‘Nashvillians don’t like country music,’ the Nashvillian man told me, a surprising remark to hear in the world capital of country music. ‘They never did,’ he insisted. ‘All them country bars down Broadway and 2nd Avenue, that’s just for tourists.’ He might be right about that, but we are in the city of Nashville cats, of the Country Music Hall of Fame, of Robert Altman’s movie Nashville and the TV series Nashville too, the city where you can see everything from Dolly Parton’s Cadillac to Willie Nelson’s plectrum, and the city that spawned the weekly country radio show, The Grand Ole Opry.
In fact we are standing in the Ryman Auditorium, home to the Grand Ole Opry in its heyday, from 1943 to 1974. We are looking down on the stage where Johnny Cash stood, Marty Robbins, Loretta Lynn, Chet Atkins, Hank Snow, Tammy Wynette, and the greatest of them all, the reason I’m in Nashville: Hank Williams. And this guy tells me Nashvillians don’t like country music?
‘Nashvillians never came to the Opry either. You’d get thousands of people queuing to get in, they’d be waiting first thing in the morning for the evening show, backed up around the block, but that was mostly out-of-towners. I only came to Ryman’s once, and that was to see a real opera. These days we get big acts like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, but even the big acts don’t always sell out, and we only hold 2100 people. Nashvillians still don’t go to the Opry.’
In its day, country singers would almost kill – in fact a few of the tougher ones probably would have done – to get a spot on the Opry. It was the ultimate accolade. Elvis knew he was getting somewhere when he made his debut in October 1954 to sing one of his early Sun records, Blue Moon of Kentucky. In those days he was being described in his hometown newspaper, The Memphis Commercial Appeal, as ‘our homegrown hillbilly singer’.
Hank Williams waited years before he was invited onto the Opry, partly because he’d already acquired a reputation for drunkenness and unreliability in the days when country stars were supposed to be clean-livin’ family folks. But when he had a massive hit with Lovesick Blues, the Opry had to invite him. The song went to number one in May 1949 (the month I was born), stayed there for 16 weeks, and was still in the charts the following January. Hank made his first broadcast in June 1949, standing on that stage at Ryman’s.
‘Hank Williams, now,’ said my man, ‘he was a rough character, came from a very rough background. His trouble was he couldn’t leave the whisky alone – but boy, he sure wrote some wonderful songs.’
Hank sank some of his whisky and beer in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a drunk’s stagger from the Stage Door of Ryman’s down at 422 Broadway. In Hank’s case it was usually a one-way journey, as despite being a serious drinker from the age of about 12 back in his boyhood Alabama, he had a very low tolerance to alcohol. It quickly gave him oblivion from his bad back, his bad marriage, and whatever else it was that gave him the blues and produced lyrics like: Just a deck of cards and a jug of wine, and a woman’s lies, make a life like mine. Friends said you could tell the state of Hank’s marriage from the songs he was writing. But for every upbeat song like Jambalaya or Hey, Good Lookin’, there were ten like Cold, Cold Heart, Your Cheatin’ Heart and I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.
It was only 11am but Tootsie’s was jumping, as it does seven days a week, four country acts a day, from 10am till it closes. And that’s just downstairs: there are more live acts every night upstairs as well. If there was one thing I was going to do in Nashville, it was have a drink in Tootsie’s. A long bar lines one side, with a small stage tucked inside the door on the other. Like a good British pub, this honky-tonk is dimly lit and looks like it hasn’t changed in 50 years. I’d driven from Memphis, which was as rough and ready as a blues song, while Nashville was clean and slick like a country singer’s stage outfit. But entering bars like Tootsie’s is like finding the real person, in dirty jeans and a t-shirt. Fading photos stare down from the walls, and it’s hard to find a country star that hasn’t played or drunk in Tootsie’s: Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Kris Kristofferson. Roger Miller wrote Dang Me in Tootsie’s.
I sipped a Budweiser while a woman on stage sang Patsy Cline: … and crazy for loving you. I wanted to make the most of the day, though, so wandered down Broadway ducking and dodging the stetsons like you dodge umbrellas in Britain. In the Ernest Tubb Record Shop I found an Alan Jackson CD with Midnight in Montgomery on it, his song about visiting Hank Williams’ grave: When the wind is right you’ll hear his song, Smell whiskey in the air.
Williams died in the back of his car from a heart attack brought on by a mixture of drink and drugs while on his way to a show on January 1, 1953. He was 29. He’d just released his latest single: I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. Almost opposite Tubb’s Record Shop is the Hatch Show Print Shop, that’s been printing show-biz posters and other stuff since 1879. They’re still making them, but also selling copies of vintage posters and postcards to country fans. I buy a copy of the poster for the show Hank Williams never gave, on the New Year’s Day that he died. ‘If the good Lord’s willing, and the creek don’t rise,’ it says across the top, then Hank Williams will see you at the Canton Memorial Auditorium. It’s a poignant line, but it’s fake. The poster was put together after his death.
To learn more about Hank’s life I went to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, where Hank Williams was the first to be elected in 1961. He’s been called the Keats of country music, the Hillbilly Shakespeare. Long after his death, Hank’s son, Hank Williams Jnr, was still picking up half a million dollars a year as his share of his father’s record sales and song-writing royalties. And at the Country Music Hall of Fame is the biggest collection of Hank Williams memorabilia you can get at. This is why I was in Nashville.
I made my way through the other displays, stopping to look at Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes, and Elvis Presley’s gold Cadillac, with its gold records stuck to the convertible top. Here are the original handwritten lyrics to Kris Kristofferson’s Help Me Make It Through the Night, and to Roger Miller’s King of the Road, scribbled on a credit card application form. But it’s the lyrics of Hank Williams I want to see, and here they are… Six More Miles, Cold, Cold Heart, and perhaps his greatest, bitter song that tells you all you need to know about Hank’s marriage to Audrey: Your Cheatin’ Heart. Hank’s other problems are not ignored, as a letter on display shows. It’s from Fred Rose, his music publisher, and dated 3rd April 1948. In it Rose says he’s been hearing that Hank has been making great efforts to clean himself up: ‘In the future, forget the firewater…’
Hank couldn’t, though, other than for a few brief spells. He always went back to the booze, and in the last few months of his life he’d been mixing it with chloral hydrate prescribed for him by a Doctor Marshall. Marshall had bought his diploma from a travelling salesman and set himself up as an alcohol therapist. Chloral hydrate is a powerful sedative and potentially fatal if mixed with alcohol. It’s what’s used in Mickey Finns, and also one of the drugs that triggered Elvis’s heart attack, the same way it did with Hank Williams.
On top of alcohol, Hank had had several morphine injections too, for the pain in his back, from the defective spine he’d been born with, thought to be a form of spina bifida. A telegram from Hank’s mother to his sister Irene tells the outcome: COME AT ONCE HANK IS DEAD. MOTHER.
One of the notices in the Hall of Fame sums up Hank’s significance: ‘Hank Williams’s career symbolises a distinctly important era in country music. During the Post-World War II decade, Hank’s songs and records helped fuel country’s rapid commercial expansion. Partly because of hits he recorded there, Nashville became country music’s capital…’
That night in Tootsie’s I sink a few more beers and ask the band’s singer, Scott Wayne, to sing a Hank song for me, and for my dad back in England who introduced me to his music. ‘Sure,’ says Scott, and sings a slow and wistful version of I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. It’s the song that Hank said he’s most proud of having written. In four short verses it paints the pain in the human heart: And as I wonder where you are, I’m so lonesome I could cry. I like to think old Hank was somewhere listening. And happy.