Legendary country singer/songwriter Hank Williams died when he was only 29, but his music and lyrics still reverberate among fellow musicians half a century later.
“He condensed the essence of loneliness into the fewest possible words, and it sticks,” said musician Cathy Fink.
Fink, fellow Grammy winner Marcy Marxer and friends will host their 17th annual Tribute to Hank Williams on Dec. 27 at The Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria.
“People come to hear the classics and to hear our new takes [on them],” said vocalist Fink who plays the banjo and guitar, while vocalist Marxer plays guitar, mandolin and resonator guitar.
This year there will be two new performers in the group.
“We’ve had the same exact crew of people for about 12 years,” Fink said. “This is the first time in a long time that we’ve had any changes.”
Guitarist Bill Kirchen, who moved to Texas, won’t be performing in the tribute this year, she said. Taking his place will be bluegrass/country singer Claire Lynch from Nashville, who was named Female Vocalist of the Year in September by the International Bluegrass Music Association.
Also joining the show is Washington, D.C.-area guitarist David Chappell, who has performed with Patty Reese, Tommy Lepson and Bruce Swaim.
Returning along with Fink and Marxer are songwriters, guitarists and vocalists Robin and Linda Williams, who live in Staunton and are long-time performers on NPR’s “The Prairie Home Companion” radio show.
Also returning are Rickie Simpkins, a bluegrass fiddler who has toured with Emmylou Harris; and bass player Mark Schatz, who tours with Lynch.
“Everybody’s on stage for the whole show. … There’s a lot of spontaneity,” said Fink, about the interaction among the musicians.
The group will perform some of Williams’ classic hits and also draw on some of his unreleased acetate recordings and demo records that “just didn’t get the commercial push when Hank was alive,” she said.
There are good reasons why Williams, who wrote and recorded more than 100 songs, was known as“The Hillbilly Poet,” according to those who appreciate his legacy.
“‘I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry’ ... is the bare bones of what make a great country song,” said Fink.
Many of Williams’ songs are also about the pain of romantic relationships, including feelings he experienced during his tumultuous first marriage to Audrey Sheppard.
Some of his most well-known songs are “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Long Gone Lonesome Blues,” “You’re Gonna Change (Or I’m Gonna Leave)” and “Lost Highway.”
But others are more upbeat, such as “Jambalaya on the Bayou” and “Hey, Good Lookin.’” “I think I’ve missed one show,” said Betty Scott of Montgomery County, Md., who goes with her husband every year to the tribute at The Birchmere.
Friends with Fink and Marxer, she is also manager of the artist-in-residence program of the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Md.
“I think he had such a way with melody – his songs are very memorable,” said Scott.
“His music is so earthy,” she said. “It’s sort of down and out, and an interesting version of the blues. ... There are tragic love affairs in his music ... and moments of angst that everyone [can relate to].”
“It was a tragedy that such an amazing talent, that his life ended so early,” she said.
Williams was born in 1923 in Mount Olive, Ala., north of Birmingham, with a mild form of spina bifida, a circumstance, along with others, that would lead to drug and alcohol abuse later in his life.
After his family moved to Georgiana, southwest of Montgomery, he met Rufus Payne, an African-American street performer who gave him guitar lessons in exchange for food or money.
In 1937, Williams sang on Birmingham radio and the public clamored for more. He formed a back-up band, The Drifting Cowboys, and began touring, but the band broke up during World War II.
In 1944, at the age of 21, Williams married bassist Sheppard and after the war, returned to singing on the Birmingham radio and writing songs.
Four years later, he performed on the “Louisiana Hayride” country music radio show in Shreveport, La., singing “Lovesick Blues,” a song by vaudeville singer Emmett Miller.
“He got 15 encores,” said Fink about his success on the show.
Williams recorded the song in 1949, it became a huge hit, and Williams was invited to perform at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn., bringing him national attention and overseas tours.
“He had enormous charisma and stage presence and a poignant song selection,” said Fink. “He had the whole package – he was driven by music and driven to sing.”
But in 1951 a fall during a hunting trip aggravated longstanding back problems. Williams drank and took pills to ease the pain. He and Audrey divorced in 1952 and he married Billie Jean Jones.
Late in 1952 Williams and a driver were heading north from Nashville to a gig in Ohio, when the driver stopped for gas in Oak Hill, W.Va. He found Williams dead in the back seat of the car early on New Year’s Day, 1953.
Examiners concluded Williams had died of heart failure aggravated by pills and alcohol.
“He was miserable, in chronic pain and [dealing with] the management and pressures in the music business,” Fink said.
But his legacy lives on, with other artists such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and Merle Haggard paying homage to him by also singing and recording his songs.
“The Hank Williams country repertoire is like the Beatles pop music repertoire,” said Fink. “It’s really remarkable to think how young he was and how many of his songs have stood the test of time.”