A few years back, when asked by singer David Allen Coe to write the perfect country song, songwriter Steve Goodman wrote a couple of catchy verses. They were added to Coe’s hit “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” that attests to the importance of a broken heart, getting drunk, going to prison, mama, pickup trucks and trains. These are supposed to all be necessary ingredients of any successful country song. There is another kind of country music though that touches my soul like God’s finger reaching down to touch Adam’s on that ceiling in Italy.
Born in the twenties and raised through the Great Depression in south central Alabama little Hank Williams was poor as dirt and beset with what was only known at the time as a chronic spinal condition (probably spina bifida) that would torture him mentally and physically all his short life. His father died when he was seven. There was no reason for this guy to be anything but mean and pissed off: no hope, no peace, no education, no health and very little food on the table. Instead, he learned the blues and gospel from rural folks both black and white. The music sustained him. He combined those music forms with the country music of the day to produce a sound that was unique for his time. Unlike many he remained true to his musical roots until his death. The guitar fit him like those favorite blue jeans that make your butt look good.
I could spend time describing his tragic life to you. It would read pretty much like that country song I mentioned before. It was basically a train wreck. The thing is that out of that wreck sprung an American poet. He wrote many songs; even some hymns. I believe that from the throes of his alcoholic pain oozed the raw truth that punches us in the gut so that we remember the ache every time we think about it.
In one song he asked if we can hear life … “Can you hear that lonesome whippoorwill? It sounds too blue to fly.” He saw hope in a vision … “The silence of a falling star lights up a purple sky.” He painted loneliness with the brush of his heart …”and as I wonder where you are, I’m so lonesome I could cry.”
At first blush, you figure he’s talking about a woman. Then you have to wonder; maybe it’s God he’s looking for, as he howls at the moon in his high-pitched tenor wail.
When I hear Hank Williams cry his lament laced with feeble hope my eyes never fail to well up. My gut tightens. The top of my ears tingle and the hair stands up on the back of my neck. His yearning lays heavy on my soul.
I can see him now flying down a lonely country road in the back of a huge old 50s Cadillac just like in the movie “Your Cheatin’ Heart”. Mom, Dad and I saw it at the Monroe Drive In Theatre out on Hwy 74 when I was a kid. He’s drunk and strumming that old guitar and he knows he’s committing suicide on the time payment plan.
He also knows that he loves God but his demons are winning. He can still tell us though who he is and what his dreams are made of. He can still believe that somewhere in his loneliness a “whippoorwill sings … a falling star brings light” … and a poor country boy can share his poetic genius as true as any man. He can cry out in his pain and the world can hear him clearly.
I’m no expert on music or art. All I know is that when I can see inside an artist by experiencing his work I am closer to what God meant for us to be. When someone can show us his or her soul then we all walk on hallowed ground. It’s a shame country music has such a tawdry and simplistic reputation because at its best it can be as powerful a gift as any art form that has ever existed. If you get a chance … one day when you’re not too busy and no one is around … maybe “google” or “You Tube” ole Hank and take a listen. ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is the title. Maybe … just maybe you’ll come away with a little different perspective.
I’ll close with a line composed from the heart of a simple backwoods troubadour they called Hank … “Did you ever see a robin weep, when the leaves begin to die? That means he’s lost the will to live. I’m so lonesome I could cry.”
Strikes me as living proof that “simple” doesn’t always make “dumb”.