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Honky-tonk's vintage All-American voice

June 23, 2004|Noel Holston | Newsday

With a soundtrack of timeless songs and remembrances by friends and family that can make you cackle or give you chills, "Hank Williams: Honky Tonk Blues" is a must-see for lovers of great American music. That's not to say it's definitive, however.

Williams' formative years get rather cursory attention from producer-director Morgan Neville. Though Neville collected many testimonies to the singer-songwriter's loneliness, the man remains something of a mystery. One old associate calls him "the most cocky, confident man I ever met," and another recalls his being painfully insecure.

The most thoughtful assessment in tonight's "American Masters" offering on PBS comes from Danny Dill.

"Hank was one of those people who had driving ambition," says Dill, a revered country tunesmith ("Long Black Veil," "Detroit City") in his own right. "He wanted to get to the place in the world where he was somebody."

Williams was born into a poor family in 1923. His father was a World War I veteran who ended up in an institution when little Hiram Williams was 7. His mother, a church organist, recognized the boy's musical talent and encouraged it. She paid an elderly black man, Rufus "Tee Tot" Payne, 15 cents a lesson to teach her sickly 9-year-old to play guitar, and Payne and "The Singing Kid" eventually became a street-corner duo in tiny Greenville, Ala., selling peanuts, shining shoes and singing.

It has been charged that Williams stole songs from Payne, but if there was theft, it was largely by osmosis. Payne's son, Henderson Payne, now an elderly man, recalls young Williams being a quick study.

Williams' influence on country music (and rock and pop) is so huge and his raucous life and early death so mythologized that it's easy to forget how brief his golden era was. Williams died of heart failure on the first day of 1953 on the way to a gig in Ohio in his powder-blue Cadillac convertible. He wasn't yet 30.

Neville uses a similar Caddie as a visual device. He photographs the vintage car gliding like a ghost through Alabama farmsteads and through time-warp towns. It's a little hokey, but it's truly the exception, not the rule, in this intelligent and haunting recollection of the father of modern country music.


Noel Holston is a television critic at Newsday, a Tribune company.


'Hank Williams: Honky Tonk Blues'

Where: KCET, Channel 28

When: 8 tonight

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