Hank was my father. My teacher, my buddy, my mentor, my hero. When I bought my first Hank CD, 20 Golden Hits, I could feel myself being pulled back 50 years into the front row at the Ryman Auditorium. Hank was up there, knee-knocking and yodeling out “The Lovesick Blues,” while the honky tonk girls rushed the stage, breezing by like a cloud of honeysuckle with an aftertaste of Maker’s Mark. And when Don Helms would whine out the opening strains of “Cold, Cold Heart” on that steel guitar, Hank Williams was the undisputed king of Nashville.
But Hank wasn’t my father. We never hung out, we never traded songs, and when I was born it had already been a long 39 years, four months, and twelve days since ol’ Luke the Drifter died in the backseat of his powder blue Cadillac on New Years’ Day 1953. And yet, when I hear him drawl out over my iPod “If the good Lord’s a-willing and the creeks don’t rise, we’ll see ya again ‘fore long,” it’s an easy oversight to make. I can forget that the guy from Hootie and the Blowfish is being billed as a top country act. I can forget a few years ago there was hit country song called “Honky Tonk Badonka-Donk.” Even for three minutes I can forget those things, so I might as well be back half a century when no one could have believed such atrocities would happen.
People love to throw around the line “If you play a country song backwards you get your wife back, your dog back, your truck back, and your job back,” but things go wrong in country because things go wrong in life, and no one knew that better than Hank. He was the country-fried Shakespeare of the backwoods and the cotton fields, with a quill dipped in the tears that everyone sheds but no one likes to talk about. It’s as if he walked into every home in America and personally asked every person “What’s wrong, pal?” “What’d he do to you, darlin’?” “How’s that make you feel, son?” He knew what made them hurt, and he knows what makes Jim Gedda hurt. And chances are he’s going to know what makes people hurt 50 years from now, as long as men and women fall in and out of love.
Hank’s not for everybody, and I’m not going to claim he is. But for me, all it takes is a lonesome fiddle, a whining steel guitar, and the simple eloquence of a cowboy who, at one point, went by the name “Hiram.” I’m not from the country, I’ve never known a hard day’s work in my life, and I couldn’t ever hope to accurately describe “Jambalaya, crawfish pie, and filet gumbo.” And sure, Hank’s French was a bit off when he sang, “Tonight I’m gonna see my ma chaz ami-o.” But from the first time I put in that CD, those old songs put an arm around my shoulder and said “This one’s for you.” Just wait until the next time you feel like you just can’t face another morning. Be sure to keep an eye out for a powder blue Cadillac.