This New Year’s Day marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Hank Williams, the country music giant who has proven to be one of the most influential singers and songwriters of the past half century. Timeless, the excellent tribute to his music that came out in 2001, features versions of his songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, Beck, Tom Petty, Keith Richards, Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams and Johnny Cash. They were all lovingly paying an essential debt. If you think about all the artists who have, in turn, been shaped by the names on that list, you can begin to comprehend the enormous depth and breadth of Williams’ impact.
Williams died while traveling overnight on New Year’s Eve to a gig in Canton, Ohio. He’d been fired from the Grand Ole Opry a few months earlier, and, exasperated by his drinking and erratic behavior, his band had left him too. He was twenty-nine-years-old and, while “a severe heart condition and hemmorhage” were cited as the causes of death, it more likely resulted from respiratory failure as a consequence of his use of alcohol, morphine and other drugs. Sad to say, the romantic squalor of his decline and youthful passing have probably contributed as much to his legendary stature as his extraordinary catalogue of songs, including such gems as “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Honky Tonk Blues.”
Indeed, Williams has been the subject of so much myth-making that I was genuinely surprised, even stunned, by the forceful, clear-eyed and moving depiction of his life in Hank Williams: Lost Highway, a musical that is running off Broadway in New York at the Manhattan Ensemble Theater. Despite the impressive pedigree of many of the people involved in the production, I went with almost no expectations. Let’s face it: a musical about the life of Hank Williams is a potential disaster for so many reasons that it’s almost impossible to imagine its being good.
In fact, however, Lost Highway is far better than good. It conveys the varied aspects of a complex man with subtlety, intelligence and compassion. Most important of all, the music is superb. Jason Petty, who plays Williams, doesn’t just capture the phrasing and cadences of Williams’ singing. He varies his delivery with the command of a performer who is fully inhabiting his character, not merely rendering him.
The result is not some abstract distillation of Williams’ vocal repertoire, but the exhilarating feeling of Williams on stage in a particular place on a particular night, a rare achievement in any musical theater that I’ve ever seen. And the players in his four-piece band prove equally deft, serving up classic country with the edges raw and the energy hot, not a pale version sanitized for an urban theater crowd that might not up for rural grit.
From Williams’ beginnings on the Louisiana Hayride to his triumphs on the Grand Ole Opry and his eventual self-destruction, Lost Highway portrays the doomed singer in three-dimensional terms. He is neither glamorized, sentimentalized nor pitied, just shown as the troubled figure he was: A musical genius who, finally, was simply unable to take control of his career and personal life. By the end of the play, you’ve traveled on a profound emotional journey, from the heights of eminently deserved success to the abyss of alcoholic depression. As at Williams’ actual funeral in his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama — which was attended by as many as 20,000 people — the show ends with a gospel song, in this case a rousing version of Williams’ “I Saw the Light.”
Sometimes called the “hillbilly Shakespeare,” Williams led a life filled with drama. Lost Highway ultimately transports its audience beyond that tumult, though, and communicates the far more inspiring message of the beauty and richness of Williams’ songs. Clearly, as with any confessional songwriter, Williams’ music and his life are thoroughly intertwined. Knowledge about one inevitably leads to understanding of the other. But people all over the world play and sing Williams’s songs, and many don’t know a single thing about him.
Those songs are truly rooted in one man’s experience, but they speak to everyone who hears them — and will continue to do so as long as anyone cares about popular music. If the end of his life and the circumstances of his death were tragic, that’s not a call for myth-making, but sadness. In commemorating the day of this great artist’s death, it’s necessary to keep in mind why it’s worth remembering him at all: Hank Williams wrote and performed some of the best music this country has ever produced. Listen to it, and its truth will never fail to reach you.