100 Greatest Artists

74

Hank Williams

Illustration by Marc Burckhardt

By Beck

Hank Williams songs like "Lonesome Whistle" and "Your Cheatin' Heart" are wonderful to sing because there is no bullshit in them. The words, the melodies and the sentiment are all there, clear and true. It takes economy and simplicity to get to an idea or emotion in a song, and there's no better example of that than Hank Williams.

Hank had a voice that split wood. From his records, it sounded like he was projecting from a completely different place in his body. It was a voice that could play roadhouses without amplification, that could cut through barroom crowds. The places he played were so tough that he hired a wrestler, Cannonball Nichols, to be his bass player. Hank lived what would have been a rock star's life — full of touring, drinking and woman troubles.

I bought a 10-song Hank Williams collection on vinyl for $4.99. It was like I unlocked a box: His music spoke to me. His records are enormously important to country music, but I think I responded to them because they sounded so exotic. It's significant that Hank learned to play guitar from an elderly black musician: Hank is the ultimate hillbilly, but there's other stuff going on. For a while he was my only reference point; I've covered his songs for years. On Sea Change, I made a conscious effort to try to write songs as direct as Hank's.

I see more and more people getting into his music today. When I played his songs early on, I used to get really sick of everyone in the crowd yelling "yee-haw" all the way through. But I've noticed that there's been a rediscovery of the haunting quality of Hank Williams' music. People are listening.

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