Talkin’ Hank

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Because we’d planned a road trip to Chattanooga, Nashville along Mississippi on down to Louisiana, I spent some time considering my take-along reading material. Economy class flights are stringent about suitcase weight and I was not going to lug a ton of books around in my carry-on bag. It was with heavy heart that I left my enormous, hardbound volume of Faulkner at home. I could not bear to bring “The Sound and The Fury”, which I have in a pocket edition either; better no Faulkner at all than a langinappe that leaves you hungry for more. Instead I brought along the collection of Dorothea Benton Frank’s Barrier Island novels since I happen to have them in e-book form. Ditto Rebecca Wells’s “Divine Secrets of the Ya-ya Sisterhood” and of course a paperback anthology of short stories by Tennessee Williams because you cannot go to the Cresent City without a little Tennessee. On the (all total) 13 hour plane trip to Orlando, I read Martha Ward’s “Voodoo Queen”, a biography of Marie Laveau, which was repetitive and rambling in spots but gives Mme. Marie the most balanced look-in I’ve read to date. More on that in another blog.

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After a few days decompression and acclimatization to the tropics involving shopping, dining at the redneck mecca that Is Manny’s Chop House (Rte. 27, Haines City), a few rounds of golf and long afternoons lost in Margaritaville by the pool, we shook ourselves off, did a few loads of laundry, packed enough gear for a week on the road and headed north to Chattanooga.

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I got through the Ya-yas on the way to Chattanooga and being it is hard to read in the dark when you’re touring Ruby Falls and we rolled into Nashville that night just in time to catch the show at the Grand Ole Opry, then spent most of the next day in town at the Country Music Hall of Fame, I didn’t manage to look at the other books I’d brought with me. Then there’s the little matter of a teensy gem of a book I purchased at the museum store, Hank Hung the Moon And Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts by Rheta Grimsley Johnson. 

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Needless to say, really, to anyone who knows anything about country music, but just in case you don’t, I spent the rest of my reading time on the road trip (Alabama is boring) with Hank. We insiders just call him “Hank” and know who we’re talking about. Since I’ve been to the “Opry”, stood on the hallowed sidewalk in front of the Ryman and hung out on Beale Street in Memphis, I think of myself as an insider now.

If you’re after a biography full of hard facts, photos and discographies, Hank Hung the Moon is not for you. If you understand that Hank’s music (Williams Sr. ) is a gumbo of opera and literature and philosophy which forms an important cornerstone of rock and roll and beyond that is pure, smack-you-upside-the-heart truth, if you want to savor reading what other people know and feel and experience when they hear Hank sing, including Hank’s daughter Jett and some Opry legends all wrapped into one beautifully written little book (just 190 pages), this book is for you. It is what the author, Rheta Grimsley Johnsons calls “talkin’ Hank” but as the reader you are just an extremely privileged listener to some amazing conversations and memories.

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I don’t read a book beyond the first 10 sentences unless it’s hooked me. Sometimes I’m mean and only give it 3. This is not fair, but there are so many books to read and so little time. Hank Hung the Moon invites you in slowly but by the 6h sentence I was most definitely hooked:

…It was my thirteenth birthday and the day classes resumed after the Christmas break at Moss Point High School, where I was a seventh-grader. During fifth-periond PE class-really a sort of unsupervised recess for older boys back then; you could play football or dodgeball if you were so disposed, or you could lean against the gymnasium building and whittle, talk, and chew tobacco—I sought out Luray Gassoway.

This paragraph is from a memory written by Don Grierson, the author’s second husband. With that sentence I could tell I was in really good company.

Like many of my generation, I’d thought of country music as a bit of a joke. The cornball television show “Hee Haw” really didn’t help to make the music attractive to a younger audience, and my brother, The Prince of Darkness and I used to laugh at our mom for enjoying the show.

Our mom was country folk. She grew up on a farm in Bucks County called Prospect Farm. It is a historical landmark now, but in her time, the house belonged to farmer and was part of the sharecroppers deal for working the land. Three generations lived in that house without indoor plumbing while farmer and the missus took up residence in town and they certainly had flush toilets and hot and cold running water.

For fun my mother’s family would sometimes go to a place outside Quakertown called “Sleepy Hollow Ranch”. Sleepy Hollow Ranch was a sort of amusement park and had a country music show as well. My mom told me she’d seen Cousin Minnie Pearl perform live there, and Roy Acuff. Not until Elvis did my mother know that there was any other kind of music than country and gospel. Through her, I got a good dose of Patsy Cline, Tex Ritter, Roy Acuff, and of course Hank, when I was little. Although I could appreciate folk music, especially as performed by The Kingston Trio, as a child I thought country music was pretty awful. I, the seven-year old feminist, once swore that if anyone came up to me singing “Hey Goodlookin’! Watcha got cookin’.” I’d lay him out flat with my frying pan.

Flash forward to August 1977. The King is Dead! Elvis dies at 42 and the entire country is plunged into mourning. Well most of the country. The night Elvis died I stayed over at a friend’s house because her mom was taking us to the beach the next day. My friend’s dad, Mr. Chris kept going on about the great outpouring of grief being nothing compared to when Hank passed.

Hank who?” I asked.

Hank Williams, silly!” replied Mr. Chris. “There’d never have been an Elvis without Hank. Here, listen to this…”

I was a polite child so I sat and listened while Mr. Chris spun some Hank tunes on the stereo. I had to admit that Hank’s original “On the Bayou” sounded much better than Karen Carpenter’s anemic version of the song which had been in the top 40 a few years earlier. Listening to those old lps with Mr. Chris in the den, while my friend died the death of a thousand embarrassments in the kitchen, I heard something in Hank’s music I’d missed before, but I couldn’t have explained what it was at the time if my life depended on it.

Hank slipped back into the background as I, like many of our generation drifted into punk, new-wave, reggae and ska or rediscovered bands like “The Grateful Dead”and “The Beatles”, or looked to jazz. It would be many years later that I would discover what is so great about Hank’s music. In a dark period of my life, I borrowed a Hank Williams cd from the local library (I also borrowed a Todd Rundgren anthology and some Clapton too), popped it in the boombox and it moved me. “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” tapped into all my sad and allowed me to let it go. I played that cd until it was worn down to nothing. Hank’s music is soul music of the purest kind, and that’s what makes it great.

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