Hank Williams died in the backseat of his chauffeured Cadillac en route to an Ohio concert. That was 64 years ago, yet he is everywhere.
His music is authentic, and not without pathos. It’s the kind of music people listen to when they’re alone: it is dark, the radio is playing, you lost your girlfriend, then – I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.
I was a boy when Hank Williams died. I spoke of that day with a friend who played steel guitar in our band. He recalled hearing the news on the car radio, New Year’s Day 1953, driving to a gig. They pulled over and cried. People knew what this loss meant.
I first listened to Hank’s recordings in the 1950s. I loved music from the start; I was a boy soprano in the choir at St. Luke’s Anglican Church on Somerset Street. That’s when I began collecting Hank’s music on old 45 records.
Later as a street musician in the Byward Market I always sang Lovesick Blues. To this day I see a homeless man huddled on Bank Street with a change cup and I think of Hank’s Men with Broken Hearts:
- You will meet many just like me upon life’s busy street
- with shoulders stooped and heads bowed low
- and eyes that stare in defeat.
- They’re souls that live within the past where sorrow plays all parts
- for a living death is all that’s left for men with broken hearts.
I once played that song with my six-piece band in Ancaster, Ontario. The audience froze. That is the effect of Hank Williams.
Hank burned out at 29 from alcohol and morphine. He was a gun fancier with a violent streak, and had these painfully awkward moments as alcoholics do. Yet he had a powerful sway over people. In performing Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave I came to sense I knew Hank. I never tired of him.
Once, on tour at opening night in Houston, we went to this Texas roadhouse – the kind of place that serves T-bone or sirloin, beer or whiskey – and there I met Hank’s old fiddle player, Jerry Rivers. He told me, “Hank never said much, but if he wanted to express himself he’d have used the words you did in your play tonight.” I never forgot that.
When I performed that play as a fledgling actor I saw the effect on an audience. I’d adapt this with minimalist stage lighting and subtle body language, and the emotional impact on the audience was haunting. It could make them cry, as if they were witnessing a death.
I don’t think Hank died of his addictions. He used everything up and had no more life to live. He went to heaven. He just ascended!
(Editor’s note: The author is an Ottawan acclaimed for his performance on stage and film in Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave)