Hippo Manchester
December 8, 2005

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Books: Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams, by Paul Hemphill (Viking, 2005, 205 pages)

B+

by Robert Greene

The 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’ life.

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?

So 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 Chevy Blazer.

“‘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?’

‘Of course it will.’

‘Must be a hell of radio then,” he said. “Ain’t been no country music since Hank died.’”