisitely balanced between clarity and feel, and that little growl that leads into the belt-out in the last verse is one of those wonderful little touches that make all the difference in music. Her feel for the blue notes gives her honeyed voice a depth and texture that commands your attention and thrills you with delight. Patsy Cline is one of the few great singers with exceptional talent whose talent doesn’t create distance between her and the listener; while her vocal talents are awe-inspiring, she still comes across as one of us. You can fall in love with her music and never have to worry that she’s gonna get too big for her britches.
“A Poor Man’s Roses (Or a Rich Man’s Gold)”: This is the song Patsy won the right to sing in her negotiations with Four Star over “Walkin’ After Midnight.” It’s not a bad song or a poor performance but it is somewhat contrived and lacks the groove and natural flow of “Walkin’ After Midnight.” On this song, Patsy was trying to be a singer; on “Walkin’ After Midnight,” she could just relax and let her voice work its magic. Capiche?
“Lovesick Blues”: This remake of the Hank Williams yodeling classic is not one of Patsy’s shining moments. The arrangement is all wrong: the tempo is almost frenetic, the instrumentation is more beach party than hillbilly. Technically she does a nice job with the yodeling in terms of glides and pitch, but the song is moving so fast you don’t really have time to appreciate it. As an aficionado of the yodel, I believe that a yodel must be savored like fine wine, slowly and deliberately. To truly appreciate the craft, you have to allow the yodeler time to drawl multiple permutations of each vowel. Patsy’s yodels approximate the experience of guzzling or—(gag)—chugging down a bottle of Boone’s Farm rather than sipping the luxurious overtones of a fine vin noir from Cahors.
We can give Patsy a pass because at this point she was still with Four Star Records, a subsidiary of a subsidiary that failed to capitalize on the success of “Walkin’ After Midnight” and severely restricted her musical options. She dumped them for Decca as soon as she could, and though this track was released by Decca, “Lovesick Blues” was actually from her last recording session with Four Star. The transfer to the major label hooked her up with the best producer in Nashville, Owen Bradley, and from this point, her career would really take off.
“I Fall to Pieces”: Her first great torch song from Decca is a slightly up-tempo shuffle that became her first #1 hit in 1961. At first, Patsy asked Bradley if she could record the song, then when she discovered he wanted more of a pop sensibility and The Jordanaires as her backup vocalists, she fought against it with teeth bared. Patsy thought her talents were more suited to honky-tonk country tunes that allowed her to growl and yodel. After reducing the men in the studio to tears on the fourth take, she had an epiphany and realized that the song and the style were tailor-made for her. What’s wonderful about her vocal here is her restraint; she never forgets she’s playing the part of a woman falling to pieces over a breakup and avoids the temptation presented by the melodic pattern to overdo it. She sounds like a woman who has cried herself out rather than one who is about to unload (and ruin the song in the process).
“True Love”: A Cole Porter number popularized in the movie High Society by the unlikely pair of Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, this proved to be a great choice for Patsy’s talents. Several other artists of the day recorded this waltz, but I think it was more important for Patsy to do this song and flex her skills outside of the genre. Her version is warm nectar without a hint of sappiness; there’s almost a sacred feel to her interpretation, particularly when she hums the melody oh so sweetly. I love her interpretation simply for the opportunity to hear the beauty of her voice.
“San Antonio Rose”: Well, she liked to dress in cowgirl duds early in her career, so I guess she had to find something to go with the outfit. The signature song of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, I’m sure this made the people at the Grand Ole Opry very happy. What’s remarkable here is that Patsy could have turned this into more of a growler but instead delivers the song in the richer tones of her torch songs, giving us another chance to delight in her voice.
“Crazy”: Once again, Patsy’s first reaction to one of her most famous numbers was negative: she hated this Willie Nelson number with a passion. After Owen Bradley took what was originally a spoken word number and refashioned it into a melodic ballad, Patsy was willing to give it a go, but ran into a snag. A few months before, she had been involved in a serious car accident that put her in the hospital for two months and when she tried the song she couldn’t comfortably hit the high notes because she her broken ribs hadn’t fully healed. Once they gave her some time to recover, she nailed it in one take. This is a perfect song for Patsy Cline, a country song with a touch of jazz and a hint of blues with strong vertical melodic movement and a nice, slow tempo to allow Patsy to relax and let her voice ease into place. Her almost poetic enunciation of the “w” sounds on the bridge (worry, wondrin’, why, what) are entrancing, and I melt every time I hear that moaning “oh” between the bridge and the third verse. I wish I could have found a film of her performing “Crazy” at the Opry on crutches, but this will have to do:
“Strange”: A curious little number with a Latin beat and arpeggiated guitar chords, Patsy seems entirely comfortable with her new persona, but the song is, well . . . a bit strange.
“She’s Got You”: This is one of the few times Patsy and Owen Bradley would agree from the get-go that a song was destined for the top of the charts. Hank Cochran wrote many hits for the country stars of the day and the story is he called Patsy and told her he’d written her next #1 hit. Patsy must have been feeling right neighborly that night and invited Hank to bring the song and a bottle of booze and play it for her and Dottie West. She recorded it at her next session and yes, it made it to number one with lighting speed.
The story is told from the dumped woman’s perspective as she looks at her ex’s picture and the “little things” she has, while expressing slightly-repressed bitterness towards the woman who stole her man:
I’ve got the records that we used to share
And they still sound the same as when you were here
The only thing different, the only thing new
I’ve got the records, she’s got you
Patsy begins in the lower part of her register, moving up rather quickly to mid-range and then back to the lower notes for the clincher lines. Patsy develops her excellent sense of phrasing even further on this song, going almost conversational in the bridge in the line, “I’ve got your memory . . . or . . . has it got me?” We’re hearing Patsy at her peak now, comfortable in her own skin and in full command of her material.
“Heartaches”: Although technically still a lost-love number, this old standard doesn’t really fit the category of torch song because of its quicker tempo and snappier feel. The song itself dates back to the 1930’s and was more popular because of the whistling in the Ted Weems number than the words. Around the time Patsy recorded it, The Marcels had resurrected it just like they’d resurrected “Blue Moon.” Even though the words are all about heartaches, Patsy sounds almost gleeful by the end of the number, making you wish she would have added some more cheerful songs to her repertoire . . . until you hear the cheerful song in this collection.
“Half as Much”: Hank Williams popularized this ditty about an imbalanced relationship, and it was perfect for Patsy and the album Sentimentally Yours, primarily a set of interpretations of standards designed to solidify her status in the pop market. Opening with a harmonica in the campfire-on-the-prairie style, the song pretty much tracks Hank’s version except for one big difference: the singer. Hank’s version is more plaintive and emotional; Patsy’s is almost detached in comparison. What gives Patsy’s version an edge is a combination of her ability to get more out of the melody and her one-of-a-kind phrasing skills. Hank’s version is more earthy; Patsy’s more sophisticated. While you wind up feeling sorry for Hank, Patsy’s rendition expresses more regret than failure. Both versions are classics and should be a part of every Music Appreciation 101 curriculum, in the section on “song interpretation.”
“When I Get Through with You”: Girls named Sue must have left the 60’s with horrible self-esteem problems. Dion more than implied that Sue was a slut; Johnny Cash poked fun at a primitive gender-bender named Sue. Here Sue is the evil competition for a young stud’s attention. This is one song where I think Owen Bradley’s drive to crossover into pop went too far; the song is more Lesley Gore than Patsy Cline. Françoise Hardy gave the song a French twist during her “ye-ye” years with “Quel mal y a-t-il à ça?” which literally translates, “What Harm Is There in That?” Edge to Mme. Hardy.
“Imagine That”: Ah, back to the twangy guitars, tinkly pianos and deep strings of the early 60’s Nashville Sound. Patsy goes further down the conversational phrasing route on this track, giving her performance more of a “you are there” feeling, especially when she introduces the natural stuttering we all do when the words want to come out before our brains have wired the instructions to our vocal apparatus. The laugh at the end of the song is both sincere and not a little jarring, but it gives you some idea of where Patsy might have taken her music had she lived longer . . . more in the direction of Peggy Lee than Kitty Wells.
“So Wrong”: Here the torch is passed to the object of the song and Patsy is filled with remorse and regret that she dumped him. Full of conversational touches and glorious glides, the crescendo is a masterpiece of rising emotion ending in the always hesitant admission of fault. Although written by Mel Tillis, Carl Perkins and Danny Dill, the arrangement is clearly Manhattan, providing another hint of Patsy’s potential.
“Why Can’t He Be You”: Hank Cochran gives Patsy the chance to explore the concept of settling for the nice guy who loves you while holding out for the one who twiddles your diddle but doesn’t respond to your feminine wiles. I love the way Patsy takes a good long pause on the line “He’s not the one who dominates . . . my mind and soul,” implying that the those stiletto heels she had might have been meant for activities that took place off-stage. She then admits that “his kisses leave me cold,” further affirming that the delights of sexual pleasure are much more compelling than flowers and candy. My take is that her current flame may be a nice guy but there ain’t no way a nice guy is going to earn the devotion of a woman as strong as Patsy Cline. Biased personal interpretation aside, this is one of my favorites on the album.
“Leavin’ on Your Mind“: The arrangements rarely differ on Patsy’s torch songs and you know what? It doesn’t fucking matter. You’re there for the voice, not the stuff going on in the background. Here Patsy’s dealing with a guy who’s keeping another woman on the side, so she confronts him about it. When Patsy sings, “hurt me now, get it over,” her voice sounds tired of the game, but she’s obviously still playing it because she is tossing a little guilt his way. She finally lets it go in the last line, and her power and sense of injustice is astonishing. Patsy Cline could capture emotions as well as any singer who ever lived, and she nails the complex and contradictory feelings that go with a relationship where jealousy and desire are in perpetual conflict. Sadly, this would be the last single released before she died.
“When You Need a Laugh”: Hank Cochran must have been Patsy’s soul mate, because the songs he wrote for her are eerily perfect. Here Patsy takes it a step further, shifting to bitter passive-aggressiveness in response to becoming something of a joke to the man in question. The humiliation is obviously strongly felt, and when she sings, “So even if the laugh’s on me, I don’t mind at all,” you know she’s lying through her teeth. This song has not received the attention it deserves, as I think it’s one Patsy Cline’s smoothest and strongest vocals, and her interpretation incorporates deep insight into the psychology of women with abysmal self-esteem. I find “When You Need to Laugh” one of the most moving songs in her catalog.
“Back in Baby’s Arms”: If you want to know why they kept feeding Patsy torch songs, this happy little number will explain it all. The over-the-top arrangement doesn’t work and Patsy sounds almost superficial in contrast to her work on “When You Need a Laugh.” I think Patsy would have benefitted from some more upbeat songs in her catalog, but this is not what I had in mind.
“Faded Love”: This old western tune is another interpretation of a Wills number, and for the first time on this record, I think Patsy goes over the top with her performance. The song simply can’t bear that much drama; it’s a fucking cowboy song, for chrissakes!
“Always”: Now we reach back into the Irving Berlin catalog for a song covered by everyone from Guy Lombardo to Phil Collins. I haven’t heard all the interpretations, but I’m sure that Patsy’s interpretation would rank near the top. Her vocal is both touching and sensitive; her timbre is smooth, rich and sophisticated. This is more of a pure and positive love song, and lo and behold, she excels at it. “Always” demonstrates that she could have easily crossed over into jazz standards if she had lived longer and chosen to do so.
“He Called Me Baby”: Released posthumously, this is one of Patsy’s more daring songs, as the subject deals with a woman who allowed herself to succumb to seduction and now finds herself abandoned and alone. “He called me baby, baby, baby all night long” is the refrain, modified at the end of the verses to a phrase that she now only hears in her dreams. Patsy’s performance is exceptional, especially when she allows herself to mock the man’s voice and tone as he fills her ears with “baby, baby, baby.” You can hear the emotional struggle so clearly—the pathetic clinging to the belief that he really meant all those sweet-nothings. If nothing else, the last two tracks on this collection indicate that Patsy Cline was hitting on all cylinders when tragedy struck.
“Sweet Dreams (Of You)”: The perfect close to a near-perfect album, “Sweet Dreams” is as much a signature song for her as “Walkin’ After Midnight” or “I Fall to Pieces.” Patsy rarely sung with more sustained power; the vacillation between love and hate in the text is dramatically expressed in her voice, as is the sense of exhaustion from the struggle that burns in her heart. The only other version I’ve heard that comes close to matching the emotional intensity of Patsy’s interpretation is Roy Buchanan’s guitar masterpiece. While it’s tempting to believe that she let it all out in what she foresaw would be one of her last recordings, I’d rather listen to “Sweet Dreams” as another indication that Patsy Cline went out on top.
It’s unnerving for me to realize that I have already outlived Patsy Cline by two years. I look at my future and see all kinds of possibilities, in complete denial that one day my plane might go down or a chance meeting with a lunatic could result in my death or that I might wind up with a rare and incurable disease. I embrace that denial, because I firmly believe that you have to live life without regard to its inevitable end or you won’t live life at all. Patsy Cline lived life to its fullest and left behind a catalog that will enchant people for centuries, proving that you don’t have to live that long to make a difference in people’s lives if you give it your all.
Still, I really wish Patsy Cline had lived to a ripe old age. As an old lady, she would have been a hoot!
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.