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When country music’s most notable figure, Hank Williams, died in the back of his Cadillac en route to a show in Canton, Ohio, on Jan. 1, 1953, America’s rural people had lost their first superstar. Three days later, the legendary singer-songwriter was buried in Montgomery, Ala., his funeral drawing a record crowd — the largest since Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as president of the Confederacy in 1861.
As the years crept by, Williams’ legacy remained. Dozens of country artists throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s recorded covers of his gut-wrenching songs, some paying tribute by recording entire albums.
In 1952, Williams was kicked from country music’s most sacred organization — the Grand Ole Opry — due to his heavy drinking. The Opry’s promoters promised once Hank straightened up his act, the institution would welcome him back with open arms. He died only months later.
In 2003, the Opry held a celebration on the 50th anniversary of Hank’s passing. His grandson, Hank Williams III (Hank3), made a statement that started the “Reinstate Hank” movement.
“Keep one thing in mind, after all this time, maybe it’s time that we can get Hank Williams back, reinstated in the Grand Ole Opry. ... that would be a dream come true for a lot of people,” Hank3 said.
For nearly a decade now, fans of the elder Williams and Hank3 have signed petitions, sported T-shirts, bumper stickers and held rallies — all on the basis of if the Grand Ole Opry can make mega-bucks off Hank Williams merchandise and have Hank Williams impersonators gearing up a crowd, why can’t they at least make him an honorary member of the institution?
An online “Reinstate Hank” petition has now gained over 50,000 signatures. But over the past few months, Hank’s fans have had something new to protest.
In the early 1960s, when folk legend and arguably the greatest living songwriter today Bob Dylan rose to fame, he often cited Williams as being a huge inspiration for him. In his memoirs, Dylan told of his discovery of Williams’ music in the 1950s. “I became aware that in Hank’s recorded songs were the archetype rules of poetic songwriting,” Dylan wrote. “The architectural forms are like marble pillars.”
Several years ago, Dylan acquired 27 of Williams’ unfinished songs which were found in a brief case in the back of the Cadillac he died in. The Williams family gave the unfinished songs, 66 in all, to Acuff-Rose Publishing Company following Hank’s death. The chosen 27 were sent to Dylan in hopes that he would finish the tunes and record them for an album. Instead, Dylan chose one, and gave some of the others to a slew of popular musicians to finish.
The album, titled “The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams,” was released yesterday on Dylan’s Egyptian Records in conjunction with the Country Music Hall of Fame. Since news of this project began circulating, many fans of Hank Williams have been in an outrage. Why would you take a dead man’s songs and let popular artists add their perspective 55 years later? Does Bob Dylan really care about carrying on Williams’ legacy, or is he just fishing for a piece of the Williams’ gold mine? Why aren’t Hank Williams Jr. or Hank3 involved?
The list of questions I’ve heard or read goes on, but if you ask me, it’s just straight unethical.
Some of the artists included on the project are Sheryl Crow, Norah Jones, Vince Gill, Jakob Dylan and Lucinda Williams — none of who will go down in history as great songwriters, or even musicians of their generation.
I think the most unsettling thing about this release is the fact that these are words that came straight from Hank’s heart, maybe some of these were never meant for the public ear. Most, if not all of these artists will never know the pain Williams endured, the heartache over his divorce from Audrey Shepherd, the constant pressure of writing good, solid material or the illness that basically, eventually cost him his life.
Despite studying his life and his music ever since I was old enough to read, I’ll never know the true Hank Williams and neither will anyone else. We’ll never know if the dog-eared scraps of paper found in an old, beat-up briefcase were ever meant for the public, or if instead they were songs he planned on making his next big hit.
Hank once said, “They’re slicin’ me up and sellin’ me like bologna.” I guess as long as there’s money to be made, to some, Hank will always be just another dime in their pocket.