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Hank Williams: Lost Highway -- an interesting look at a musical icon

Mike Sudhalter  |  August 15, 2011

"Hank Williams: Lost Highway" tells the story about the triumphs and struggles of country's first modern superstar

Two months ago, I attended the CMA Music Festival in Nashville and met some of the leaders of the Hank Williams Sr. Fan Club.

Yes, the country music icon who's been deceased for 58+ years still has a vibrant fan club that puts on a festival each year in Alabama.

Contemporary country singers regularly reference his name/legend in their songs.

So, it's no surprise that people - young and old - packed the Stages Repertory Theatre, near downtown Houston, to watch the production of "Hank Williams: Lost Highway," which runs through Sept. 4.

While the play doesn't explain all of the complexities of Williams' rise and fall, it's quite entertaining. For those interested in Williams' life, I recommend reading his biography by Colin Escott.

The production immediately emphasized Williams' Blues influences, through a street musician, named Tee-Tot, that he befriended in the late 1930's.

Tee-Tot, played by Wayne DeHart, did an excellent job in the play, and the scene in which he explains how to sing the Blues to Williams seemed very similar to what could have been a real conversation between the two.

And a big part of Williams' hits like "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Long Gone Lonesome Blues."

And Gospel Music was a big part of Williams' life, as evidenced in the production, by the influence of his mother (Mama Lilly), who was played by Margaret Bowman in the play. She had a bunch of very funny one-liners in the play, as did two of his Drifting Cowboys (Burrhead - Brian Gunter, Shag-Herb Remington).

A turning point for Williams was his courtship and eventual marriage to Audrey (played by Katie Barton). There was a big rivalry between Audrey and Mama Lilly, and to a lesser extent, between Audrey and Williams' band members.

Sure, the play portrays Audrey as a self-centered egotist with an inflated opinion of her musical talents.

This caused problems for Williams, who seemed like he wanted his wife and manager Fred Rose, both to be happy.

These arguments, according to the play, created difficulty in the marriage. And that coupled with Hank's chronic back problems and rural upbringing supposedly caused him to drink and take pills.

But this was a musical, and a good one at that - so deep analysis of Williams' struggles were not addressed. And for the sake of entertainment value, that's a good thing.

While he was alive, the country music establishment viewed him as a talented, yet unreliable singer because of his substance abuse problems.

After his passing, he was lionized. And based on his musical catalog, rightly so.

Williams' music has and will stand the test of time. Hearing him sing "Hey, Good Lookin'", "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "I Saw The Light" during the musical was excellent and actor Ben Hope - an aspiring country singer in his own right, did a respectable job portraying a music legend (no easy task, by the way).

Even though he wasn't a rock star, Hank was the first of the celebrated rock stars to die young (age 29), due to substance abuse and an out-of-control lifestyle.

The play's portrayal of his downfall was likely accurate, but disturbing nonetheless. He pushed away his friends, family and everyone that cared about him with his reckless behavior.

Watching the production raised several questions in my mind...

Would Williams have undergone the same problems had he never left South Alabama? If he'd never met/married Audrey? If he hadn't achieved such fame?

Perhaps he would have suffered the same fate and the world would never have known about it.

Or maybe he would have gone on to live a happy life, with family and friends.

I've never been famous, but achieving unimaginable success seems like a pretty good problem to have, especially compared to other struggles one may face in life.

Every one of us has our set of problems/challenges to overcome. It's sad to see that Williams didn't address and deal with those problems, rather than resorting to substance abuse.

Williams' premature death also raises questions about what kind of impact he would have had for country music.

After he died, there weren't any other country stars of his stature. And Rock N' Roll soon came along to steal Country's thunder.

Would Williams have caught the Rock N' Roll bug? It's not that far-fetched considering the rockabilly influence on some of his songs.

Or would he have taken country music to unprecedented levels of success? Just think, we could have heard him sing with his son and grandson, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, George Strait, Garth Brooks and any number of country stars.

What would Hank Jr's musical timeline have looked like? Bocephus was just 3 years old when his father passed away, and his overbearing mother, Audrey, had dollar signs in her eyes, so she had her son dress and sing just like his legendary father from his toddler years through young adulthood.

That almost certainly wouldn't have happened if Williams had stayed alive.

If Williams were alive today, he'd be turning 88 years old on Sept. 17.

I'll spend that day celebrating his music - whether it be listening to a greatest hits compilation or a Luke The Drifter album (his Gospel/Spoken Word alter ego), and I'll also say a prayer for any musical artists headed down a similar personal path, so that they can count their blessings, turn their life around and avoid the tragedy that Williams did.

:: Posted at 1:27 AM by Mike Sudhalter ::
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