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(Credit: WSM radio)

Hank Williams: The tragic life of the forebearer of modern music

Bob Dylan once said that “the highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anybody but inspire them?”. Dylan himself has lived by that mantra and stirred millions over the years, but he, in turn, had his ears pricked by his own Promethean hero.

Inspiration is an unfurling continuation in modern music, and long after Dylan, a rather disparate modern-day artist, Alex Turner, remarked: “There is always that one band that comes along when you are 14 or 15-years-old that manages to hit you in just the right way and changes your whole perception on things.” Whether you’re the ‘Voice of a Generation’ or otherwise, it would seem that this is true of everyone who loves music or has a passion for the arts. 

For Dylan, he was just about 11-years-old when he stumbled upon his first rousing kinship with none other than the country legend Hank Williams. As Dylan recalls in his memoir: “I became aware that in Hank’s recorded songs were the archetype rules of poetic songwriting,” he wrote. “The architectural forms are like marble pillars.”

This mandate of deeply grounded yet wondrously poetic tales set to simple melodic structures is one that would stay with not only the seismic force of Dylan throughout his career but the entire songwriting fraternity. Williams mastered the uncanny knack of crafting fantastical paeans that seem to have tapped into the ether without ever losing sight of the humble careworn traditions of a travelling troubadour. This alchemical act changed the world of music forever.

However, tragedy would strike before Williams himself could bask in the fruits of his labour. To return to the words of his foremost figurative son, when Dylan was just about ready to start worshipping his newfound hero, Williams passed away at the age of 29 on New Year’s Day in 1953. Sadly, the turmoil’s that the country star endured led to a dependence on alcohol and morphine, and he suffered a fatal heart attack. When a young Dylan heard the news, he recalled: “It was like a great tree had fallen.” As it happens, the felling of this grounded tower of song was a long time in the making.

Born in 1923 in Alabama, the star earned his alias of ‘Luke the Drifter’ the hard way. His father, who worked as a logger, entered the Veterans Administration hospital when he was just six, and he rarely saw him thereafter. His mother was forced to try and provide for the family alone, thus, Williams childhood follows a serpentine path in and around Alabama.

The sense of isolation that a wandering existence brought about was furthered by the fact he suffered from Spina Bifida and, as such, struggled to mix in with the rowdy games of his fellows, choosing instead to observe from afar. Perhaps it was this observational viewpoint of the world that seeded his introspective songs.

Those songs formed from afar still naturally needed an outlet. He basked himself in the boon of music and struck up an unlikely friendship with the blues street musician Rufus Payne. If his life had been a lonely one at this stage, then the come hither of music offered a world of comfort to call his own. He absorbed what he could from Payne, church musicians, and through the radio waves and quickly began to learn the trade.

He started to play when he was merely eight years of age, and only five years later, he was making his radio debut. With his mother tirelessly shepherding him and his band, Hank Williams and the Drifting Cowboys, around the state of Alabama thereafter, he soon caught the attention of music executives in one of the foremost homes of American music: Nashville, Tennessee. 

However, as his star began to rise, so did his ailing back issues and the pressure and physical pains of playing at an early age led him to drink and the cursed tag of being unreliable. This was something that hampered his career throughout. It wasn’t until 1946 that MGM decided to take a chance on him and offered him a label. But at this stage, his wife Audrey Mae Sheppard, who had designs of fame of her own, had started fighting with his mother and pressures mounted on the young father in the middle of it all. 

When these pressures were alleviated in 1949 when he landed his first number one with ‘Lovesick Blues’, the fame and fortune that followed found a vulnerable man. While the creative freedom of financial security proved to be the moment his seeded introspection blossomed into a bloom that would colour the garden of music forevermore, it did nothing to ease the heap of his burden and worsened his substance reliant ways. 

His music proved to be a post-war boon for many. It contained the losses and pains of his own childhood and tempestuous life thereafter, which gives the music the cognizant side it needed to take root in a world reflecting on its own sorrows, while his chirpy ways also provided enough exultation to lift them from despair. Sadly, however, his wry smiles were more of a mask than the same mark of duality that the public loved.

At the height of his success, he had become dependent on alcohol and morphine. Playing endlessly in a demanding era only worsened the situation. By 1952 he was divorced and had been fired from The Opry. The morphine caused further problems, his hair fell out, he suffered from swelling and eventually began suffering minor heart attacks. 

A year into this decline, while shacked up with a new wife, Billie Jean, the fading star left his mother’s home on December 30th, 1952, and collapsed in a Knoxville hotel suffering from alcohol intoxication and an overdose of morphine. A doctor was called to the scene, and, remarkably, Williams was cleared for more travel when he was revived. 

On New Year’s Day, 1953, less than 48 hours after his collapse, he was en route to a concert in Canton, Ohio. When the driver pulled over for a rest, he found Williams dead, sprawled across the back seats. His music, however, had immortalised him, and his legacy flourished from the embers of a sad end as people retrospectively looked at his career and the poetic dirge of his work. His songs were humble tales of heartache that rendered them achingly relatable, but as a humble, meek storyteller, forever in the demimonde of life, he understood the importance of some sort of stardom too. With this, it would seem that Bob Dylan and the likes were stirred up, and the rest, as they say, is ancient history. 

As one of Dylan’s favourite writers, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, once wrote regarding the explosion of Russian literature, “We all came out of Gogol’s Overcoat”. Well, when it comes to modern songwriters, it would seem they all emerged from under the shadow of Williams’ wide-rimmed hat. And he did this all in 29 fraught years, but the man dubbed the Hillbilly Shakespeare, did everything quickly, as he said himself: “If a song can’t be written in 20 minutes, it ain’t worth writing.”

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