“Everything he did was bad for his health”: a sturdy biography of the unsteady icon of outlaw country avant la lettre.
Luke the Drifter. The Hillbilly Shakespeare. Before Elvis came along, the King. Hiram King Williams (1923-1953) bore many names and monikers, as befits someone constantly on the move. When he became famous as a musician, being on the move was a requirement; Williams had to get from one gig to another, no matter how drunk or drugged he might be when he took the stage. But even early on, writes Florida-based music journalist Ribowsky (Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines: The Life and Music of James Taylor, 2016, etc.), Williams was used to life on the go, his father often traveling on his railroad job, sometimes a step away from the poorhouse. Born with a spinal defect, Williams channeled his pain into music but then, once the music was on paper or acetate, tried to move that pain farther along with an appalling diet of morphine, pharmaceuticals, and booze, all of which hastened his death. As Ribowsky notes, several templates were thus established, from death by prescription-happy doctor (Elvis, Michael Jackson) to country star as soused or pilled-up rebel (Johnny Cash, George Jones). The author is very good on the culture that surrounded Williams, enshrined by an Alabaman who told him, “you do what you gotta do on Saturday night, then go to church on Sunday morning and make it all right with God.” Though defiantly separatist, that culture, in Williams’ case, was laced with the blues and gospel as much as mountain music. Ribowsky covers the details of Williams’ untidy personal life without undue sensationalism, and if it lacks the intellectual depth of a Greil Marcus or the lived-in encyclopedism of a Peter Guralnick, his book is just fine for what it is, a decidedly warts-and-all portrait of a man more revered than listened to these days.
It’s not every 29-year-old who can pack enough into a life to warrant a 500-page biography—and a good one at that.