Despite never making it to the age of 30, the catalog of songs he left behind just about kills anyone who appreciates genius. "Cold, Cold Heart," "Your Cheating Heart," "Never Again," "Move It on Over," "Lovesick Blues," "Wedding Bells," "You're Gonna Change (Or I'm Gonna Leave)," "Mind Your Own Business," "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It," "Dear John," "Hey, Good Lookin'," "Howlin' at the Moon," "Crazy Heart," "Lonesome Whistle," "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)" and "Take These Chains From My Heart" just scratch the surface of Williams' legacy.
Famous by the age of 25 and dead four years later, "he had a very short life," says Tucson musician Linda Lou Reed, "but he gave a lot in his music. That's why we decided to pay tribute to him.
"The TKMA," Reed continues, "is an organization that supports traditional music, folk music, bluegrass, country and Western music using only acoustic instruments. Guitars, fiddles, upright bass, mandolins, dobros: you'll see all of those at the concerts. The group was formed to give people a place to play their music who don't play out every day in the clubs around town; local people who have day jobs and things. We have potlucks and jams where people just come together to play, but these concerts are great because they present some folks who are lesser-heard people, but very talented musicians. And Hank Williams, lots of people know his music, but he's been forgotten with all this new music that's come out."
(Guitarist John Frusciante, of the Chili Peppers and many excellent solo projects, believes that it takes help from the spirit world to write music. "Crappy spirits make crappy music," he says, which I think is exactly what happened to "all this new music that's come out," post-outlaw years.)
At 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 28, the Tucson Kitchen Musicians Association will present A Tribute to Hank Williams at Unitarian Universalist Church, 4831 E. 22nd St. This marks the sixth year that TKMA has staged a tribute concert, the proceeds of which make possible their annual Tucson Folk Festival--now in its 20th year. Former honorees include Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Joni Mitchell, but this year's event is perhaps the most important ever to the group, because the Folk Festival needs financial support more desperately than it has before.
"We're short of funding this year," says Reed. "The city cut our funding by a couple of thousand dollars."
Hank Williams knew how it felt to be broke--his father split when he was 7 years old, forcing Williams to go to work selling peanuts, newspapers and shining shoes to help support his family. But his mom managed to buy him a guitar when he was 8, and a local blues musician named Tee Tot gave him a good education. Williams formed a band when he was 14, quit playing for a while to work as a welder in the shipyards during World War II, went back to it in 1946 and landed a MGM contract after playing for Fred Rose, one of Nashville's biggest song writers and publishers.
In his heyday, Williams was playing shows at the Grand Ole Opry (one of which required an unprecedented six encores) and sold-out concerts around country with his band, the Drifting Cowboys, the most famous version of which included fiddler Jerry Rivers, guitarist Bob McNett, steel guitarist Don Helms and bass player Hillous Butrum. The band earned as much as $1,000 per show, and Williams' hit singles didn't stop.
But with more time in the spotlight (and away from home), a mild drinking problem blossomed into a full-fledged crisis. Williams began to show up drunk to every show (or forget to show up at all); his marriage fell apart; the Grand Ole Opry told him not to come back until he sobered up; the Drifting Cowboys abandoned him. On a hunting trip, he tripped and fell, incurring a back injury for which he began taking pills and morphine, to which he quickly became addicted. Throw in a conman doctor who was liberal with the prescription drugs (as an answer to heart problems that Williams had developed), and the 29-year-old's fate was sealed. He died in the back of his Cadillac, on the way to a concert in Ohio; his funeral drew a crowd the size of which had not been seen since Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as president of the Confederacy in 1861.
People make a lot of the fact that "I'll Never Get out of This World Alive" was the last single Williams ever released, but if Williams did know he was on his way out, there's nothing surprising in that fact. Like all good songwriters, he knew a lot about living, which makes dying something that he surely felt.