Lovesick Blues: The Life Of Hank Williams
by Paul Hemphill
So much has been written about Hank Williams Sr., arguably the greatest figure in country music, that it comes as a shock to find that a biography could be produced which feels new and somehow different. The author, Paul Hemphill, manages to weave the author's own personal narrative within the context of the familiar signposts of the tragically short, but artistically brilliant Williams' tragic/comic existence in Lovesick Blues; The Life of Hank Williams (Viking) The work starts out not with Williams' story, but with the author's own personal narrative of his youth in the rural south. Hearing Williams singing for the first time, (the author likens Williams' warble to an injured animal) Hemphill has a moment of epiphany that binds the youngster to the country music legend (a connection that Hemphill feels for a lifetime).
From there, Hemphill digs into the heart of Williams' short life: The familiar stories of Williams' Depression era youth wandering from town to town, growing up with virtually no education, working in the most menial kind of jobs and occasionally performing on the street to make money. Williams' life story, a familiar one to many music (and especially country music) fans has always read like a cliche of a country music song. And though for the most part true, it does not mean that the narrative is any less cliched. It is Hemphill's interesting achievement to manage to bring not only a fresh approach to the material, but also give this material an energy and potency that the Williams epic has not had in a while.
Hemphill's fresh approach, alluded to earlier, is the idea that the author and Williams share a bond and connection and that the events and emotions of the author's life are somehow commented upon by Williams' life and music. Indeed, there is little in the way of psychological insight into WIlliams' tortured history (the adolescent alcoholism, the violence, the difficulty with marriage), which is a relief in an era of the biographer as therapist. Interestingly enough, the author in the end is more interested in his own development and emotional history.
Hemphill, whose previous writing about the culture of country music (especially The Nashville Sound from the early 70's) helped mythologize and define the ideas inherent in country music and the important figures in the pantheon, has written arguably the most affecting biography of not only a country music legend, but a great figure in American music. Indeed, Hemphill's mournful tone, mythologizing tendencies and poetic insights make this one of the best biographies of the year. At the very least, this work may cause a spike in the popularity of Williams' music.
- S. Mark Rhodes