A veteran novelist and nonfiction writer offers a Southerner’s take on country music’s poet laureate.
Hemphill, author of The Nashville Sound, an early look at the country music industry, and a number of other works with a Southern perspective, arrives decidedly late at the Hank Williams biography party. It’s difficult to imagine anyone improving on Colin Escott’s award-winning, meticulously researched 1994 work on Williams, revised last year; the Canadian writer, who won a Grammy as co-producer of a set of Williams’s complete recordings, added to the literature with Hank Williams: Snapshots From the Lost Highway (with Kira Florita, 2001) and his work on the 2004 PBS documentary about the country singer. Hemphill acknowledges Escott’s scholarship in his own unscholarly book, which offers the barest outline of Williams’s brief, tortured career. That outline is familiar to any Williams fan: his hardscrabble Alabama upbringing; the meteoric success of his simple, cuttingly affecting songs; his slug-it-out relationship with first wife, Audrey; his drug- and drink-plagued stardom; and his precipitous decline, including his sideshow-like marriage to second spouse, Billie; and his sudden death at 29 as 1953 dawned. There’s no deep new research here—the most talkative sources appear to be Williams’s steel guitarist Don Helms and Charles Carr, who chauffeured the musician on the night he died. Hemphill, a fellow Alabamian, takes the tack that Hank was a good ol’ boy just like Hemphill’s father, a long-distance trucker who liked to pound out Williams’s songs on the piano. The writer splashes plenty of local color on his canvas, especially in passages about Williams’s barnstorming early days. But he never reveals anything essential about his subject as an artist or as a suffering human being; worse, he never explains how or why so distinctly Southern a musician achieved such universality in his lifetime, on his own and in covers of his songs by such unlikely performers as Tony Bennett.
This particular song of the South merely scratches the surface of a legend.