Whiskey-bent and hell-bound

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

But if Williams didn't steal, he borrowed awful liberal. His first big hit, "Lovesick Blues," landed poor Fred Rose in a lawsuit. Williams told Rose the song was his. Actually, it was written a year before he was born. Williams would occasionally buy songs from other writers, and would freely lift song titles from lists of upcoming releases. More often, he would "borrow" a melody out of the public domain and write new words to it. (Woody Guthrie was famous for doing the same thing.)

While critics have commented on how much Bill Haley's version of "Rock Around the Clock" owes to Williams' melody for "Move It on Over," the country star lifted that melody straight out of the public domain. He liked it so much, in fact, that he even borrowed it from himself for another hit, "Mind Your Own Business." Such indiscretions are more than a minor point. Nonetheless, if someone were to remove systematically from Williams' catalog all of the songs that borrow or steal from others, the remaining work would still be monumental.

Of all the great Hank Williams drinking stories--and there are hundreds of them--the best one is this: Even in his last years, when his life had spun out of control, even after he had drunk himself off the Grand Ole Opry and had missed as many concerts as he'd made, he didn't miss a single recording session. Not one.

An astonishing number of his songs, including "Your Cheatin' Heart," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Hey, Good Lookin'," "Cold, Cold Heart," "I Saw the Light," "Move It on Over," and "Jambalaya (on the Bayou)," distill the pain and joy of life in a way that no songwriter, not even Dylan, has been able to surpass. This is Hank Williams' lasting legacy. He was the greatest proponent of the idea that, to some people, popular music meant more than a bouncy melody and "moon / June" sentimentality. To them it was literature, a way by which they understood themselves and the world around them. "A song ain't nothin' in the world but a story just wrote with music to it," he once said.

Of all the many contradictions that made up his turbulent career, the ultimate contradiction is that somehow, throughout an undignified life, Hank Williams brought dignity to so-called "hillbilly music." It is a dignity that has been conferred on his fans, the farm boys and girls who, like him, left their homes out on the rural route and found nothing but a lost highway.

It's almost impossible to look at the hard men in fading postwar family photographs, the coal miners, the shipbuilders, the lumber-mill workers, the drifters, and the honky-tonkers, without a measure of respect. Hank Williams spoke to them, and now he speaks for them. His words are their lives.

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