Thursday, April 21, 2011

You want me, my love

Full moon behind clouds

When I was in college, I was one of those girls that liked “every kind of music but country,” but now it’s pretty much my favorite music. Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams—they’ve all got to be top ten. That’s six out of the top ten slots, if I were to geek out all High Fidelity-style.

Not to mention Hank Williams, he of the honky tonk blues. Stories about Hank Williams abound. My favorite is the one where he went into a record producer’s office and promising him he could turn in a song by the next day on any topic the producer could name. The producer looked out the window and saw the hills surrounding Nashville. “A big house on a hill,” he said. The next morning, Hank showed up with “Mansion on the Hill,” one of his greatest classics.

He and his drifting cowboys summed up an essential part of what it is to be an American. A country singer is always getting into trouble because of drinking and partying in the woods, but loves his ma and his sweetheart just as much as he loves Jesus. I used to hear legends that Hank's song “I Saw the Light” was included in old Baptist hymnals. I’ve searched pew after pew, though, and haven’t found it.

And his yodel! A friend of mine on the PCT (shout-out to Solid) claimed that humanity’s two greatest artistic triumphs were break-dancing and the yodel, and I’m inclined to agree. Something about the way a human voice can jump from one register to another in a guttural slide echoes our saddest hearts, just like it does for aboriginal Australians or lederhosed Swiss. Those backwoods southern Scotch-Irish knew their way around sadness.

Hank's songs about heartbreak are his best. He’s a master of tragedy. “You only build me up to let me down,” he croons. His greatest song, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” never mentions his lost love at all. It hovers around the things in his landscape, the lonesome whippoorwill and the sad moon all reflecting his own loneliness. The world outside echoes his internal world, and tells the only story he needs to tell.

Hank Williams died at 29, partly of spina bifida that plagued him, but mainly of hard living. There has to be a special level in heaven for great artists that die in the prime of their youth--Hank Williams and John Keats and Elliott Smith and Kurt Cobain. He left a legacy of heartbreak on vinyl, a record in song that’s perhaps America’s greatest.

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