I discovered the very place where yearning and loss merge with beauty to form another, more complex emotion--call it heartbreak--when I was just a kid. It was in a Hank Williams song, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," in the lines that went...
The silence of a falling star
Lights up the purple sky,
And as I wonder where you are
I'm so lonesome I could cry.
Those bittersweet lines, coming as they do after verses about whippoorwills and train whistles or time crawling by, in that same tender song, strike deep in a young heart. The particular words I felt the most were "...as I wonder where you ar-are," that dynamic phrase that abandons the C-chord to pick up the G again as the melody waltzes its sad way home.
What Williams could do with three chords and a handful of words is still wondrous to hear. Two or three nights ago I took up the guitar to see if I could strum through "Your Cheatin' Heart" and three simple chords two-stepped me through that heartbreaking song.
Hank Williams sought deliverance from pain the way a tune seeks its key, and in his search for transcendence, he created wondrous lyrics and melodies. Songs like "The Lost Highway" and "Cold, Cold Heart" have been known to make grown men cry, though tough guys don't talk about it.
I once heard Kris Kristofferson--who could occasionally match Hank for pathos and poetry with songs like "Me and Bobby McGhee" and "Sunday Morning Coming Down"--introduce a song at the Civic Coliseum with these words: "If you don't like Hank Williams then you can kiss my..." let us say posterior. It was an extreme statement, but I knew what Kristofferson meant. He meant Hank could move a grown man to tears but Kris was too tough to say so exactly, so he swaggered.
My late father, also named Don Williams, was a gospel singer who used to play and sing Hank songs around the house occasionally. "I Saw the Light" was a favorite, and one that evoked quite opposite emotions from any of the songs mentioned above. Joy and optimism drive these words...
Now I'm so happy,
No sorrow in sight,
Praise the Lord,
I saw the light.
But then, Williams chronicles the full range of human emotions. "Kawliga," with his poor old wooden heart is funny and touching at once. "Move It On Over" and "On the Bayou" are upbeat, earthy songs, as is "Hey Good-lookin'" ("what you got cookin', how's about cookin' somethin' up with me?").
But those are exceptions to prove the heartbreaks rule in Hank's world.
It's easy to be judgmental and write him off as just another poet or singer lost to despair, drink and drugs. You need only look to his last, mythic night, as he lay dying in the backseat of a Cadillac somewhere between Knoxville and West Virginia, for evidence.
What's lost when you strike that judgmental pose is any understanding of what it must have meant to be Hank Williams--a fragile if ornery creature who could evoke with three chords and a few syllables the extremes of joy, despair, wonder and beauty--the heartbreak some of us never forget upon first hearing a Hank song.
I both heard and sang a few in the early morning hours of New Year's Day, 2003, the 50th anniversary of Hank Williams' death. I was at a party in Nashville when the New Year dawned. Realizing I was missing "Hank's Last Night," a celebration in Knoxville featuring R.B. Morris and other stalwarts of the Knoxville scene, I suggested we all sing a few songs in memory of Hank. And so we did, good old songs, like "Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used to Do?" and "I Can't Help It If I'm Still in Love with You"--crooning snatches and grabs of half-remembered lyrics from a dozen old Hank classics along the way. Some at the party said we were pretty bad, but it felt good to sing those old songs anyway, for they live at the intersection where subtle chord-changes bow to yearning and loss, then take them by the hands and slow-dance them home.