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Lost Highway

Mike Sudhalter  |  May 26, 2008

I know the songs and the life story, by heart. Even so, I still get goosebumps every time I hear about Hank Williams, his legend and his music.

Sunday was no different, when I attended Hank Williams, Lost Highway at the Sierra Repertory Theatre's Historic Fallon House Theatre at the Columbia State Historic Park in beautiful Columbia, California.

The Fallon House was packed, and its quite apparent that there's a lot of interest in Williams' music, even 55.5 years after his tragic death on New Year's Day, 1953.

All of the actors were top-notch, and the show begins with an AM Radio announcement of Williams' death. Followed by a waitress, played by local actress Annie Brown, commenting on the large number of people who attended Williams' funeral in Montgomery, Ala.

We soon find out about two people who shaped Williams' development as a person and an artist. There's Rufus "Tee Tot" Payne, an African-American blues singer, who taught Williams how to sing and play guitar.

It was Payne, played by Clinton Derricks-Carroll, who showed Williams that you have to understand pain and heartache in order to sing about it. A lesson that many of today's country artists would be wise to learn. Williams' early efforts to learn at singing "Long Gone Lonesome Blues" are laughable, but Payne is right on, the whole way.

Alabama native Ben Hope does a great job of portraying Williams, but not as good as Jason Petty, who did a Hank Williams tribute show in Branson that I saw four years ago.

Local actress Sally McClellan plays Williams' mother, Lilly; the beginning of the musical shows his development both as a religious individual and a hellraiser. A paradox that would stay with Williams for the remainder of his 29 years.

The conflict between Lilly and Hank's wife, Audrey (played by Sarah Wintermeyer), were well-documented in the musical. It portrayed Audrey as overconfident and pushy. Who knows the validity of this? I remember watching the Johnny Cash biopic, "Walk The Lane", in which it portrays his first wife, Vivian, in a negative light. It seems like the famous legend always gets to write the history, and one has to wonder about the accuracy of it, or if we're getting the full story. That's especially true for an era of country music where legends like Cash and Williams were seen as untouchable by their fans.

But one thing for sure, was that Audrey's voice didn't belong on country radio.

The musical included 27 songs, with some reprises such as "I Saw The Light", which concluded the show with the entire cast singing it. What an uplifting song.

Among my other favorites were "Jambalaya (On The Bayou)", "Lovesick Blues", "Honky-Tonk Blues", "Your Cheatin' Heart" and too many others to name them all.

Hope sang all of Williams' hits with the Drifting Cowboys backing him up. The second act accurately showed Williams' decline due to a bad marriage, back pain and alcohol problems. I wonder if counseling and rehabilitation had been more prevalent in the 1950's, if Williams would have survived and successfully dealt with his problems? No one will ever know.

So much of his music was interwined with the heartache and painful experiences that he endured. There's no doubt that he's the Michael Jordan of Country Music: there may be those who come after him. Some may sell more records or have more No. 1 hits, but none will ever match his legend or country authenticity.

The musical did a good job of capturing that legend, so a packed house of Californians of all ages will hopefully walk away with a whole new appreciation for Williams.

And who knows? "If the Good Lord's Willin' and the Creeks Don't Rise" might become a catch-phrase around here, before long.

I'm thrilled to know that even more of Williams' material will soon be released to the public.

:: Posted at 8:45 PM by Mike Sudhalter ::
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