Oct 3, 2018–One night while playing drums in a smoky bar somewhere in Texas, I kicked off the band on a Hank Williams song we’d played 99 times before. But on this night for some reason, I listened to the words for the first time. It was, I realized, a good song.
Obvious, right? But those old tunes, like Christmas music, become such a part of the musical fabric we don’t stop to realize how groundbreaking it they were at the time. Jason Petty, who has portrayed Hank Williams on Broadway, knows what I am talking about.
“I totally agree,” Petty said during a phone interview. “Hank galvanized country music to be a force, and he did it unwittingly.”
Before Hank, there was Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Rogers, and the cowboy bands popular in 1930s serials and westerns. Hank started the golden age, the fancy suits, the smiling troubadours perched on hay bales, the corny humor. But the songs were true, country blues, about broken relationships, laments of lost love in Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used To Do, and the mournful moan of I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.
“Hank came from a simple life,” said Petty, who appears with his band at the Cailloux this Saturday in Hank and his Honky Tonk Heroes. “He learned music on the streets at the feet of Rufus Payne, a street musician in the deep south. Rufus gave Hank the single most important piece of advice–write about what you know. The audience can spot a fake.”
That’s what separated Hank from the music that had come before him, derisively referred to as hillbilly music. According to Petty’s research, Hank was the first to give us simple lyrics about everyday events in simple songs with verse, chorus, and bridge.
Hank also had that indefinable “it” factor.
“I got to meet everyone who had worked with him,” Petty said. “Little Jimmie Dickens said he was one of those singers that even if you didn’t like his voice, when you saw him in concert you couldn’t take your eyes off him. He could not be ignored, even by detractors.”
And he did have detractors.
“Hank was one of the first who brought a sense of sex and danger to performances,” Petty said, noting that honky tonk stuff was about going out, drinking, and fighting with the wife. “On the other hand, he had an incredible religious nature. Half his songs had a worship nature. But it all came across as honest and believable.”
That added up to one daunting task when Petty first stepped on stage as Hank Williams. For one thing, it was at the Ryman Auditorium, the mother church of country music. For another, it was in front of Hank’s family and friends.
“You talk about ‘under the gun,’” he said. “I was a child of the 70s and 80s more into rock and roll, suddenly portraying country music’s biggest legend–more than a legend, an icon.”
Petty approached it first as the actor he was. Since he lived in Nashville, he mined the country music resources there, starting in the basement of the Country Music Hall of Fame. There, he found videotapes of Hank Williams on stage, home videos, and recording of his early TV appearances on the Kate Smith Show. From those he learned to mimic many of Hank’s physical quirks and nuances. Hank could turn a one-vowel word into a two-vowel word, as in changing “cry” into “cri-ee.”
When Petty began this work 20 years ago, he had another valuable resource–friends, family, and musicians who knew and played with Hank. One of those was James Burton, legendary guitarist for Elvis.
“He came up after a performance and described how when Hank ‘knee bobbed’ he used to tap both feet,” Petty said. “So I started trying to pat both feet at the same time. I was lucky. Porter Wagner and George Jones both gave me pointers, as did everyone who knew him, including his family and friends.”
Inhabiting the persona changed Petty from a rock and roller to someone who fell in love with country music and the man.
The former rocker became friends with all of them, even serving as pallbearer at some of their funerals.
“It’s not just that I am in love with Hank Williams music, as I am in love with the people who loved Hank Williams music and loved him personally, whether he was a star or not. And I love reintroducing and introducing his music to people.”
That’s why Petty considers his show both tribute and biography, with a live band.
“Those guys nail it,” he said. “The music is going to be dead on. The costumes are great. But it’s the stories and songs that will knock people out.”
Just like it did for this drummer, sitting in a smoky bar, playing a Hank Williams song for the hundredth time.
Jason Petty appears as Hank Williams in Hank and My Honky Tonk Heroes, on Oct 6, 7:30 p.m. at the Cailloux Theater.
Information and tickets at www.CaillouxTheater.com or by calling or visiting the Cailloux Theater Box Office, (830) 896-9393.