September 14, 2023


a century of hank williams: The country crooner's haunting ballads and poetic lyrics strike a plangent chord (MATT HANSON, 09/14/2023, Smart Set)

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.

Posted by at September 14, 2023 8:11 AM