Tower of song

  • 18 March 2005
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Eoin Butler browses the CD stores for cut-price bargains and discovers that great legends like Hank Williams will continue to sell records

This year does not mark the 50th anniversary of the lonesome death of Hank Williams. That came over two years ago, on New Year's Day 2003. Nor is this the centenary of his birth – that milestone won't be celebrated until 17 September 2023. The reason I mention this is because a glossy, overpriced new compilation of the hellraising country legend's greatest hits is not in stores now. And it doesn't include underwhelming "new" tracks, or feature inane liner-notes penned by the director of some over-hyped film about his life.

But that's exactly why right now is the perfect time to become acquainted with his legacy. He is the country music's greatest exponent and a seminal figure in the history of popular music. Yet, several collections of his finest tracks currently retail in shops for as little as four or five euro. A more diligent journalist could probably explain exactly why it is that classic albums in general are often available so cheaply. I suspect it's because record companies know these CDs will continue to sell steadily well into the future and can therefore manufacture them in greater quantities at lesser risk. Whatever the reason, the fact is that there are great bargains to be had in every record shop in Ireland, and the back catalogue of Hank Williams is a better place to start than most.

Hank Williams grew up in Alabama during the Depression and was taught to play the blues by a black street musician named Rufus (Tee Tot) Payne, often shining shoes or selling newspapers to raise the 15 cents for each lesson. He was a natural though, and by 18 he had secured a regular spot playing what was then known as "hillbilly music"–- basically white blues – on a radio station in Montgomery. Most of the source material for his songs came from his own troubled life, especially his tumultuous marriage to Audrey Mae Sheppard. ("I don't know if it was his drinking that caused her to nag or her nagging that caused him to drink," recalled Drifting Cowboy Don Helms recently. "Either way they just couldn't get along.")

In one of his occasional patronising tributes to the inhabitants of Middle America, Kevin Myers wrote that you usually cannot fit a razorblade between what they say and what they mean. Nowhere is that trait better exemplified than in the songs of Hank Williams. Hank tended not to equivocate. His songs had titles like 'My Son Calls Another Man Daddy', 'You're Gonna Change (Or I'm Gonna Leave)' and 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry'. Half a century before the appearance of reality TV, he was on television pouring his heart out about his real life pain in terms that even the least sophisticated member of his audience could understand.

This might at first make the songs sound unduly straightforward to the modern listener. But listen again and you may recognise that he was an artist possessed of a delicacy of touch matched by few before or since. In Chronicles, Bob Dylan wrote that Williams' songs contain "the archetype rules of poetic songwriting. Even his words – all of his syllables are divided up so they make perfect mathematical sense. You can learn a lot about the structure of songwriting by listening to his records."

Leonard Cohen too, famously placed him "a hundred floors above me in the tower of song". And when, in the 1990s, artists like Wilco, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and Lambchop attempted to reclaim country's soul from the increasingly bland Nashville establishment they did so in the name of Hank Williams.

The writer Rick Bragg, speaking on a recent BBC documentary, probably put it best. Hank's songs were dark, he conceded, "but instead of making you sad, it was the opposite. It was as though he pounded out all that agony and all that grief and that sadness thin enough to where you could stand it. That was his gift."