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Short, messy life of country legend mixes blues, too many brews

A musician has truly entered icon status when Hollywood comes a-callin'. Last year saw the fantastic Ray Charles story, "Ray," while in 2005, "Walk the Line" is a box-office smash, even if the kids now think Johnny Cash was June Carter's hubby first, a musician second (actually, the Man in Black might like that summary).

Plus, rumors have abounded for years that bios of Joy Division's Ian Curtis, Jimi Hendrix and (shudder) Janis Joplin are on the way. But what about Hank Williams Sr., the endlessly influential country singer?

Trainspotters will be quick to point out that there already was a film: "Your Cheatin' Heart," starring (no joke) George Hamilton.

However, it is now surely just a matter of time before Paul Hemphill's "Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams" hits the big screen, so engrossing, colorful and heartfelt is the story and the writing style. Hemphill abandons the standard, dry tone of biography writing and instead utilizes a light, conversational tone, one that feels less like the work of a studied, academic obsessive, and more like someone who actually experienced the troubled days and nights of the country music legend.

Hank's was indeed a short, messy life. He was an alcoholic before he hit the legal drinking age, a star at 15 and dead by 29. He died drunk and alone in 1953 in an almost fitting way for the man who excelled at songs of utter loneliness: "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Cold, Cold Heart" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," to name a few.

We join young Hiram Williams in the Alabama of the 1930s, a "scrawny kid" with a spinal deformity, stuck with parents whose marriage was, fittingly in this era of depression, rather depressing. His old man, Lon, left for good when Hiram was just 6, leaving him in the clutches of mother Lillie Williams.

She might warrant a bio herself. Lillie was big in all respects -- almost 6 feet tall, tipping the scales at more than 200 pounds, "the sort of woman who, as the men were wont to say, 'don't take no ---- from nobody.'" Her presence loomed large over her boy's life, and she comes across as both fearsome and a little endearing.

When it comes to convincing music biographies, it's all in the details, and what the author does with them. Hemphill's book is bursting with lovely little moments, and he finds ways to paint them in extraordinarily vivid, almost cinematic ways.

Take the vision of Rufus Payne, the sight that turned young Hiram onto music as a boy. He spotted Payne on the streets of Georgiana, "an old black man with a guitar, strumming and singing for passersby, nodding and smiling and mumbling a thank-you whenever someone dropped a coin into the crumpled hat set at his feet."

Williams had never seen a "real" musician before, and he never forgot this nomadic charmer: "Hiram was mesmerized. So mesmerized that soon he was 'the Singing Kid,' crooning a song he'd written called 'WPA Blues' in a local talent show, nabbing the $15 prize and blowing it on booze." All at age 14. But Hank's age was deceptive, says Hemphill. "In truth, Hank had already left his childhood behind," he writes. "By the time he was turning 15, he was practically a grown-up, a blossoming radio star who had gone and changed his name."

Hank's notoriety grew as he and his band, the Drifting Cowboys, hit the road in Lillie's station wagon. The America that Williams encountered was a mix of dust-covered poverty and boiling anger. Many of the band's shows took place at "fightin-'n'-dancin' clubs" -- a quite telling name -- places where, said Hank's steel guitarist, Don Helms, "they wouldn't let you in until you showed 'em your switchblade and could prove you'd already thrown up once" (sounds like the end zone at Ralph Wilson Stadium in December).

War was to break out shortly, and Williams was in trouble, stuck starring in a traveling medicine show at age 20, guzzling the hardest of liquor, emerging from his trailer for a perfunctory set.

What about the music, you ask? Hemphill spends a good deal of time on it, explaining the creation of Williams' legendary tunes, such as "Lovesick Blues." Hank's entire entourage considered it a disaster, with guitarist Jerry Byrd muttering, "That's the worst damn thing I ever heard."

Of course, the song ended up hitting No. 1 on the Billboard charts in May 1949, becoming one of the biggest hits of Hank's career.

Along the way are too many wondrous moments to mention here, from the time Hank almost shot June Carter in the head to the night at the Skyline Club in Austin, shortly before he died, when Williams simply would not leave the stage, playing every song in his repertoire.

This was "Hank Williams's last hurrah," the author writes. Williams' life hurtles to its end with queasy velocity, "a roller coaster to hell," as Hemphill calls it. It finally came to a close in the back seat of a Cadillac.

The coroner said Hank died of "a severe heart condition and hemorrhage," although rumors have persisted that more was at play. Hemphill's simple elegance is perhaps most clear when discussing this sad end. In other writers' hands, the following might reek of cliche; here, it seems appropriate: "It's quite possible that Hank Williams had almost literally died of a broken heart, that his frail body had simply given out."

So the book is far more than another music bio. It's a tough, juicy memory of one of the great characters of the 20th century.

Perhaps what makes "Lovesick Blues" truly stand above the kicking mob of music bios is that the reader doesn't simply learn the in-and-outs and hows-and-whys of its subject, but of its author, too. Hemphill bookends the story with details of his own life, and just how the spirit of Hank Williams burrowed into his mind and stayed there. Paul Hemphill seems like the kind of guy who could sit down and tell you the entire Williams story, word for word, from memory.

Surely, Hank would raise a glass -- or two -- in appreciation.

Christopher Schobert is a frequent News reviewer.


Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams

By Paul Hemphill


224 pages, $23.95

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