BOOKS: “Hank Williams was a tortured poet who died before most Americans today were born, but he’ll outlive us all.”

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My friend Jerry encouraged me to read this book, and while country music tends not to be a priority, I took his advice.

Hank: The Short Life and Long Country Road of Hank Williams, by Mark Ribowsky

Good decision.

It’s a testament to something in American pop culture — exactly what isn’t clear — that an ill-fated performer who died seven years before I was born nonetheless has remained a constant presence throughout my life, whole decades later.

Perhaps proximity to the original heartland of country music is a factor, or the career of Hank Williams, Jr.; at any rate, for Hank’s relatively limited output of songs, his enduring influence is incredible, indeed.

He’s never really gone away.

In terms of self-destruction, the parallel example who springs to mind is Bix Beiderbecke of jazz fame.

Like Hank, he was dead before the age of 30. They both were preternaturally gifted musicians, alcoholics, and examples of icons capable of being known by their first names alone.

The book is very good. All this lies outside my customary comfort zone. Maybe that’s a good thing.


The brief, wondrous life of Hank Williams
, by David Kirby (Washington Post)

The soldier must have thought he was dreaming. There he was, driving down a pitch-black road outside Shreveport, La., in the early hours of Oct. 18, 1952, when he saw a figure in a hat, boots and white suit. It was Hank Williams, out of gas and hitchhiking to the nearest filling station. Williams was at the height of his fame, but at that moment, he was like any other chump who forgot to check the gauge before heading out into the darkness. He had also just gotten married; he and his latest woke up a justice of the peace who performed the ceremony at 1 a.m., even though the bride’s previous marriage wouldn’t be dissolved until 10 days later. And Williams was less than three months away from his death by heart attack in the darkness, on another country road, in another car. He was 29 years old.

Except musically, almost every choice he made was wrong, as Mark Ribowsky shows in “Hank,” a compassionate yet clear-eyed study of the iconic country star …

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