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STAGE : Hank Williams Gets Back Into the Spotlight

June 26, 1988|TERRY ATKINSON

I learned t' choose my idols well

T' be my voice an' tell my tale

An' my first idol was Hank Williams.... --Bob Dylan

Though he died 35 years ago and spent only three years in the spotlight, Hank Williams still towers over everyone else in country music. One of his records is what you put on the turntable when someone asks what the real thing sounds like.

Williams and his Drifting Cowboys created a sound that linked country music, folk music, the blues and pop. His music led to rockabilly and much of rock 'n' roll. Unfortunately, he was also the prototype for the live-fast, die-young rock star.

Williams' life has inspired myriad articles, several books and a couple of movies (see box). And now there's a play--"Lost Highway," by Randal Myler and Mark Harelik. It begins previews today and opens July 7 at the Mark Taper Forum. Harelik (rhymes with garlic ) plays Williams.

Movies are one thing. But why should a sophisticated theater audience attend a play about the Ultimate Hillbilly?

Like Tennessee Williams--who shared the same last name and association with the American South, if not the same redneck roughness--Hank Williams could reach deep down inside himself and pull out a howling loneliness of the soul that managed to be somehow both particularly Southern and universal.

Even though he grew up in the relatively hill-less region of south-central Alabama, Williams' vocals were the Ultimate Hillbilly sound--resonant, nasal, moaning, yelping, raw, real.

The songs that he sang--generally written by himself--were filled with ammunition for that voice's emotionalism. They overflowed with spite or sorrow or self-pity or shameless joy. They were sometimes aggressive, sometimes gently poetic. One begins:

Did you ever see a robin weep

When leaves begin to die

That means he's lost the will to live

I'm so lonesome I could cry

When fairly sober, Williams was a heck of a performer, too. Country comedian Minnie Pearl said Williams "had a real animal magnetism. He destroyed the women in the audience."

And then there's the theory that women--two in particular--ultimately destroyed the singer. But most people agree that no one had to destroy Williams. He was too good at doing it himself.

Hiram King (Hank) Williams was born on Sept. 17, 1923, near the town of Georgiana, Ala.

Right from the start he was a mischievous, fun-loving, trouble-loving rascal who charmed the pants off every woman in sight, yet he maintained a take-no-lip toughness other males admired. Williams had buckets of both charm and energy, qualities that later translated into irresistible charisma.

The child's energy was a restless, worrying kind. An acquaintance once described him as a "pistol ball," a "wide-awake boy" who would "eat snuff and eat tobacco like a hog." As a grown-up, Williams would remain a "wide-awake boy," a juvenile, impatient whirlwind with an appetite for stimulants and depressants.

Music served as one of the more healthy outlets for his energy. His mother, Mama Lilly, taught him hymns. On his 8th birthday--one year after his father went into a veterans' hospital, never to return--she gave him a guitar.

After moving to Montgomery, Williams met a black street musician who went by the name of Tee-Tot (real name: Rufus Payne). According to Hank Williams Jr., who grew up to become a country superstar himself, "Tee-Tot taught daddy to sing the blues--not just to mimic a black man, but to reach out and touch that common pool of emotion."

When Williams was 14, he put together a band and, managed by his mother, played every place from hoedowns to honky-tonks for the next several years. During this time he gathered his regular band, the Drifting Cowboys--three of whom are represented by the pseudonyms of Hoss, Jimmy and Leon in "Lost Highway."

In 1944, another strong-willed woman entered Williams' life, Audrey Mae Sheppard. Their tempestuous marriage, eventually ending in divorce, was the source of many of Williams' most passionate hits--"Cold, Cold Heart," "You're Gonna Change," "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)" and "Your Cheatin' Heart" among them.

Williams had other problems. His father-less, poverty-stricken childhood had left him an emotional wreck; he'd fallen off a horse and ruined his back; he took pills and washed them down with whiskey to kill this and various other pains.

He was an ornery cuss.

In "Lost Highway" Myler and Harelik hone in on one of the most renowned examples of Williams' contrariness. While traveling with Audrey and the band, he got so upset with someone's "taking the Lord's name in vain" that he cut a slit in a cigar box and demanded a quarter for each infraction. However, by the time the car pulled to a stop, Williams was the chief contributor. He'd had to cough up $2.75.

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