Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound

Hank Williams was a drunk, a mean drunk who died at age 29 in the back seat of a Cadillac. He was a semiliterate plagiarist, a whoremonger, a brawler, and an egomaniac. He was a stingy manager of top-flight musicians and a notoriously unreliable employee who somehow managed to get canned from the Grand Ole Opry at the height of his own popularity.

And Hank Williams was one of the greatest popular songwriters in American history. In his brief recording career, from 1947 to 1952, he cut 66 songs in his own name, approximately 50 of which he wrote entirely or in part. Thirty-six of those were Top 10 country hits. He was a sensitive, religious man and a doting father. He loved Western movies and comic books, suffered from a degenerative spinal disease, and spent his entire life under the influence of domineering, grasping women.

Such are the contradictions of country music's most troubled legend, contradictions encoded in country music itself. From the very beginning, from the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers's Bristol Sessions, country music has had two souls. One is pure, pious, and sentimental; the other, "whiskey bent and hell bound." The best country artists -- Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, George Jones -- have a little of each.

But no single artist has fully encompassed both sides like Hank Williams. He loved Jesus, women, and the bottle almost equally. It's hard to say which passion caused him the most grief. The Complete Hank Williams, a just-released limited edition, ten-CD box set of 225 recordings, illuminates the singer's prodigious gift for channeling the warring factions of his personality into song. He wrote of deep compassion ("I'm Sorry for You, My Friend") and terrible vengeance ("My Love for You [Has Turned to Hate]"), intense longing ("I Can't Help It [If I'm Still in Love with You]"), and glorious redemption ("I Saw the Light"). He wrote about the exhilaration of new love ("Howlin' at the Moon") and plain old lust ("Hey, Good Lookin'"). And, of course, he wrote and wrote and wrote about the devastation of a love gone rancid ("Your Cheatin' Heart," "Cold, Cold Heart," "You Win Again"). His body of work has defined country music for half a century.

Williams has often been called "the hillbilly Shakespeare," and even if the moniker is an insult to both writers, they do have much in common. Their influence is so pervasive, so much a part of our culture, that their contributions are almost invisible. Williams's lines, such as "Hey good lookin'/Whatcha got cookin'?" are common parlance, just like "All the world's a stage." Trainspotters claim neither man wrote his entire catalogue. And Williams is now a specialty taste even more so than Shakespeare, while legions of imitators, including Williams's own son and grandson, have enriched themselves on his genius.

And yet of all the American musical icons of this century -- Elvis, Dylan, Sinatra, Armstrong, Ellington, Bernstein, Gershwin -- Hank Williams is fading fast from our national memory. His songs are no longer aired, even on so-called country radio. That's why The Complete Hank Williams, released to coincide with what would have been his 75th birthday, is as stunning to its genre as The Complete Works of William Shakespeare is to literature. The Hank Williams set locates the artist behind the legend and without sentimentality, without hero-worship, without varnishing over his many faults, restores him to vibrant life.

Hiriam Williams was born September 17, 1923, in Mount Olive West, Alabama. He would recall in interviews that his first experience with music was at age five or six, sitting by his mother's side in church and singing along while she played the organ. His first nickname, given to him by his mother, was a beautiful piece of literary foreshadowing: Harm.

Williams's mama, Lillie, was a tough, hard, and greedy woman, the stereotypical stage mom obsessed with forwarding her son's career. At age eleven Harm was already playing guitar on the streets of the small towns of southern Alabama. When he was fourteen years old his family moved to Montgomery (because there was a radio station there) and he changed his name to Hank because he thought it sounded more like a cowboy singing star's name.

From the beginning he wrote songs, and even his earliest lyrics show a mastery of rhythm and absurdist humor. In Hank Williams: A Biography, Colin Escott (who also provides notes for the box set, as he did for 1990's The Original Singles Collection) unearthed this verse, written when Hank was eleven: "I had an old goat/She ate tin cans/When the little goats came/They were Ford sedans." From the beginning, he also drank. He took his first bitter sips when he was ten years old. By 1948, when he left Montgomery as a minor regional star and moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, to join the Louisiana Hayride radio program, his reputation as an unreliable lush had preceded him. Sometimes on the evening of a show, band members would find Williams passed out in the street, traffic swerving around him like he was a pothole.

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Brian Alcorn