Whiskey-bent and hell-bound

With a monumental new boxed set, Hank Williams gets out of this world alive

However, as Fred Rose always insisted, and The Complete Hank Williams proves, Williams was the primary architect of his own career. He walked into the studio knowing exactly what he wanted, and even his very first record, a gospel number titled "Calling You," has his trademark sound almost entirely in place. His first recording session for a major label, MGM, yielded two of his greatest songs, "I Saw the Light" and the seminal, proto-rock and roll "Move It on Over."

The formula was simple. A lap steel played counterpoint to Williams' vocals. A bass, an acoustic rhythm guitar--which Williams played in concert but didn't mike in the studio--and a lead guitar that kept a slap rhythm in place of a snare drum drove the songs. Fiddle and electric guitar provided occasional fills. The songs themselves were set almost entirely in major keys ("Kaw-Liga," with its explosive minor-to-major construction being the most famous exception), with three or four chords the standard. Williams rarely wrote bridges for his songs and had to be constantly encouraged to do so by Rose.

Early on, Rose tried to get Hank to take a more "uptown," jazzy approach, but Williams' instincts told him better. A huge migration was under way in postwar America as hundreds of thousands of men and women left the family farms for the city factories and mills. Farm boys who had seen France and the Philippines were not inspired to resume plowing the same dirt their daddies had turned.

But even as the northern cities filled, Hank Williams understood what Fred Rose didn't. As the saying goes, you can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy. The new city slickers were more inclined than ever to buy and listen to music that reminded them of home.

Blessed from the start with infinite confidence and low cunning, Williams turned every disadvantage to his favor. He was born with spina bifida occulta, a disease that curved his spine and would eventually cause him to turn to the pain medication that helped kill him. Instead of apologizing for his infirmity or trying to disguise it, in concert Williams would lower the microphone and accentuate his hunch, leering and lewdly rocking his hips and legs back and forth as he sang. (A young Elvis Presley, who joined The Louisiana Hayride when Williams was its biggest star, could not have failed to notice the reaction this display produced among the women in the audience.)

Williams' sex appeal lay in the contrast between his appearance and the outrageous hyperbole of his songs. Though the piety of the times required a pass at respectability, both sexes knew that to promise a woman the moon was exactly the same as promising her nothing. Almost any audience could decipher the suggestive lyrics of "Baby, We're Really in Love": "If you're thinking of me like I'm thinking of you / Then I know what you're thinking of."

Each volume of the 10-CD box shows that Williams' music, for all its traditionalism, was very much the work of a young man. The lows are bottom-of-the-bottle low. The highs are giddy, lick-the-moon high. Every song, in every hue, is utterly self-centered. No fewer than 28 songs contain the word "I" in the title. "Like a piece of driftwood on the sea / May you never be alone like me," he sang in "May You Never Be Alone," and though the song is as bleak as anything Williams ever recorded, it's hard not to laugh when it's followed up by "I Won't Be Home No More," "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive," "I've Been Down That Road Before," and so on.

Unlike other masters of this confessional style, such as Merle Haggard, Williams wasn't personalizing universal sorrows. He was singing about Hank Williams.

It's also striking how well Williams avoided the classic country cliches. He rarely sang about prisons, getting drunk, or his mama, although he did love a good train song. And even though he sang about the poverty of the South, he didn't waste sentiment on the simple joys of hillbilly life or the virtue of a hard day's work, or any of the other patronizing, family-values themes that dominate country music today. As the comprehensive liner notes in the Mercury set point out, whatever cliches we now hear in Hank Williams songs are cliches because of his songs.

The best of his work captures the torture of heartbreak, but it's not of the morose, my-baby-done-left-me variety. The breakup in songs such as "Cold, Cold Heart" and "You're Gonna Change (or I'm Gonna Leave)" is always just around the corner, and the pain and immediacy of life at the edge of disaster make his music at once intimate and intuitive. This feeling came from hard experience: Audrey scrapped with Williams--verbally and physically--until the last year of his life, when she threw him out after he allegedly shot at her.

For all his genius, Hank Williams had an uneasy relationship with the truth. The Young Fresh Fellows once sang that Williams "stole all he knew / From a black man who / Spent his life on the corner / Shining white men's shoes." Which isn't exactly true. Escott's biography points out that Williams was almost unique among Southern white artists of his time. He not only acknowledged his debt to black music, but he often told the story of how he had to beg and pester his mentor, street musician Rufus Payne, to teach him to play the easy-rockin' rhythm guitar that would evolve into his own honky-tonk. It was Williams, not Payne, who shined white men's shoes, just to get enough money together for another lesson.

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