A Century of Hank Williams


in Set List • Illustrated by Felicia Wolfer


In his wry, self-deprecating “Tower of Song” Leonard Cohen reflects on his legacy and his place within the grand tradition of songwriters. “I asked Hank Williams how lonely does it get/ Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet/ but I hear him coughing/ all night long/ a hundred floors above me in the tower of song.” It’s a shame that poor Hank couldn’t lay some hard-earned wisdom on another morbid crooner. Yet the idea of hearing the lonesome blues boy’s smoker’s cough eternally echoing from the great beyond (no doubt accompanying a suitably apocalyptic hangover) is a nice joke and does seem accurate. You’ve got to love the fact that such a widely revered poet doesn’t miss a chance to tip his fedora to one of his greatest inspirations. He’s by no means alone in his reverence for the man born Hiram King Williams, a hundred years ago this year.  

Seemingly everyone has covered a Hank Williams song; he’s unquestionably one of the canonical songwriters in American musical history. Multiple generations of listeners grew up on his music, and most people probably know at least some of the words to “Cold Cold Heart” or “Hey Good Lookin’” or “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” whether they are consciously aware of it or not. It’s as if those deceptively songs have been absorbed into the elements, becoming a part of the water or the air. One country singer compared them to corn stalks that grow right out of the soil.  

In some ways Hank’s hard, fast life and perpetually heartbroken songs are partially responsible for creating the stereotype of the maudlin brokenhearted country singer crying into his beer in some godforsaken juke joint in Nashville, which is about as flimsily accurate as any other musical stereotype tends to be. I remember back in the ’90s when people used to say that they liked every kind of music except rap and country, which was instant evidence that they had no idea what they were talking about. As Tyler Mahan Coe, whose hit podcast Cocaine and Rhinestones details the secret histories of country music, once sarcastically put it: “name me 10 country songs about a dog dying.”  

Revisiting Hank’s songs — it feels appropriate to refer to such an affable, unpretentious fellow by his first name — it’s striking how accessible they are while being so bleak. It’s easy to overlook their saudade when you’re nodding your head along to Jerry Rivers’ jaunty fiddle or enjoying how Don Helms’s steel guitar notes ripple like lights reflected in water. It’ll sneak up on you: a talented and erudite singer-songwriter friend of mine didn’t get bitten by the Hank bug until a song of his happened to come on while he was vacationing at the Grand Canyon, alone with a drink in the middle of the night, and he hasn’t been able to shut up about him since. Not that I’m complaining, mind you.  

Take one look at a picture of him and you can see there’s something about him. Tall, scarecrow thin, a handsome lad in a rakish cowboy hat with intense, piercing eyes and a sly joker’s smile. Maybe if you met him at a bar or something you’d want to pull up a chair and listen to some salty jokes or tall tales from the road. You wouldn’t necessarily assume that deep down he’s in fact a total softy, even given to bouts of melodrama, writing song after song about emotional desolation, thwarted yearning, utter despair, and who privately harbors an abiding obsession with damnation and judgment. He’s a poete maudit in the guise of a good ole’ boy from deep in the heart of Dixie. Some call him “the hillbilly Shakespeare” which isn’t quite right, since he’s not really a dramatist per se, though he does have a flair for writing semi-soliloquies in iambic verse.  

Take the classic song “Cold Cold Heart” for example. It’s all unstressed/stressed iambs: “I try so hard my dear to show/ that you’re my every dream” and so on. The sentiment is quite simple on the surface, but the implications start to deepen the more you listen. That’s his style. It’s not just saying that the beloved in question is cold because they’re distant, that’s too simple. Those stressed words and syllables are like morse code, emphasizing the urgent message beating below the surface. As some songwriters have pointed out, the exquisite phonetic stitching, where the r sound repeats multiple times in each line, subtly ties everything together sonically. Clearly a natural poet, one wonders what might have happened if he’d lived a little longer and someone had slipped him some Whitman, Twain, or Frost to read.  

The speaker is lamenting that the icy gulf between him and his beloved is now proven to be insurmountable because they are too haunted, imprisoned (the term he uses is “shackled”) by their traumatized past to even be able to love at all, frozen stiff with paranoia and doubt. Unable to see that emotional redemption is right there, trying desperately to find a way to make it work. The singer hopes that loving ardently will grant them love in return, and slowly coming to the realization that it just doesn’t work like that. If anything, it only reinforces the distance: “the more I learn to care for you, the more we drift apart”  is the unkindest cut of all.  

I think the great twist in the quiveringly sung “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is the line “you’ll walk the floor/ the way I do” which tells us volumes about the distance between the two people: they are radically separate but nevertheless entwined, furious at one another in the way of lovers. It’s also a reference to an Ernest Tubb song, one of Hank’s major influences. A weary acknowledgement that it’s your heart that’s cheating you, weakening your resolve, making you less tough than your head wants to pretend to be. You can’t fight what you really feel in what Yeats once called “the deep heart’s core” no matter how hard you try to pretend otherwise, a perceptive way to put a spin on the idea of “cheating.”    

Not being able to control overwhelming emotions, especially nostalgic ones, is a significant thing for someone with Hank’s background to write about. He grew up in hardscrabble southern Alabama with an absent, shell-shocked father and an indomitable mother who he always said would be a great backup in a bar fight. Lillie ran a rooming house that may or may not have been a brothel in order to put food on the table. Expressing vulnerability or sentimentality is probably not a very useful survival trait in such circumstances. Hank admitted to needing the catharsis of songwriting, where all that private romantic anguish is finally laid bare, allowing a generally stoic audience the chance to access those all-too-human feelings themselves. Why else would he be so closely identified early on by a song about the lovesick blues and have ecstatic audiences demand encore after encore?  

“Lovesick Blues” was the first number 1 hit and set the tone for the rest of his career, giving him a nickname and to some extent a persona that stuck. It’s not just that he’s unlucky in love, or that he’s an ardent lover boy. He’s lovesick, tormented, maybe even disgusted with the way his feelings are torturing him. In other words, he’s got the blues. It’s a phrase that Bob Dylan, yet another eminent Hank acolyte, will crack open many years later in his great song “Love Sick” by using it in a different way: “I’m sick of love/ I’m lovesick.” Not quite the same thing, is it? Because if you’re sick of love then you’re at least trying to be done with the whole thing, but if you’re lovesick then apparently love– or desire or regret or whatever the thicket of emotions might be–  just ain’t through with you yet. Although it’s also true that one emotion does seem to follow the other.    

Sentimental fool that I am, “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love With You” is one of my favorites. Anita Carter sings it better than he does. It gracefully expresses the anguish of being burdened with the past, though differently than in “Cold Cold Heart.” This time the memory of what once was is heating him up, so to speak. “Today I passed you on the street/ And my heart fell at your feet.” These two people evidently have serious history between them and still apparently live close enough to casually pass by one another in silence, which sounds like exquisite torture. The fact that he brushes so close (he really leans into that part) and can’t say or do anything but look at the satisfaction on the face of the new beau, makes us wonder what exactly happened between them so long ago. We know nothing about the story other than that little moment, poised on the edge of an ocean of feeling and being helpless to do anything about it.  

It’s reminiscent of “Ka-Liga,” a ditty about a wooden Indian who longs to speak to his female counterpart in the antique store across from him, but stubbornly never lets his feelings show. Why? “So she could never answer yes or no.” He doesn’t want to risk rejection so he holds his feelings in. Who can’t relate to that? Touchingly, he even wishes that he was an emotionless pine tree. Worse yet, we suspect that she might have returned his affections. Seeing a once fairly common (and admittedly slightly problematic) sight on the way to the smoke shop or whatever it was and having it inspire a parable about the cost of repressing one’s emotions suggests where the songwriter’s head was really at behind that unassuming, aw-shucks, good time fellow demeanor.         

Which is why I find all the extremely rare film footage so fascinating. When he does “Cold Cold Heart” after being introduced by his hero Roy Acuff, whose emotional delivery was a touchstone for his own style, he sings it like he’s done it a million times, which he has, and he does seem rather pleased with himself. There’s a follow-the-bouncing-ball quality to the way he intones the lyrics, an instinctive awareness of how to keep the audience engaged learned from years of busking in the streets, playing dive bars and the like. It’s authentic Hank in his turn as a showman, who often went out into the crowd between sets to gladhand and sign autographs, and who would do bits of folksy standup comedy at his shows. He’s playing a part and he knows it, which is something a lot of performers do.   

Which is not to say that he lacks authenticity, not at all — even though he’s putting on a show, that performance is as much of an integral part of who he is as the lyrics themselves. To put it another way, when he sings a song entitled “I Dreamed About Mama Last Night” he knows what will make a tear fall down an otherwise impassive face, but that by no means suggests that he didn’t actually dream about the formidable Lillie and/ or the harsh but familiar world he’d now only glimpse at in the rearview mirror as he bustled from one gig to another.  

As the music writer and country fan Tom Piazza once put it, referring to Jimmy Rodgers, a crucial early figure in country music, but I think it also applies to Hank: “he assembled, in a sense, a personification of the growing nation itself, and he involved the individual listener in that drama of growing up: the tension between the lust for change and travel, adventure, mobility for its own sake, violence even, and at the same time a profound and occasionally corrosive sense of nostalgia for The Way Things Were Back Home– either back in the cabin, or Down South below the Mason-Dixon Line– somewhere back, back, before it all got industrialized and built up, before the innocence was lost. The endless American dynamic: Strain at the leash, transform yourself into something unrecognizable, burn off the old, claim every possibility for yourself– contain, as Whitman suggested, multitudes– then memorialize the past that you have killed to pay for all that possibility. The more resolutely you have murdered it, in fact, the more sentimental you will be about it.” 

Country music has often been annoyingly and opportunistically used as a signifier for so-called Real America, as a pawn in the culture war’s endless game. It’s a condescending cliché at this point and should be tossed into the dustbin where it belongs. Johnny Cash, whose credentials as both a country singer and a son of the south are unimpeachable, famously refused to sing “Welfare Cadillac” when invited to the White House by Richard Nixon and instead performed, among others, the scathing “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” instead. There was a fine Netflix documentary about it. Despite the surface simplicity of the music or the lyrics, an artists’ truest intentions are often far more complex and nuanced than those who want to twist them to fit their own agendas would like them to be.  

It’s also worth noting that Hank was more than happy to give credit to a local Black blues singer Rufus Payne, nicknamed “Tee-Tot” out of his fondness for a homemade cocktail, for teaching him everything he knew about playing guitar and singing when he was just a scrawny youngster wandering the streets of Montgomery. Years later, when Hank returned in glory after making it big in Nashville, the hometown hero was chagrined to find that his onetime mentor was long dead. The fact that such an iconic country singer, by his own admission, learned his trade from an itinerant Black blues singer is further proof of the indivisible racial mixtures of our culture, and by extension our society, whether we like to acknowledge them or not.    

Once his star was well established in Nashville, it’s telling that Hank insisted on creating the concept record Luke the Drifter, very much against his record company’s wishes, which says a great deal about his artistic priorities. The Biblically named Luke is a sort of wandering sage, a wise and world-weary soul who gives heartfelt sermons in song detailing “Pictures From Life’s Other Side.” As one biographer noted, he dispenses pretty much the exact same wisdom about temperance and patience that the real-life Hank failed to heed throughout his short life. Quite a thing to create an alter ego to sing songs that warn about the lonesome road he was on, which he memorably described in “Lost Highway” which is to my mind one of his most powerful songs. My favorite Hank cover is Jeff Buckley’s version, another gifted lad taken too soon.  

The devastating “Men With Broken Hearts” poignantly describes the downtrodden, the desperate, and the dejected, those who in the Depression era were called “vag,” with a long a, short for vagrant: “with shoulders stooped and heads bowed low/ and eyes that stare in defeat.” The singer soberly warns the audience that a few wrong steps and you might find yourself among them too. “Too Many Parties and Too Many Pals” turns the impulse to judge and condemn a sexualized woman back around on society’s hypocrisy.  

Then there’s “The Funeral” which, to be perfectly honest, is not terribly good poetry and not exactly racially sensitive and has a questionable theology. The poem that he memorized and consistently recited is certainly a product of its time. I’d argue that all this matters less than the astounding fact that a huge star like Hank Williams, a white man who hails from the deep south, insisted on earnestly reciting a poem both on record and in concert that mourns the death of a Black child, in the early ’50s no less, which is quite a gutsy act of imaginative sympathy.  

It’s clear that he never forgot what it was like to have nothing or to have everything and he evidently didn’t think that either experience fully defined a person. As he once insisted to an interviewer, “Somebody that fell, he’s the same man as before he fell, ain’t he? Got the same blood in his veins. How can he be such a nice guy when he’s got it and such a bad guy when he ain’t got nothin? Can you tell me?” Perhaps there’s something significant in his choice of the word “fell”: Hank wasn’t necessarily a religious believer though he certainly had plenty of exposure to the church given his time and place, growing up singing gospel songs, while keenly aware of the ever-present threat of eternal punishment for all the sinning.  

A Calvinistic sense of having fallen in some way, morally or otherwise, pervades his darkest works. When he sings with conviction about “The Angel of Death” he doesn’t describe the angel at all but focuses on whether your soul will be ready to meet it, which is a much scarier proposition than any spook. His rendition of “The Great Judgment Morning” is similarly shaken, where he sings as if he’s remembering having glimpsed it himself. Hank’s clearly most interested in the good book’s apocalyptic parts, testing the imagery with the tenor of his voice. For a guy whose closest friends and collaborators admitted to never really knowing him, it sure does seem like Hank wore his morbid heart on his fringed sleeve, though he had to be singing about it to really let it show.  

Loneliness is the other great theme in Hank’s songs, a very American theme, with our wide-open spaces and cramped urban ones. It’s not just being alone that Hank’s singing about, either — it’s an existential solitude that comes from a hopeless romantic’s fatal dissatisfaction with a world without love. “The Singing Waterfall” is a lovely Yeatsian meditation on being in love with a ghost, and in “Alone and Forsaken” the loss of his loved one turns his bucolic world into a hellscape with a braying hellhound on his tail. In “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” he can only hang out and watch the fish swim by for so long before he’s going to “pay the price” and throw himself into an icy river three times (again with the ice!) and he swears that “I’m only coming up twice.” You can almost picture when that cowboy hat will begin to slowly float away.  

And of course, there’s his forlorn, bereft masterpiece “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” which no less than Willie Nelson thought the greatest country lyric of all time, specifically citing the haiku-like lines “the silence of a falling star/ lights up a purple sky/ and as I’m wondering where you are/ I’m so lonesome I could cry.” Again, that barely restrained lament comes through a tightly bitten lip: he’s not saying he will cry, mind you, but he’s certainly admitting that he could, which means he might, which means he needs to, with a throb of regret that you can hear in your bones. It’s downright cosmic: the moon is weeping, so are the robins, the whippoorwills are barely keeping it together, and all creation has turned its face away in despair. When his tempestuous relationship with his first wife Audrey finally ended, which he’d written so many different songs about, he cursed that he wouldn’t live a year without her, which was probably a mix of one part anger, one part passive-aggressiveness, and one part self-pity. In any case, it turned out to be true.  

Hank was born with spina bifida, which meant that he suffered through perpetual debilitating back pain his entire life, never seeming to find an adequate remedy or relief. Yet this only partially explains why he would often disappear and go on drinking binges for days on end, ruining concerts if he even bothered to show up, gobbling dubious pills by the handful, never eating, and quickly wearing out his welcome with country music’s biggest institutions and influencers. It makes you wonder how much misery everyone involved might have been spared if he’d been able to find a decent chiropractor.  

It’s a little too on the nose that Hank really did die on the road, lying on the floor of a car cruising down a literal lost highway, heading to a New Year’s Eve gig in the middle of nowhere. His long stiff arms were lying across his chest when the driver pulled over to check on him. It might have been because of the relentless boozing, the shots of morphine from a quack doctor, or paying the toll from years of hard living. Apparently when the news broke no one who knew him was surprised. He never got to read the thousands of condolence letters that poured in or marvel at his exalted posthumous reputation. He never even made it to 30.  

I think the Hank Williams song that ultimately resonates with me the most is “Ramblin’ Man.” I first heard it as the credits rolled on the 1984 movie version of Sam Shepherd’s great play True West, where two brothers, Gary Sinise’s good boy and John Malkovich’s wild seed, square off against each other while holed up in their mom’s house for the weekend. Blew my mind when I caught it on TV one afternoon a long time ago. Don’t ask me why, but at one point a bunch of toasters are involved.  

The guitar chords are as stately as a tombstone and the pedal steel glimmers ominously as Hank half-talks and half-moans about how he just can’t settle down, can’t submit to the warm comforts of happiness and stability and respectability, that he just can’t get no satisfaction. You see, that open road will always beckon far beyond, something inside him spurring him on to keep rambling, hopping the next train as it rolls off into the night, that there’s the promise of adventure over that next hill that he’s just gotta see, some fleeting possibility of fresh experience, and we sense that he suspects down deep that he’ll never find peace. A very American dilemma indeed.   

He claims that there’s some higher purpose to it all, maybe he’s like one of those Old Testament wanderers, perhaps like Jacob who wrestled with the angel or Ishmael the original castaway, because he claims that this is the life that the Almighty meant for him. It’s simply his fate, his karma, his lot in life to be one of the eternal wanderers. What’s more, he even has the nerve to coo that “I love you baby/ but you gotta understand/ that when the lord made me/ he made a ramblin’ man” which is really quite the pitch when you think about it. The charming conman’s fickle pledge of fealty, or the plea of the condemned who just wants to look at you one last time.   

It’s not a whimsical song about having the time of your life on the road. It’s a dirge, albeit a mighty seductive one. Lurking in the background, like the devil in a Medieval painting, he knows the place where all roads will eventually lead to: “and when I’m gone/ and at my grave you stand/ just say God’s called home his ramblin’ man.” As the final notes dissolve in midair, we’re left with more questions than answers. Maybe it’s true what he says, but then again, maybe not. Maybe it was all worth it, or maybe not. But given the evidence in all those beautiful, haunted, immortal songs he left behind I wouldn’t bet against it.•