One of the packaging perks of the new 10-CD box set The Complete Hank Williams is a series of postcard reproductions of recent art about Hank. A more useful inclusion might have been a refrigerator magnet with a toll-free number for Alcoholics Anonymous. Sure, there are jokes and novelties and “Hey Good Lookin’ ” among the 225 cuts, but the feeling you come away with is the essence of bleak. You can write it off as art, but by the second or third hour of that voice weeping round your living room it doesn’t feel like anything as comforting as art; it feels like every reason you ever wanted to shut your lungs down and call it a life.
You can hear it in the defeated “You Win Again,” famously recorded the day after Hank’s divorce from his first wife was final. You can hear it on the previously unissued hymn “Drifting Too Far From the Shore.” And you can hear it in the final, pitiful track–Hank’s prerecorded apology to an audience in Washington in 1951. (He’d had back surgery, but he had to reassure the paying customers that he hadn’t flaked out, drunk.) But most of all, you can hear the death wish in a two-minute abyss lurking in the seventh disc, “Alone and Forsaken,” a 20th-century landmark that isn’t so much country music as French lit: No Exit, L’Etranger.
When country musicians and country fans talk about Hank Williams, they invariably call him “the real thing.” As in, “I have a hard time separating the songs from Hank because he was the real thing.” That’s Kris Kristofferson: a testimonial decorating the booklet of The Complete Hank Williams. Of course, “real thing” in today’s Nashville probably just means “not Canadian,” but still, Williams is the original all-time all-star of musical authenticity. Just spend an hour or so with one of those Hank’s greatest hits records every country music fan has owned, chocked full and weighted down with “Cold, Cold Heart” and “Lovesick Blues” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (where even the damn moon has to hide behind a cloud in tears). All that anguish coming through, that catch of the voice so caught and so close. Those songs, and the way he performed them, have the stateliness of sorrow: anyone who shoves you that far into the depths is going to get your respect. And he had the biography to match: born poor in Alabama to a stifling mother and an absent father, married to the bottle and a bitch, suffering from back pain, and dead at 29 in the backseat of a Cadillac on the first day of 1953.
The reproduction of Williams’s death certificate in the set’s booklet lists his occupation as “radio singer”–not recording artist–and the collection reflects this. Four of the discs document his broadcast appearances, many of them marvelous. Included are the earliest from Montgomery, Alabama, his star-making turns on Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride, the Grand Ole Opry, and specials like a particularly moving one for the March of Dimes (in which he confesses his fear “come summertime” that his own son will contract polio). To anyone born too young to hear these shows, or too satisfied with the classic records to go off looking for rarities, the first thing you notice about Hank’s banter before songs is not authenticity–not if you subscribe to the theory that the real deal means feeling real bad. His cornball way of talkinginstead comes across as fraud–so revoltingly cheerful you might think the only person he’s fooling is himself.
How on earth he could sing these often suicidal songs after the hokey chitchat that precedes them is anybody’s guess. On one of the shows the Opry performers did for armed servicemen overseas, he says to Minnie Pearl, “For two cents I’d just haul off and kiss ya.” To which she replies, “Anybody got change for a nickel?” Somewhere between the real-deal singer Hank and the nerdy talker Hank is his alter ego “Luke the Drifter.” You’d expect such a cool pseudonym to express Hank’s free and easy inner self, but ol’ Luke was a prim little Bible-thumper with oodles of folksy moral wisdom. The Luke numbers, called “recitations,” are not boring. They’re spoken word parables like “Pictures From Life’s Other Side,” in which the neighborhood bad girl is ignored by decent folks until she dies saving the life of a child. The best one–perhaps because it’s written by producer Fred Rose–is “No, No Joe,” a 1950 Cold War curiosity in which Stalin is warned, “Now you got tanks, some fair-sized tanks, but you actin’ like a clown. ‘Cause we got Yanks, a mess of Yanks, and you might get caught with your tanks down.”
Colin Escott, author of the definitive biography Hank Williams and one of the box’s producers, has scrupulously and coherently set forth this massive posthumous set list with an almost shocking truthfulness. This is a celebration of Hank Williams without being an ad for him. Coming clean right away, Escott notes: “Hank’s first recordings didn’t set a new agenda the way that Elvis Presley’s did.” Listen to Presley’s “That’s All Right” next to Williams’s so-so gospel debut, “Calling You,” and it takes two seconds to figure out which one’s the end and which one’s the new beginning.
Williams is frequently mentioned as a proto-Elvis–same race, class, region. Same basic gospel and blues influences. Same rise to stardom via The Louisiana Hayride. But when I think of Hank Williams I don’t think of Elvis Presley. I think of Elvis Presley’s dad. Elvis was fun and sex and cars and girls. Elvis’s father Vernon was prison and debt and no-luck-at-all. When Elvis performed “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” in Hawaii, he called it “the saddest song I’ve ever heard.” Vernon probably heard it as a rundown of every other night of his life, and he and his kind were Hank’s true audience.
One of the many beauties of Elvis, who made his first Sun recordings only a year after Hank died, is that he was defiantly postwar. Except for some radio performances in the early ’40s, Hank’s recordings take place between 1946 and 1952, not that you’d know it. You can’t hear the new American world of shiny gadgets and cute little houses and gold lamé pants. The war’s over, but Hank might as well be stuck in Europe eating rations and walking through bomb rubble.
You could argue that the redemption in the Williams oeuvre is of the godly sort–that he included gospel numbers in all his shows, that he’s the author of “I Saw the Light” with its “no more in darkness” refrain. I don’t believe this for a second. If Hank Williams bought into Christian crap like “I’ll Have a New Body (I’ll Have a New Life),” his faith faded the second the song went off the air. At his worst, he might have been a false witness, preaching things he wanted to believe but didn’t. In an epigraph from Minnie Pearl in the booklet, she describes once driving to a show with Hank, who just so happened to be sloshed. She remembered, “And I started singing his number ‘I Saw the Light.’ He started out, and all of us were singing ‘I Saw the Light.’ Then he stopped and said, ‘Quit! Hush! I don’t want to hear that. I don’t want to hear it, ’cause there ain’t no light.’ ”
Why, then, did he keep on singing it? Broadcasting it? Did he have any idea that others would learn it? That preachers would use it? Did he know that crummy little backwater churches would sing it in congregation? That every time they did the preacher would introduce it as a song by Hank Williams, a man who found fame and fortune but wrote this song denouncing earthly pleasures in exchange for the perfection of the afterlife? Could he have watched all those long-suffering women hold their hands up to heaven, even though he, Hank Williams, was too tired and too drunk and in too much pain to even believe in hell?
Hank Williams represents an extreme. It’s not like he invented hopelessness, but he perfected it. These are very moving records, and I’ll keep coming back to them. I can bear them in 1998, but I don’t know that I could have in 1952. Because in 1998, I know what comes next. In 1998, I can trust myself with “Alone and Forsaken” because I’m vaccinated with awopbopaloobops and mmmbops and all the giddiness in between. More than anything, The Complete Hank Williams is an argument for rock’n’roll.