NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Steve Earle Creates a New Hank Williams Myth

And Loudon Wainwright III Calls Up Funky Original Country-Folk Music

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

One of the joys of country music and its offshoots is being able to open up all the different doors and drawers and closets and hidden nooks of the music’s large, sprawling house and discovering treasures hidden away there.

These are usually gems that are or were not big commercial successes and perhaps did not have large country radio play. They were and are just about good music. I realize that’s a radical notion in many corners these days, but what the hell! What’s wrong with really good music?

The roaming troubadour and prolific writer Steve Earle has returned with a novel and an album, and I am terrifically interested in both. Earle has clearly been immersed in the Hank Williams legend and myth of late and has emerged with two new works — the CD due April 26 and the book May 12.

Both are titled after Williams’ last single release at the time of his death in 1953, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.” Earle, curiously, does not cover Hank’s original song here — although, as he writes in the liner notes, the songs are all about mortality in one form or another. The 11 new Earle compositions make it his first collection of original songs in four years. The strongest for me initially is “The Gulf of Mexico,” about the BP oil spill. And the defiant closing album song, “This City,” is about Hurricane Katrina and its lasting effects on New Orleans. Earle wrote “This City” for the HBO series Treme, in which he has worked as an actor. Allen Toussaint’s horn arrangements on the song give it a jaunty, Gulf Coast feel.

But it’s Earle’s new novel that I have been especially curious about. He’s been working on it off and on for years, trying to create a fictional work about one of the more fascinating characters in Hank’s orbit.

That would be Horace “Toby” Marshall (if that’s indeed his real name). He passed himself off as a doctor and was Hank’s chief provider of drugs. He disappeared after Hank’s death. When I was writing a biography of Hank, I tried long and hard to track him down, with no success.

In Earle’s book, he is Doc Ebersole. It is now 10 years after Hank’s death and Doc is a morphine addict, just scraping by in a rented room in San Antonio’s red light district. He makes his drug money by performing occasional abortions and patching up the occasional criminal who gets knifed or shot. It is a gritty tale, with Hank’s ghost as a principal character.

And speaking of Hank, it was wonderful to again hear Loudon Wainwright III’s song “Hank and Fred” on his new album. The lyrics about Hank and children’s TV show host Fred Rogers include the line, “I visited Hank Williams’ grave when Mr. Rogers died.”

If you don’t know who Loudon Wainwright III is, go back and listen to his accidental radio hit “Dead Skunk.” Then, check out his prodigious output since then. The Grammy-winning tribute to the great country music rebel and pioneer Charlie Poole that he recorded and released in 2009, High, Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project, was a very valuable musical contribution and reintroduced the world to a largely-forgotten artist (the world that was paying attention, that is). And it was a project I seriously doubt anyone in Nashville would have ever considered risking.

As he writes in his liner notes here, Wainwright identified with Poole for many reasons. They were both from North Carolina, they both loved to ramble around the country and drink and have a good time and get in trouble and write and sing risky songs, they both loved novelty songs and they both loved the women. Besides Loudon, I cannot think of another artist who has written so many songs so openly, so lyrically and beautifully and sadly and tragically about his own life. He’s been doing it for 40 years now, laying it all out there, and I love the man for it.

Now he’s finally the subject of a suitable retrospective. The four-CD, one-DVD boxed set is titled Loudon Wainwright III — 40 Odd Years and will be released on May 3. It rambles throughout his thus-far long career and recording and performing history. It includes 23 previously unreleased performances, and the DVD has more than three hours of performances. And, lest we forget, the guy has been a pretty good actor over the years.