Monday, February 13, 2012

Old School Country: Hank Williams Sr.

Hank Williams, Sr.

So, one way that I think I might be able to stay somewhat faithful to the blog without compromising the dissertation is by occasionally drawing on aspects of my misspent youth, part of which involved long days with only two AM radio stations to listen to. One of these was talk radio, which I could only handle in small chunks; the other was classic country, which I could handle in slightly larger chunks. (If only I could send my iPod back in time...) The result of this is that I have a largish body of knowledge about country music between the 1940s and the 1980s (and a largish body of knowledge about American government in the late 1990s, but that's perhaps less valuable; and of course I also have just a largish body). Because I am so kind and generous, I am going to share my thoughts and wisdom on some of these older country singers, and hopefully expose the best of their music to folks who otherwise might never encounter what is a decent-in small doses- genre that has been largely forgotten.

One interesting facet of classic country music is its various roots, including bases in jazz, folk, blues, gospel, bar songs, and the early stages of rock and roll. A good functional definition of "country music", at least in the 1950s, is "traditional ballads set to contemporary music." This highlights the difference between 1950s country and 1950s rock and roll, which is perhaps defined as "contemporary ballads set to contemporary music." And, sadly, that's really the main difference. Even though rock and roll is more associated with sex and substance abuse, country was right there with it. Consider the Wikipedia entry on Hank Williams, Sr.'s death:
During his last years Williams's consumption of alcohol, morphine and other painkillers severely compromised his professional and personal life. He divorced his wife and was dismissed by the Grand Ole Opry due to frequent drunkenness. Williams died suddenly on the early morning hours of New Years Day in 1953 at the age of 29.
This is not atypical.
After the 50s the two genres go their separate ways and evolve in distinct streams. They don't really rejoin until the 1990s, which I may not get to (depending on the dissertation and how long this line of thought holds my interest).

And, as a note, this will NOT be a historical/biographical series of posts, primarily I hope it to be a musical one, focusing on the best music, not on the interesting tidbits and themes. Though I may not always be able to help myself.

So, starting with one of the founders of country music as a distinctive style, here are some of Hank Williams, Sr.,'s most notable creations:

Notice in this song, I Saw the Light, the clear Gospel roots with jazz overtones. The song is singable both by a soloist and by a group, which remains a feature of country music through the 1970s. (Other notables here include Roy Acuff and June Carter, yes THAT June Carter):

Williams' first big hit also clearly indicates its roots in jazz:

Your Cheatin' Heart shows the blues influence (thematically):

One of his most popular songs remains I'm so Lonesome I could cry, this version is covered by Elvis. One of the reasons Elvis is so able to cover this is his own amazing ability to cross genres, but at least part of the reason this works so well is the close relationship between early country and rock and roll.

 Hey Good Lookin has been a lasting favorite of fans of Williams' as well (song starts 40 seconds in)


This video is a tribute done by Hank Williams, Jr (possibly covered later), covering his father's There's a Tear in my Beer:

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