07 March 2013

Hanging Out with Hank

Hank Williams colourIn 1988 in New Orleans I met a group of men who had backed Hank Willliams (the first one). The Hackberry Ramblers were all in their late 60s, and dressed like they were going to church on a hot day: white shirts, black trousers, bolo ties, and white cowboy hats.

What was he like? One of them answered, “He was always drunk as a skunk, he could hardly stand up – but when he got up on stage he sang like a hummingbird.” 

Lucinda Williams’s father, the Arkansas poet and academic Miller Williams, spent time with the man himself (as well as being a friend of Flannery O’Connor). At the Oxford American’s blog, he recently described their meeting:

[In 1952] I was on the faculty of McNeese State College in Lake Charles, Louisiana, when he had a concert there. I stepped onstage when he and his band were putting their instruments away and when he glanced at me I said, "Mr. Williams, my name is Williams and I'd be honored to buy you a beer." To my surprise, he asked me where we could get one. I said there was a gas station about a block away where we could sit and drink a couple. (You may not be aware that gas stations used to have bars.) He asked me to tell his bus driver exactly where it was and then he joined me. When he ordered his beer, I ordered a glass of wine, because this was my first year on a college faculty and it seemed the appropriate thing to do. We sat and chatted for a little over an hour. When he ordered another beer he asked me about my family. I told him that I was married and that we were looking forward to the birth of our first child in about a month.

He asked me what I did with my days and I told him that I taught biology at McNeese and that when I was home I wrote poems. He smiled and told me that he had written lots of poems. When I said, “Hey—you write songs!” he said, “Yeah, but it usually takes me a long time. I might write the words in January and the music six or eight months later; until I do, what I've got is a poem.” Then his driver showed up, and as he stood up to leave he leaned over, put his palm on my shoulder, and said, “You ought to drink beer, Williams, ’cause you got a beer-drinkin’ soul.” He died the first day of the following year. When Lucinda was born I wanted to tell her about our meeting, but I waited until she was onstage herself. Not very long ago, she was asked to set to music words that he had left to themselves when he died. This almost redefines coincidence.

The Nelson-born country star Tex Morton also got to hang out with Hank Williams. So too did the veteran music journalist Ralph J. Gleason, who mostly covered jazz. His classic article about their 1952 meeting has a title I’ve never forgotten: Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, and then God! It opens:

Hank Williams came out of the bathroom carrying a glass of water. He was lean, slightly stooped over and long-jawed. He shook hands quickly, then went over to the top of the bureau, swept off a handfull of pills and deftly dropped them, one at a time, with short, expert slugs from the glass.

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