(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
I sense a bit of a Hank Williams resurgence ahead. He’s never really gone out of style since he died 55 years ago from a fatal highball of drugs and alcohol. What Roy Acuff termed as Hank’s “timely death” at age 29 has made him country music’s forever tragically-doomed poet, the Baudelaire of rural Alabama. A romantic legend from the land of piney woods and red dirt.
Even when his records quit selling and his record label was messing up his recordings by layering strings and other glop all over them, the beauty of the songs remained undimmed. And he’s still a shining beacon for country songwriters. For the ones who really want to be good and not just successful, that is.
One of the best tributes I’ve read about Hank is in a current magazine. You should check out the April issue of Road & Track. Peter Egan, one of the best writers laboring for magazines these days, is a musician himself and decided to take on the odyssey of recreating Hank’s last and fatal drive. Egan was not a lifelong Hank or country fan. Like me and many other country music devotees, he grew up loving rock ’n’ roll and hating country. It wasn’t until maturity brought him some perspective and sense that he began listening to the music of his heritage and grew to love Hank Williams.
For his pilgrimage, he bought and restored over two years, at considerable effort and expense, a 1953 Cadillac Fleetwood and had it painted the same powder egg blue as Hank’s 1952 Caddy convertible. For his journey, he packed it with supplies, including a large supply of Jim Beam, because, as Egan wrote, “This was not a Pat Boone memorial tour.”
Then he and a friend set out from Egan’s Wisconsin home to begin the attempt to retrace Hank’s 800-mile drive from Montgomery, Ala., to Oak Hill, W.Va. Hank was trying to make it to a New Year’s show in Canton, Ohio, but expired in his Cadillac’s backseat well short of his destination.
Egan does a good job of recreating the Hank era on the road. A lovely picture accompanying this article shows the restored Caddy next to Hank’s gravesite in Montgomery. In researching this article, part one of two, one of the things Egan learned, that I hadn’t known, was that Hank had bought his Cadillac used and paid $5,202 — which was more than the original buyer had paid new, only $5083.95. Some things don’t change. Never trust a used-car salesman.
I hear that part two of Egan’s odyssey will include some new revelations about Hank’s last days. Stay posted. Oh. One more thing. A 1953 Caddy Fleetwood V-8? Gets 13.7 miles per gallon on the highway.
Other signs of renewed Hank interest include a new Country Music Hall of Fame exhibit, a major release of previously unreleased Hank radio broadcasts and a revived interest in Hank tours.
The Country Music Hall of Fame is opening a new exhibit devoted to the extended Hank Williams family on March 28. I just got a long preview tour, and it is an extraordinary presentation indeed. Look for more coverage on that soon at CMT.com.
A new series of two- and three-day Hank Williams tours visit his birthplace, his childhood home, his church, the gravesite, museums, his Montgomery and his Nashville.
One of Hank Williams’ almost-hidden legacies over the years has been the lost radio shows he did known as the “Mother’s Best” programs, named after the sponsoring flour company. The broadcasts, on Nashville’s WSM in the early morning hours in 1951, were recorded only on flimsy discs, and those were later thrown out as garbage by the radio station. Fortunately, they were retrieved from the trash cans and have languished in Nashville for a number of years. One attempt was made to release them with added instrumental tracks — now recognized as heresy, then regarded as “sweetening.” Fortunately, that effort failed. One record label tried to release them and lost a legal challenge.
Now a deal has been struck to issue a series of “Mother’s Best” CDs, with a total of 143 songs. I have heard a number of those early recordings, and they are remarkable, indeed. It’s just Hank and his road band gathered around the early morning microphone on 15-minute radio shows, with an occasional appearance from Audrey Williams, and Hank breaking to read commercials for cornbread and the like. Those were humdrum in their day, but to hear them now is electrifying in the sense that they give you the significance of real everyday life as conveyed by homegrown music and food, as opposed to MP3s and YouTube and fast food. You pick what you want.