VOCAL HEROES / It really was him: In the first of a new series Nick Kimberley profiles the understated energy of Hank Williams

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The Independent Culture
DEATHS don't come more sordid than Hank Williams': full of booze, or drugs, or both, he passed out in the back of a Cadillac on his way to give a show. A cop pulled the car over at some point. Looking at the figure slumped in the rear, he said: 'That guy looks dead.' The driver replied that he was sleeping. Perhaps at that moment he was, but before the car reached its destination, he was definitely dead. It was New Year's Day 1953, and Hank Williams was 29 years old.

About 10 years ago, playwright Maynard Collins fashioned a play out of the performance Williams might have given had he arrived that New Year's Day. I saw Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave at the King's Head in Islington, North London. The man in the lead role bore little resemblance to Williams, but he made a good job of sounding like him. Or so I thought. Not everyone agreed. Within moments of 'Hank' staggering on, mumbling to the audience and starting to sing, a woman behind me leapt to her feet, screamed out an anguished 'It's not him] It's not him]' and fought her way to the exit.

It could have been part of the show, but I don't think it was. Like someone dragging their nails down a blackboard, it focused everyone's attention, supplementing the play's nervy morbidity. And it said something about country music's relationship with its past, and with Hank Williams. Williams has become a touchstone of country authenticity, as evidenced by songs like 'Hank Williams You Wrote My Life' and 'Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?' Singers eager to parade their resistance to strings 'n' things Nashville Modern will record a Hank Williams song, even though there will always be someone to shout 'It's not him] It's not him]' In a recording career lasting less than six years, Hank Williams reshaped country music. No one ever did it better: he is the voice of country. But what is that voice?

Among the recordings included in the anthology Hank Williams: The Original Singles Collection Plus (Polydor) is a previously unissued demo, 'I'm Not Coming Home Anymore', recorded in Griffin's Radio Shop, Montgomery, Alabama, in 1942. Hank, 18 years old, was already a seasoned performer. The acetate is in terrible condition, and at first it's difficult to make out the voice. As the ear accustoms itself, Hank Williams emerges: this really is him. The rhythm is faltering one moment, over-emphatic the next; the band is barely audible; but the voice itself is electrifying.

To a hymn-like tune, the teenager sings of marriage, parenthood and a woman's wicked ways: 'Then you went astray - I'll never forget that day.' The lyric has a conversational ease, accentuated rather than diminished by the repeated archaism 'o'er', to make the rhyme with 'more'. There is the barest hint of a break in the voice, the 'teardrop' that characterises country music. For the most part the voice sticks at the middle of its range, occasionally drifting up to a nasal head tone. The vocal breadth is minimal, that very understatement increasing the emotional charge generated by the elongated syllables that pepper Hank's delivery.

What is astonishing is the maturity of the voice. If we didn't know this was a teenager, we'd assume it was a hard-living, hard-loving, middle-aged man. There's a photo of an even younger Hank Williams playing the guitar on the streets of Montgomery in the 1930s. At first, yes, he looks boyish; but the intent, staring eyes, almost hidden behind thick glasses, the sunken cheeks, the bitter set of thin, hard lips - these belong to a man three or four times Hank's age. Country has never set much store by youth, and Hank Williams seemed determined to leave his youth behind as quickly as possible.

So much so that it seems surprising that he lived as long as he did, not because of drink, drugs and women, although they left their mark; but because this is a voice that seems to welcome the grave. 'I'm not coming home anymore' is a classic American theme, repeatedly echoed in Williams' later recordings: 'I Don't Care If Tomorrow Never Comes', 'Six More Miles To The Graveyard', 'I Just Don't Like This Kind Of Living'. Millenarian zeal mingles with defiance, reminding us of country's dirt- poor roots in the fundamentalist Southern church.

Williams' debt to church music was most apparent in the series of spoken homilies - sermons - which he recorded under the pseudonym of Luke the Drifter. None of these is included on The Original Singles Collection, yet they are essential to his music. They can be uncomfortable to listen to, but in their own terms they are moving testaments. 'The Funeral', recorded in 1950, might seem Klannish in its awe of black culture, but the black gospel group, the Staple Singers, saw fit to record it in the militant 1960s, so it should not be dismissed out of hand.

The track opens with the kind of tuneful musing at an organ used to usher congregations into church, and sure enough Hank recounts how, walking past a church in Savannah, his attention was caught and he found himself 'embyred in a little coloured pew - on the altar was a casket and in the casket was a child. I could picture him while living, curly hair and protruding lips.' Then 'rose a sad old preacher . . . with a manner sorta awkward and countenance grotesque. The simplicity and shrewdness in his Ethiopian face showed the wisdom and ignorance of a crushed, undying race.' In an even drawl, somewhere between a country radio DJ and a Southern preacher before the hellfire starts to burn, Hank goes on to recreate a sermon about God's right to take away the ones we love.

It would be easy to deride this as white supremacist nonsense, but it's more than that: it's also an expression of a longed-for affinity with this 'crushed, undying race', an attempt to understand an alien experience. Country music and blues co-existed for decades; black and white church music shared common idioms, as demonstrated by the Staple Singers' recording of 'The Funeral', cut in a Chicago church in the midst of the 1960s civil rights fervour. True, Roebuck Staple makes no mention of 'protruding lips', and he garbles 'countenance grotesque' so that it emerges as something like 'continence quoquest'. Still, 'The Funeral' spoke to his congregation as it had to Hank Williams' audience.

Williams credited a black street musician known as Tee-Tot with teaching him the musical rudiments. He also said: 'You got to have smelt a lot of mule manure before you can sing like a hillbilly.' The power of his voice derives from its ability to weld 'hillbilly' and 'black'. 'Ramblin' Man', recorded in 1950, reveals how deeply imbued with black style his music was. Here the steel guitar has the intensity of Mississippi bottleneck blues; while Hank's strangled yodel sits unsettlingly but justly between black and white. The vibrato is unblushingly exaggerated, drifting easily between chest and head tones, with plentiful falsetto and not a little nasal underlining. Within a vocal range that is, in bel canto terms, severely limited, Williams nails down the emotions by means of a virtuoso control of whatever device is necessary - bent notes, melismas, syllables protracted on single, flattened notes.

Much of this was archaic even in Williams' day, but much of what he did looked forward to rockabilly and beyond. There can be no doubt that Bob Dylan picked up a trick or two from 'Alone And Forsaken', a private recording issued after Williams' death. There is an almost medieval simplicity to this hymn of solitude and abandonment: 'Each vow was a plaything that she threw away.' The churchy vibrato is kept to a minimum, the martial guitar is rudimentary but precise, and the lyric achieves an unaffected poetry that welcomes sentiment. Vocal gesture has been stripped back to the barest minimum. Only when the chorus comes round does Williams allow the emotion to bubble to the surface: 'Alone and forsaken by fate and by man, oh Lord if you hear me, please hold my hand.' There is a clenched-teeth bitterness here that is frightening in its intensity. As the voice fades at the end of each line, or allows the merest hint of a break in the delivery of 'Oh Lord', or bears down hard at 'Alone and forsaken', we hear a singer capable of transforming the common coinage of 'hillbilly' music into the finest vocal art. The woman screaming 'It's not him] It's not him]' may have missed the point of the play, but she grasped something essential about Hank Williams' deeply personal music.

Next week, Giles Smith on his vocal hero, Ella Fitzgerald

(Photograph omitted)