Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams, by Paul Hemphill (Viking,
2005, 205 pages)
story of country legend Hank Williams is also the story of author Paul
Hemphill, or so Hemphill would have us believe. Hemphill first met
Williams in 1949, courtesy of the radio in his father’s over-the-road
trailer-truck. Hemphill was 13 at the time and riding shotgun on one of
his dad’s hauling jobs.
“We’d heard him before, of course,” Hemphill wrote, “singing ‘Lovesick
Blues’ on the Opry broadcasts, but he’d never sounded quite like this.
Hank Williams’ songs were cries from the darkness; made to be heard, it
seemed to us, while running through the lonely night, racing with the
moon, the wind whistling through the cab ...”
Williams would be dead four years later, at 29, leaving behind two
wives, several children and a slew of hits that brought country music
into the mainstream.
That Hemphill begins and ends Williams’ story with anecdotes about his
own father says a lot about the glass through which he views Williams’
life. Williams, an alcoholic by the time he was a teenager, didn’t have
much of a father, just an over-controlling mother and, later, a wife
cast from the same mold as dear old mom. His surrogate fathers included
Rufus Payne, a black street musician who taught Williams how to play,
sing and drink starting when Williams was 11 or so, and Williams’
producer Fred Rose, who tried and usually failed to keep his protege off
the sauce. (Williams’ drinking and, later, his addiction to pain pills
are often attributed to the fact he was born with spina bifida, a
condition that gave him terrible back pain for all of his short life.)
Hemphill is a gifted writer and manages to capture the feeling of the
slow, painful drawl and then booze-addled frenzy that was Williams’
However, he is prone to hero worship, hyperbole and, for some reason,
repeating trivia that he already wrote about a few chapters before.
Lovesick Blues is not a long book — did Hemphill think his readers would
forget so soon?
how did Hank Williams, in his six-year recording career, manage to
scratch out more hit records than just about anybody? Heck, he even
wrote most of his own songs. Hemphill believes Williams was part poetic
savant and part product of his times. Williams’ voice and pained lyrics
echoed in the heads and hearts of a generation of Americans just coming
out of the Depression and healing after World War II. Pretty much
everyone in those days had a feeling called the blues.
Toward the end of Lovesick Blues, Hemphill writes about the last time he
saw his own father, in ’88. He’d driven out to show his dad his new
“‘Probably got a bad transmission,’ he [Hemphill’s father] said.
‘Yeah, but it’s got a real good radio,’ I told him.”
‘Will it pick up country music?’
course it will.’
‘Must be a hell of radio then,” he said. “Ain’t been no country music
since Hank died.’”