SANTA ANA — When Hank Williams sang "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," it was with his usual craggy, brittle voice, a voice that was as much a story as the songs it sang, a voice shaped by hard roads and the brief release of Saturday nights. Hearing it, you'd know the guy topped the "most likely to die in the back seat of a Cadillac" list.
But for many of us, the version of "Lonesome" we grew up with was B.J. Thomas', and his voice was another thing entirely. Where Williams' ragged pipes expressed the frailty of man, Thomas' voice was rich, assured, smooth and strong, of a piece with the pop arrangement the song was given.
Though it should have seemed the antithesis of Williams' version, Thomas somehow caught the essence of it. His singing, powerful though it was, still had a lonesome catch, giving a different perspective to the lyric that suggested no matter how strong you build your house, the winds of life might still blow it down.
It's going on three decades since Thomas had his debut hit in 1966 with the song, and, at the Crazy Horse Steak House in the first of two shows Monday (he also was scheduled to perform Tuesday), Thomas' talents remained a pleasant surprise.
He's certainly had his ups and downs since then: The peaks include No. 1 pop, country and gospel hits and five Grammys, the troughs encompassing many hitless years and the period of drug problems that is seemingly requisite for artists.
One might have expected him to sound a bit craggy and frail himself Monday, or, more likely, to be as jaded and mechanical as so many other long-touring club acts with no payday in sight. Instead, his voice was in top form, and his spirits were contagiously high, in a pleasantly addled sort of way.
Early in the two-hour-plus performance he mentioned a song he'd recently recorded to coincide with the now-doubtful '95 baseball season. "That's kind of how my career's been going," he remarked, going on to accidentally stab himself in the lip with the straw of his soda pop.
Despite his sharp clothes, and hair like aging rock god David Cloverdale, Thomas is anything but a slick performer. Instead of relying on a tightly run set list and pre-programmed stage banter, he often seemed to be at a loss for what to do or say between songs.
This obviously is an ongoing source of amusement to his band mates and himself, since they all were at times cracking up over his apparent discomfiture. Though it did drag at the momentum of the show late in the set, it was certainly preferable to the formulaic homilies of many country acts.
The 20-song set ranged through most of the expected pop and country hits, several gospel tunes and some impressive new songs. Backed by a sturdy and lively five-piece band--most of whose members have been with Thomas for well over a decade--his voice proved as rich and capable as ever.
Like Lou Rawls and a handful of other pop singers, Thomas has an immediately recognizable voice. Some of his material doesn't demand much from him. His biggest hit, the 1969 No. 1 "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," aspires to no more than wistfulness, while the "The Eyes of a New York Woman" from 1968 is an overblown pop ballad that defies emotional input, and it's hard to fathom why he persists in performing it when he has so many better songs.
It's encouraging that some of those better songs are recent ones. His latest album is the self-produced "Back-Forward," which, along with remakes of his hits, includes the new songs "Hands On Me Again," "Who Would I Be" and "Expressions of Faith."
The first is a tender love song that brought out Thomas' most sensitive, warmly phrased vocal of the evening. "Expressions of Faith," an ebullient gospel tune he used to close the show's encore, was about taking chances in life and letting faith make a difference in the world.
While Thomas only rarely gave a song less than its due, he seemed to put an extra effort into the spiritual numbers, with emotion clearly driving his vocals on his own Grammy-grabbing gospel tunes, as well as "Amazing Grace" and "Mighty Clouds of Joy."
On his secular side, he sang the ever-catchy "Hooked on a Feeling" (featuring its trademark electric-sitar part), "(Hey Won't You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song," and lesser hits such as "Most of All," "Mama" and the Paul Williams-penned "That's What Friends Are For."