My All-Timers: 42. Hank Williams — 40 Greatest Hits
The hackiest thing a person can say about music is, “I like pretty much everything…except for rap and country.” You usually get white people saying this, and we know why they’re distancing themselves from rap (for much bigger reasons than we have time for in a blog about Hank Williams). But why are white people so quick to slam country, one of the whitest genres ever created? My best guess is that they’re reflecting the last 20 years or so of country, which has seen the genre go from easy-listening pop to a horrifying Frankenstein-like monstrosity of aggro bro-culture, hip-hop and a dash of country’s worst roots. Most people of decent moral stature hear that stuff and run screaming, so I get it.
The current health of country music would be improved greatly if we all looked to the past for guidance. Anyone who says they don’t like country should be able to look to the past and find something that moves them. That something should be the gift that was Hank Williams.
40 Greatest Hits collects material written between 1947 and 1953, the year of Hank’s untimely death. Think about how long ago that was. This is just two years after World War II, when popular music was still lightweight fluff, all jazz bands and Perry Como ballads and everything that wasn’t cool. Pop didn’t really have a message or a statement back then, nor did it truly touch elements of the human experience in anything beyond a superficial way. This is why it’s so shocking to hear these Hank Williams songs that ring so emotionally true today, and remember that in their era they stuck out like a sore thumb.
Even over the long running time of 40 songs, there is not one moment when Hank’s abilities become rote. His voice stuns you on every song. He could be singing in a lower register or sending his voice to a comically high place — either way, it’s almost unbelievable what he could do. Performers like him last through the ages for a good reason: they were wizards, and wizards don’t come along that often.
For the lighter side of Hank Williams, look no further than this record’s opening track, “Move It On Over.” Galloping along with an insistent rhythm that makes room for fiddle and steel guitar, this is Hank at his silliest and self-deprecating: his woman has changed the locks and kicked him out of the house, so he has to go sleep in the actual doghouse with the actual dog. “Move over, skinny dog, ’cause the fat dog’s movin’ in.” The backing group vocals make this song an instant earworm because you can sing along with it the very second you hear it. I suspect that if played loud enough, this song could still get any dance floor whipped into a good time.
On the other side, Hank perhaps better fits into the Sad Cowboy persona that was used by countless others after him. When he really tried, he could infuse his voice with a sadness that still stops you in your tracks and makes you consider the fragility of life. My very favorite song on this record is “Wedding Bells,” almost written like a letter in response to receiving a wedding invitation, only it’s written by the ex-boyfriend of the woman getting married:
“I planned a little cottage in the valley. I even bought a little band of gold. I thought someday I’d place it on your finger. But now the future looks so dark and cold.”
YIKES. That last line is like the feeling when your stomach is plummeting to the floor as you get the worst news of your life. And the crushing sadness of these lyrics are set against what passes for “somber” in Hank’s book, which is a beautiful backdrop of more gently strummed honky tonk. It’s such a tremendous song that I started covering it a few years back when I did some solo acoustic sets. My friend Ace came to see me play, just a few days after he and his long-term girlfriend had broken up. He informed me of this after the set, after he had seen me play a song about a heartbroken guy who will never find the love of his life. I honestly felt awful about it, but I think the song had to have helped Ace in a certain way — he wasn’t alone in his heartbreak (plus, Ace is getting married next month so no worries).
It also needs to be said that these songs would not be nearly as fun to listen to if not for Hank’s backing band. For a good amount of this record he is backed by the Drifting Cowboys, the band he started back in 1938 when he was 15. The slide guitar and fiddle lend it that unmistakable country sound, and they do such a phenomenal job of implanting the melodies right into your skull, but the nimble guitar playing really sells it for me. Listen to that lightning-quick solo on “Move It On Over” — played through a distortion pedal it would almost be the work of a Kirk Hammett.
Maybe it’s not best to listen to all 40 songs in a row, but a good idea would be to spread the listening out over an entire day. A sunny day where you can sit outside and blare Hank while sipping the beverage of your choice. Or maybe a rainy day where the sadness of the universe resonates in ways it usually grates. Or also maybe a snowy day where you’re stuck inside and you need a warm reminder of the imperfect but pastoral southern part of our country.
Oh wait, I just described almost every type of day there can be. So I guess Hank Williams is perfect all the time. That sounds about right.