A new bio-pic explores the life of the country singer Hank Williams, pictured here in 1951.
Photograph courtesy Michael Ochs Archives / Getty
In the pantheon of spectacular drunks, Hank Williams surely ranks superlative. By all accounts, his was the sort of drunkenness (injurious, shambolic) that a responsible person would be reluctant to equate with any kind of generative impulse—to link, even tenuously, to the construction of transcendent art. Yet it’s hard to spend any time with Williams’s discography, which consists of thirty-one country-and-Western singles released over a six-year period (augmented, posthumously, by unissued material), and not be felled by the resignation and longing that animate his voice. Obliteration begins to feel like a justifiable, necessary corrective to the sort of suffering his songs express. It’s hard not to eventually catch yourself thinking, “A whiskey might be nice!”
In his short life, Williams was often a repository for other people’s anguish, beckoning it without effort. His fans recognized something broken in his work (four of those thirty-one singles have the word “lonesome” in the title) and equated that recognition with knowing. “I reckon they think I’m some sort of Red Cross,” is how the actor Tom Hiddleston puts it while playing Williams in “I Saw the Light,” a recent bio-pic of the singer. Anger, misery, sorrow, shame: that’s what Hiddleston’s Williams thinks his listeners feel in his work, and what they believe he can soothe.
Country music has long been the terrain of the lonely and the broken-down. That rubbery twang, the baying: it communicates something about the travails of the heart, the way it lurches and somersaults. The animating flash for that pain is often religious—born of friction between what the body wants (whiskey, sex, vengeance) and what the mind has vowed to forsake (whiskey, sex, vengeance). We can circumvent the path toward sin, divert the energy somehow, but it’s extraordinarily difficult to rewire the circuit entirely—to stop wanting. From the gap between what’s desired and what’s indulged, whole songbooks are made.
There’s maybe no better symbolic embodiment of those tensions than Williams, who was born in Alabama, in 1923, and died on New Year’s Day, 1953, in Oak Hill, West Virginia, following a cardiac event in the back seat of his Cadillac. He’d been carried to the car by his driver, coughing and hiccupping, delirious on some combination of beer, morphine, and chloral hydrate, a prescription sedative. In his brief tenure as a performer, Williams sold eleven million records, saw seven lovelorn singles reach No. 1 on Billboard’s country-and-Western chart, and played hundreds of shows. He is still regarded as a pinnacle within the genre, a high-water mark for sad-sack troubadours. What he wanted and what he needed never quite added up.