Friday, October 25, 2019

Hank Williams The Biography by Colin Escott

Co-written with George Merritt and William MacEwen, Escott does his best to present a thorough bio of one of country's biggest stars. Of course, the early days are always the toughest when it comes to poor folks born in the "old days" (1923 in Hank's case) where there weren't always the best record keeping and you had to rely on people's fading memories. With health issues, an absentee father, a domineering mother and an early start at a drinking problem that would eventually be his demise, Williams was not one who most people would bet on becoming a star. In fact, he had difficulties keeping musicians in his band as most of them looked down on his music, thinking it was too simple and too hillbilly - which is exactly what most people liked, and still like, about it.

But Hank drew crowds and garnered radio shows almost from the star of his career, even though the career had starts'n'stops due to his drinking and his bad luck. When he finally did start record in 1947, the records were hits, even with inferior recording'n' pressing quality. No one in "the biz" could understand why - not the record company, the promoters, the radio stations or his sidemen, but the people knew and his fame continued to grow. Even when he did eventually sign with a new major record company - MGM Records, a division of the film mogul - the producers continued to misunderstand his audience and brought in studio musicians who did not comprehend his style and tried to change and urbanize it. It was only when Hank's work stood on its own, with (more or less) Hank's direction and his band's simple backing, that the hits really started coming.

One of my favorite parts of the book is that Escott details the recording sessions with who played on what songs and who was producing, as well as where the songs originated (covers, something that Hank wrote or co-wrote, or something that Hank bought), giving a better insight to Hank's work and how much was him (the best work) and how much was someone else.

Of course, with his hits came fame, a spot on the Grand Ol' Opry, and big crowds. But, with chronic pain issues, relationship problems, increased show commitments and the need to continually come up with more hits, the pressure grew as did his drinking and eventual prescription drug use. His inconsistency - he often could not play shows at all due to his inebriated state - led to he expulsion from the Opry and smaller shows. When he did finally succumb, in the back seat of his car on the way to a show, he left behind 2 wives, a pregnant girlfriend, a quarreling family and several recently recorded songs that would eventually become his best known work and biggest hits.

It's a sad tale of wasted talent, but it is well told and nicely detailed, giving more than one point of view when memories conflict, and not really siding with any one person - although Escott's opinion of Hank's first wife, Audrey, and her questionable talent is pretty scathing. BUt, overall, well done and a fascinating read.