Following is an excerpt from the epilogue of Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams by Paul Hemphill.
Daddy and I never got to see him in person. The closest we got was on my first trip to the Opry, at the age of sixteen, when we found ourselves among the families milling on the sidewalk out front of the Ryman late on a steamy Saturday afternoon in August of '52. Mama and Sis kept our places in line while Daddy and I mounted the steps to peek at the night's schedule of entertainers, posted on the huge double doors. Listed were the heroes of my youth -- Roy Acuff, Little Jimmy Dickens, Minnie Pearl, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb, Carl Smith -- but no Hank Williams. "Guess y'all didn't hear Hank got fired," some old boy told us. Say it ain't so, I thought. It was like finally making it to Yankee Stadium only to learn that Babe Ruth wouldn't play that day.
When we got the news that Hank had died, at the beginning of the new year some four months later, it was as though there had been a death in the family. It wasn't that we could personally relate to his lyrics -- Daddy was a one-woman man ("It's all I can do to keep up with your mama") and I hadn't yet had a real girlfriend -- but we, like any other southerners from the working class, could sense the pain and loneliness expressed in the simplest terms and certainly understood the language. While other boys my age were collecting baseball cards, I was buying every 45-r.p.m. recording Hank ever produced; and Daddy was intensifying his replications of Hank tunes on the piano back home. Music flowed from the open windows of our house, either me playing my Hank records or Daddy banging out "Your Cheatin' Heart" on his piano, and our neighbors later told me of sitting on their front porches, Hank fans or not, enjoying the free entertainment.
Like most Americans my age, I drifted away from the music when I went off to college in the fifties, forsaking Hank for Elvis and rock 'n' roll ("Forgot your raisin', didn't you?" Daddy put it), but I was soon back in the fold. Unhappily married, although for reasons entirely different from Hank's, I was suffering my first defeats and, consequently, when I reached my thirties, found myself being comforted by the sad-ass blues lyrics that Hank had been writing before I fully appreciated them. I had become a writer, as it happened, and in trying to find my voice I turned to two men who were minimalists, master of understated simplicity: Ernest Hemingway and Hank Williams. My first book was The Nashville Sound, the beginning of a portfolio that would be about southerners in various degrees of stress: stock-car drivers, lost girls, minor league ballplayers, drunks, bored teenagers in the Alabama boondocks. (While in Nashville, I asked Chet Atkins if he thought Audrey might talk to me. "You're a handsome young man, so I don't see why not," he said. "Just don't go over there alone and after dark. She's armed and dangerous.") By the late seventies I was a runaway husband and father, living in a dollar-a-day rooming house in Montgomery, only four blocks up the street from Lillie Williams's first boardinghouse on South Perry Street, drunk and suicidal and unable to write, falling apart every time I heard Hank's "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy." Forgotten my raising? Hell, no. I was living it to the hilt, background music provided by Hank Williams.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams by Paul Hemphill. Copyright (C) 2005 by Paul Hemphill.
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