NASHVILLE SKYLINE: “I Saw the Light” — A Country Music Beacon?

The Saga of One Classic Country Song

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Seeing and hearing Hank Williams’ decades-old country gospel anthem “I Saw the Light” performed twice in public — to enthusiastic audience ovations — within a few days is an illuminating reminder that country gospel and the country music tradition are still very powerful forces. The first version of “I Saw the Light” was by a 71-year-old country legend. The second came from a talented 19-year-old Australian singer new to these shores. Both used “I Saw the Light” as a show-closer — to very effective means.

My first “I Saw the Light” experience was at a concert last week at Plains High School, in Plains, Ga. Willie Nelson was performing a homecoming concert in honor of former President Jimmy Carter and taping it for a CMT special. Mr. Carter had asked Nelson to sing two of his favorite songs — “Georgia on My Mind” and “Amazing Grace” — and he and his wife Rosalyn came out on stage to join Nelson and the Family Band in harmonizing on those favorites. Nelson then called out, “Hey, y’all like Hank Williams?” and launched into an exuberant rendition of “I Saw the Light,” and Jimmy and Rosalyn joined right in. It was like a revival meeting. The 2,500 or so Georgians stood from their folding chairs on the summer lawn and sang along and beamed joyously and pointed index fingers skyward along with Nelson.

The second “Saw the Light” encounter came a few days later from country newcomer Catherine Britt. She was singing in the storied back room at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Nashville’s Lower Broadway, a fabled watering hole that Britt reminded us is a place where “Hank Williams used to get drunk.” And it is also a place where Willie Nelson used to get drunk. The big-voiced Britt closed her Tootsie’s showcase with a soulful and reverent rendition of “Light.” The emotions stirred up in that smoky, beery, honky-tonk audience were the same that Nelson elicited from that All-American small-town crowd at the high school in Plains.

Country gospel is genuine currency of the realm, a timeless message that transfers seamlessly from generation to generation.

Williams himself, who was the original country star who set the pattern for sinning on Saturday night and seeking redemption on Sunday morning, seemingly looked into the face of eternity with the lyrics of “I Saw the Light.”

He wrote it in 1948: I wandered so aimless, my life filled with sin/I wouldn’t let my dear savior in/Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night/Praise the Lord, I saw the light.

The melody, ironically, is identical to that of the Chuck Wagon Gang’s 1935 country gospel song “He Set Me Free.” Melodies back then — like now — were fluid vehicles to be liberally borrowed from. Williams — who granted virtually no interviews in his life — never talked about the circumstances of writing that song. But his mother, Lillian, after his death, said the idea stemmed from an evening early in his career. She explained, “We was drivin’ back from doin’ a show in Georgiana [Alabama], and I was drivin’ and Hank had his head in my lap, and he said, ‘Oh, Mamma, I’m tired, so tired, but I know we’re almost home because I saw the light.’” The light he mentioned was from the beacon at the airport.

Toward the end of his life, Williams was so drunk or drugged one night in San Diego that he stumbled off stage after finishing only two songs in the first show of a two-show evening gig. Minnie Pearl and the show promoter’s wife drove him around town to try to sober him up enough to do the second show. They tried to get him to sing along with them to revive him. He sang only one verse of “I Saw the Light” before stopping. “Minnie,” Williams said, “I don’t see no light. There ain’t no light.”

After Williams died on his way to a Dec. 31, 1952, concert in Charleston, W.Va., and a New Years’ Day show on Jan. 1, 1953, in Canton, Ohio, his Drifting Cowboys band went ahead and did the show at the Canton Memorial Auditorium. To open the show, a spotlight was shone on the curtain after the crowd was told that Hank Williams had died. His band, assembled unseen behind the curtain, sang “I Saw the Light.”

Hank’s funeral was held on Jan. 4 at Montgomery’s Municipal Auditorium, where the crowd was so great that loudspeakers had to be set up outside for the overflow crowd out on the street. More than 20,000 people attended. In the service, Roy Acuff sang “I Saw the Light” over Hank’s body lying in its casket. He was joined by Bill Monroe, Little Jimmie Dickens, Carl Smith, Red Foley, Eddie Hill, Lew Childre and Webb Pierce. Dickens began weeping and was inconsolable. “I Saw the Light” was Hank Williams’ ultimate show-closer.

You can go and gaze today upon Williams’ huge tombstone in the Oakwood Cemetery Annex in Montgomery, Ala. Carved across the front of that big white marble monolith are a giant sunbeam bursting through clouds and the words “Praise the Lord, I Saw the Light.”