Luke the Drifter and the Birth of Country
It’s widely accepted that singer and songwriter Hank Williams is Country Music’s single most revered figure, and among the most influential popular musicians of the 20th Century.
And as such he incarnated many of the key elements of this most American of arts, having been born poor in the rural South of the United States, for notwithstanding its Canadian and Australian variants, Country is quintessentially the music of the working people of the American South.
These allegedly originally consisting of southern English emigrants from rural East Anglia, Kent and the West Country, who settled largely on the coastal regions, but had reached the Appalachian Mountains by the 18th Century. While Appalachia and the Piedmont was significantly colonised by Northern English and Lowland Scottish peoples, as well as the Protestant Scots-Irish from Ireland’s Ulster province.
And the great majority of white Southerners continue to be of English and Scots-Irish origin, notwithstanding the sizable amounts of Southerners who don’t share these ancestries. Such as the French Americans of Louisiana for example; and the Irish Americans of South Georgia; as well as the German Americans of the Texas Hill Country and borderland areas of the upland South.
But Hank Williams was of English-American ancestry, like so many of those who bequeathed the South its distinctive culture, which includes its famous conservatism and patriotism, themselves the result of deep-rooted Christian foundations. And a culture of honour…born perhaps of the clannishness of herders from Western and Northern England, Lowland Scotland and Ireland’s Ulster province…and resultant fiery sense of protectiveness.
As well as the time-honoured mistrust existent between the rural poor and wealthy elite, such as those of the coastal areas, who were traditionally of English Episcopalian origin. While those of the hill country were mainly of mixed English and Scots-Irish ancestry.
And of course its music…and while it’s known as Country today, this has not always been the case.
For its roots lie in the Folk Music of emigrants from Britain and Ireland, as do the Square and Clog dancing that flourished alongside it; although while the fiddle came from the British Isles, the banjo was African-American in origin. While the Mountain Dulcimer was native to the Appalachians.
Known today as Old Time music, it was first commercially recorded in the early 1920s.
While among the earliest acts considered Country per se were Jimmie Rodgers from Mississippi; and the Carter Family from Virginia, whose music was marked by the Evangelical fervour that would go on to be one of the defining hallmarks of early Country.
And other early superstars included Uncle Dave Macon, son of a Confederate Captain, Country Gospel pioneer Roy Haxton Acuff, and harmonica master DeFord Bailey, self-styled purveyor of Black Hillbilly music. For at the time, Country was still described as such, with Acuff being known as the King of the Hillbillies (some time before he became the backwoods Sinatra).
All three were early performers at the Grand Ole Opry, a weekly stage event instituted in 1925 in Nashville, Tennessee, which has since become established as the spiritual capital of Country Music. But which was originally but a one-hour barn dance featured on local radio.
And if Acuff represented the family values that have always been part and parcel of Country, then Western Swing, a fusion of Country and Swing which took root in Texas and Oklahoma in the late 1920s, was infinitely less spiritual. Although by contemporary standards, it was the soul of romantic innocence.
And in time it mutated into Honky-Tonk, which was variously fuelled by Country fiddle and steel and electric guitars, as well as the Boogie Woogie piano style of artists such as Moon Mullican. While Ernest Tubb’s “Walking the Floor Over You” is widely considered to have launched the genre in 1941, which at the hands of Floyd Tillman, produced songs of great beauty which inclined as much to Traditional Pop as Country.
While Mullican’s music was incredibly influential, providing much of the groundwork not just for Rockabilly, but Rock and Roll itself.
Although its dominance was seriously challenged by the birth of Bluegrass, which harked back to the classic Folk of yore, its founding father, Bill Monroe from the Bluegrass State itself. While other masterful acts within the tradition included the Stanley and Louvin Brothers.
If Honky-Tonk provided the essence of modern Country, then Bluegrass was the keeper of the classical tradition; and it could conceivably said Hank Williams stood at the crossroads of both. That is, if his dual inclination to the spiritual fervour of Southern Gospel and the out and out hedonism of Honky-Tonk were anything to go by.
And perhaps it’s partly because he was such a divided spirit that he stands as Country’s single most revered figure, and not just in terms of his music – Country of course having served as one of the prime components of primordial Rock and Roll – but his wild and colourful lifestyle. For there are those who’d insist this was perfectly in keeping with the Rock and Roll ethos that came in the wake of his untimely death in 1953. Although such a theory is only partially true at best.
For far from being some kind of conscienceless libertine, there’s evidence he was conscious of the necessity of repentance all throughout his life. And in this respect, anticipated the tortured relationship with Christ enjoyed by several of his progeny within Rock and Roll, such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis himself.
There’s also evidence he made his peace with His Saviour immediately prior to his terrible lonely demise, which while indisputably hastened by long- term alcohol abuse, was ultimately the result of a heart attack. While mention must be made of the morphine and chloral hydrate he’d been latterly taking as a means of controlling his chronic back pain.
And could it be said his longstanding pain was ultimately spiritual, as well as physical…born of a conviction on his part he’d neglected the kind of faith that inspired several of his early songs, such as “Wealth Won’t Save Your Soul” from ’47, and “I Saw the Light” from a year later? And that he’d allowed himself to be blinded by worldly ambition?
Whatever the truth, it seems apparent this failed to provide him with any true long-lasting happiness. Or indeed the mainstream success for which he clearly so longed for a time. But if he died a saved man, in the final analysis, was this really such a great loss ?
Luke the Drifter and the Life of Hank Williams
He was born Hiram King Williams in Mount Olive in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama, on the 17th of September 1923, to Elonzo Williams, a World War One veteran of English ancestry known as Lon, and his wife Jessie Lillybelle Williams – née Skipper – known as Lillie.
Lon Williams’ working career had included time spent as a waterboy on logging camps, while he was ultimately destined to ascend to the lofty status of engineer for a prestigious logging company. But he’d more recently opened a small store with his wife adjacent to their cabin in Mount Olive. And their first child, Irene, had been born on the 8th of August 1922.
Young Hiram was a frail and slender boy seemingly bound for a lifetime of suffering, and most of all from a mild undiagnosed case of the spinal disorder, spina bifida occulta.
Then, in 1930, when he was only seven years old, his father was diagnosed with a brain aneurism related to a fall he’d suffered during his wartime service, and he was hospitalised for eight years. Which resulted in a lengthy peripatetic period for the Williams family, with Lillie finding work wherever she could.
And it was during a brief sojourn in Georgiana that Williams’ musical career is believed to have come about, when Blues musician Rufus Payne, known as Tee Tot, provided the young Hank with guitar lessons in exchange for meals prepared by his mother. The upshot being he came to develop a unique musical style consisting of elements of Country, Folk and Blues which presaged the eventual birth of Rock and Roll.
And while still only a teenager he was already hosting his own show on a local radio station in Montgomery, Alabama, as “The Singing Kid”, while touring beer joints and other venues with his band, which he dubbed the Drifting Cowboys.
So that by the early ’40s he was a regional star attraction, coming to the attention as such of various influential members of the music business, even while seeking the alcoholic self-medication that took a serious toll on his reputation for reliability.
And then, with America’s entry into World War II in 1941, the band was virtually decimated, although Williams himself was exempted from active service by dint of his medical condition.
Two years later, he met Audrey Mae Sheppard, a beautiful divorcee from a farming family from Banks, Alabama, and they wasted little time in getting married, with Audrey becoming his manager a short time before their wedding. And in 1946, he and Audrey visited Nashville with a view to meeting music publisher Fred Rose, one of the heads of Acuff-Rose Publishing with one of Hank’s idols, Roy Acuff.
He promptly went on to record two successful singles, which resulted in his signing a contract with MGM Records with Rose as his manager and producer.
“Move it On Over”, released in 1947 was Williams’ first single for MGM, and while it went to number four on the Billboard Country Singles chart, it failed to make a dent on the Pop mainstream. Although its uncanny resemblance to “Rock Around the Clock” makes it one of the most influential records of the 20th Century.
However, by this time, his problems with alcohol were in constant danger of sabotaging his ascent to national celebrity. And far from contributing to these, it’s believed Audrey was indefatigable in her efforts to keep him from the booze and encourage his rise to the top, notwithstanding the turbulence of their relationship.
But these were such that Fred Rose, who evidently loved him as his own son, gave up on his in despair, while in April 1948, Audrey filed for divorce.
However, after having reconciled with both his manager and the love of his life, his career was once more on track. And in August, he appeared on the Louisiana Hayride radio show, which would play host to one Elvis Presley just a little over a half dozen years down the line.
Then in 1949, his son Randall Hank Williams – who would go on to great success in his own right as Hank Williams Jr. – was born on the 26th of May. While his cover of “Lovesick Blues”, a Tin Pan Alley song written by Cliff Friends and Irving Mills in 1922, became his first number one on the Country chart, while crossing over into the Top 25 at number 24.
And when he performed it at the Grand Ole Opry in June, he received no less than six encores, which was unprecedented at the time, and had the effect of turning him into a true star at long last.
With success came the creative freedom to create an enigmatic alter ego, which he did in 1950. And under the name of Luke the Drifter, he recorded a series of recitation-based recordings with a powerful Christian theme.
But 1951 was a year of terrible trial for Hiram King, and his final separation from Audrey came in May when they were divorced for a second time. While in August, his uncontrolled alcoholism saw him fired from the Grand Ole Opry.
Although his career proceeded apace, and he placed no less than five singles in the Country top ten in that year, including two number ones in the shape of “Hey Good Looking”; and “Cold Cold Heart”, which the great vocal stylist Tony Bennett took to number one on the national chart.
But in the fall, he suffered an accident during a hunting trip on his Tennessee farm which exacerbated his already chronic back problems, while allegedly causing him to resort to a variety of painkillers including morphine.
While in ’52, he scored as many successes as the previous year, including “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)”, which reached number 20 on the national chart, making it his greatest ever hit.
His personal life received a shot of good fortune in October when he married another Southern beauty Billie Jean Jones Eshlimar in Minden, Louisiana. And it’s she who has publicly testified to his reconciliation with Jesus shortly before his death on New Year’s Day 1953, while it behoves all Christian men and women to maintain its sincerity. For when all’s said and done, a person’s salvation is in the hands of the Creator, and the Creator alone.
What is certain is that his death came some time after midnight on the 1st of January 1953, in the back of a Cadillac convertible in which he was being driven to a series of concerts by a college student called Charles Carr,
and was in consequence of a heart attack. And it’s been called the first great tragedy of Rock and Roll.
But were it still up to Williams, would he truly care to be identified with such an ecstatically sensual music form?
That is, in the light of the Luke the Drifter recordings; and his professed belief in the vital importance of repentance, as expressed through several of his earliest songs. To say nothing of the high poetic quality of his lyrics, which have caused him to be dubbed “The Hillbilly Shakespeare”.
Although to be fair, Rock wasted little time in becoming a bona fide art form, with Bob Dylan injecting voluminous quantities of high culture into the music once he’d crossed over from Folk in 1965. While the Beatles were among the first of the initial wave of sixties Rock groups to be powerfully influenced by the fledgling art form’s first true intellectual.
And would it be too fanciful to suggest that Williams’ considerable poetic gifts partially anticipated this development? For Dylan has included the Hiram King among his foremost artistic mentors. While his musical progeny have also included the greatest Rock star of them all, Elvis Presley…the man who effectively birthed an entire era. Albeit unwittingly.
For Elvis was initially seen as a Country artist, performing on the Grand Ole Opry for the first and only time on 2 October 1954, and on the Louisiana Haywire a fortnight after that; and then all throughout the following year. Although in truth, his music subsumed the rougher elements of both Country and Rhythm and Blues to create an entirely new music genre, Rock and Roll.
And seminal Rock and Roll inclined more to Country or R&B depending on the artist creating it at any given time.
But whatever it was known as, it took the Pop world by storm around 1955, while fomenting a cultural and moral revolution whose repercussions continue to be felt in the West and beyond to this day.
Luke the Drifter and the Future of Country
It could conceivably be said the means by which Country survived the Rock and Roll revolution was to distance itself from the very earthiness that had inspired it. And which was pre-eminently associated with Country music’s single most revered figure, the Hiram King, who is also among the most influential popular musicians of the 20th Century.
So while the smooth musical genres of Soul and Tamla-Motown emerged from the far rougher sound of primal R&B, the Nashville Sound was born from a co-mingling of Country and Tin Pan Alley style Pop in the city that tendered it its name.
While its earliest proponents included Jim Reeves, who sang with the finesse of a great song stylist…a Sinatra or a Como…and Patsy Cline, who had something of the Jazz chanteuse about her. But while the Nashville Sound saved Country Music in commercial terms in around 1958, a major creative backlash came courtesy of the Southern Diaspora city of Bakersfield, whose Bakersfield Sound, forged in the mid 1950s, started infiltrating the mainstream a few years later.
For during the Dust Bowl period of the early 1930s, this small conservative town in California’s San Joaquin Valley had been subject to a massive influx of migrants from several southern states including Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas. And when they came, they brought their music and culture with them, with the result that Bakersfield became a Southern city in all but name.
And if the Nashville Sound was born of a harmonious merger between Country and Tin Pan Alley, that of Bakersfield harked back to the pre-Rock age, while ultimately co-opting several key ingredients of this upstart art, its first major figure the Texan Buck Owens, who settled in the town in 1951.
While his first number, “Act Naturally”, from 1963, was later covered by the most successful Pop act of all time, the Beatles…who were allegedly influenced by the Bakersfield Sound; and certainly the distinctive twang of many of their earliest recordings has a powerful Country feel about it.
Although unlike the superstars of the Nashville Sound, Owens never had a top ten record on the Billboard Hot 100.
While Country Pop thrived throughout the ’60s in the shape of such massive crossover hits as Jim Reeves’ “He’ll Have to Go” from 1960; “I’m Sorry” by Brenda Lee, also from ’60, “Make the World Go Away” by Eddie Arnold from 1965; and the poignant “Wichita Lineman” by Glen Campbell from the year of non-stop protest, 1968.
But it was also in the ’60s, or rather the late 1960s at a time when Rock was in the midst of its Golden Age, that new earthier forms of Country could be said to have set about the task of challenging the Nashville mainstream. Such as the first major Bluegrass Revival; as well as the increasing popularity of Progressive Bluegrass.
While Country Rock became an international sensation thanks to such albums as the Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”, spearheaded in ’68 by tragic wunderkind Gram Parsons, who more than anyone was responsible for introducing the Rolling Stones to his beloved music.
While it had been Bob Dylan who’d been its foremost pioneer by dint of incorporating elements of Country into his ground-breaking 1966 double album “Blonde on Blonde”; with “John Wesley Hardin” from ’67, and “Nashville Skyline” from ’69 serving as full-blown Country Rock artefacts.
But it wasn’t until the ’70s that the genre truly came into its own, when the Eagles emerged as the most successful Country Rock act of all time. Although their powerfully melodic sound was indebted to a classic Pop sensibility. And specifically that of the Beatles, whose “Beatles for Sale” from 1964 showed a marked Country influence.
Among the other artists successfully operating within the Country Rock genre in the ’70s were Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and John Fogerty, whose Creedence Clearwater Revival had been instrumental in bringing about the birth of Southern Rock in the late 1960s. This a form of music forged from elements of Rock and Roll, Country and Blues, whose most beloved exponents remain Southern legends the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynrd.
While concurrently with the coming of Country and Southern Rock, Outlaw Country, inspired by the spirit of Hank Williams, started making modest inroads into the mainstream. And it was Willie Nelson, ironically responsible for one of the most beautiful crossover ballads in Country Music history in the shape of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” who stood at its centre.
But he was aided and abetted in this respect by other veterans from the ’50s, such as Johnny Cash, George Jones, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. While younger more troubled outlaws came in the shape of Townes Van Sandt, very much part of the pantheon of tortured prodigies that reached an apogee with Hank Williams, as well as Williams’ own son, Hank Jr.
Although Country Pop with its roots in the Nashville Sound continued to dominate the Pop charts in the ’70s, providing such diverse figures as Anne Murray, Olivia Newton John, John Denver, Glen Campbell, Kenny Rogers, and Dolly Parton with massive crossover hits. Even if by the mid 1980s, it had begun to be challenged by the New Traditional and Alternative schools, with Lyle Lovett widely considered to be the supreme pioneer of what has become known variously as Alt-Country and Americana.
While in the ’90s and ’00s, mainstream Country music experienced an explosion of popularity which propelled certain figures to levels of international pre-eminence previously unprecedented for Country artists.
And these included Billy Ray Cyrus, Shania Twain, Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks, but most of all, Garth Brooks, who stands as the third most successful act in the history of recorded music in America. Even if in terms of international record sales, he is nowhere near as prolific as his closest rivals in the US, the Beatles and Elvis Presley.
And if mainstream Country in the new millennium is closer to teeny bop Pop than ever before, then there are those who’d insist that much contemporary alternative Country is Rock in all but name, with little of pure Country remaining. But if this is so, then at its most progressive, it’s produced some truly exalted art.
Such as from native New Yorker Gillian Welch, who more than anyone since the end of the last millennium has forged fresh territory for Country Music, by fusing Old-Time music not just to the sombre mysteries of Alternative Rock, but the beautiful melodies of Classical Pop.
While the Hiram King’s own grandson, Hank Williams III, serves to disprove the fact that the spirit of traditional Country has been entirely lost to the upstart art of Rock. Even if his lyrics are informed by such quintessential Rock and Roll subspecies as Heavy Metal and Punk.
And what would his granddaddy, Country Music’s single most revered figure, and among the most influential popular musicians of the 20th Century, have to say about the state of Country Music were in a position to say anything at all?
One can’t help thinking he’d be urging those with the requisite talent to return to songs of repentance pure and simple. And that wherever he may be now…he’d be devoutly wishing he devoted more of his life and career to songs bespeaking the seeing of the light and the subsequent preparedness for a time about which he once so fervidly sang…”When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels”.