Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Terrific Musical Memoir

"I don't like country music, but I don't mean to denigrate those 
who do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means 
'put down.'" 
  -- Bob Newhart

Growing up in Pittsburgh, I wasn't much of a country music fan. What I knew of it came from two sources: my father's Patsy Cline records, and the FM stations on our radio that played true country (hillbilly) music from West Virginia. I couldn't bear to listen to the latter for too long.

I became much more familiar with country when I became a Willie Nelson fan. By that time I had a sense of what a musical giant Hank Williams was in this genre. But now, after reading Rheta Grimsley Johnson's memoir Hank Hung the Moon and Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts, I have a deeper understanding of what he means to Southerners.

This is a wonderful piece of writing, and a labor of love. Johnson, cleaning the attic after the death of a her husband, comes across the interviews he'd done in preparation for a book about Hank Williams that never came to fruition. The fact that this work was done with a former wife is no impediment to Johnson: she decides to draw upon these "Hank enthusiast's" research in her own book on the subject.

I love how at the start she quotes Elvis Costello on writing about music. He once said that "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It's a really stupid thing to want to do."

Believe me, I can relate to this statement. How often I've read concert or CD reviews and felt the futility of the writer trying to describe a sound or a feeling created.  Johnson will go on however:

"But all of us who string words together in feeble attempts to tell a story half as well as Hank, all of us think we have something to add to the legend, another way to interpret genius. Mostly we want an excuse to get closer to the music and the man. For we need Hank for something more elemental than entertainment, sometimes in an urgent way. We need him to continue to function in this life, to make sense of things, to help wrestle down demons. We need him the way gandy dancers need their rhythmic chants to get through a ten-mile stretch of railroad repair. The way a beautician needs bobby pins. Hank was more than our troubadour. He was, in a way, our savior."

So we travel with Johnson to visit Hank Williams's daughter Jett. (She only learned she was his daughter practically three decades after he died!) We meet Hugh Harris, an accomplished Hank impersonator. Johnson also interviews Hank Braxton Schuffert, who knew Hank and, subscribing to a more temperate lifestyle, is around to tell the tale more than half a century later.

But the book is a memoir, and Johnson skillfully weaves in her life story along with the interviews. You get to appreciate what life was like growing up in rural west Georgia, and how Hank speaks for true country people.

Hank Hung the Moon has me eager to revisit Williams's music. I'll bet that it will have the same effect upon you. I'd like to end with a memorable passage from the book in which Johnson, reflecting upon the music lessons she took as a girl, draws a connection between music and writing.

"I have read and subscribe to the theory than any writer worth her salt needs to take a few music lessons and some sailing lessons before attempting to write. A writer, goes the argument, needs to know the poetry and the lilting language of both pursuits, those phrases that sound like what they are: crescendo and listing, for examples. You call on the language of music and the sea at every turn to make prose pretty. They become the memorable phrases, the ones with salt and sea spray and - shall I say it? - rhythm."

Isn't that terrific writing? Check out this book! Here's the author on You Tube.