by Paul Hemphill
LOVESICK BLUES is a bare-bones telling of the life of Hank Williams, written with the love of a true fan. Hemphill makes a Southern, blue-collar point to strip away anything unnecessary, (page count: 210) and that’s probably what makes the book such a compulsive read from start to finish. Wiliams used to tell his band, “keep it vanilla,” and LOVESICK BLUES reads like the best of novels: it keeps the prose lean, and the plot mean.
To hear it cold in one sitting, the drama of Williams’ life is Shakespearean. A superstar at 25, dead at 29, the great American poet of lost love grew up essentially fatherless due to his father’s stints in VA hospitals. He would seek affection from two Lady MacBeth-like women: Lilly, his overbearing mother, and Audrey, his tone-deaf stardom-seeking wife. Both would fail him to his demise. But it was only amongst the men of his life–his mentor Tee-Tot, his producer Fred Rose, and his best friend and lap steel player Don Helms–that he would find brief love and acceptance.
While LOVESICK BLUES sticks close to the tale, Hemphill also uses Williams’ life to illuminate three truths of writing:
1. Genius doesn’t come out of nowhere.
Hear the lonesome whippoorwill / He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low / I’m so lonesome I could cry
While many wonder how a hillbilly dropout from rural Alabama penned lyrics like these, Hank’s early life roaming the woods of the South and chasing a black blues singer named Tee-Tot around town provided all the observations and inspiration he would need for his poetry. The woman troubles would come later…
2. Every good writer needs an editor.
In the producer’s seat, Nashville music publisher Fred Rose provided the arrangement know-how and polish to turn Hank’s songs into classics.
3. At the end of the day, the work is what counts.
While Hank might’ve spent most of his days drunk and rowdy, he treated the studio as a sanctuary. He poured his soul out into the microphone, so for those of us who never got to see him on the Opry stage, his true vision and lasting legacy–the 66 recorded songs he cut–are with us forever.
LOVESICK BLUES is lean, but it could be leaner. I found Hemphill’s intro and closing chapters about his truck-driving Hank-loving father to be a little sentimental. Does Hank really only belong to the truck drivers and waitresses working that lonesome highway? Doubtful. Hank belongs to all of us who are listening.
Now I’m just waiting for someone to write a novel based solely around Charles Carr: the college kid who found himself in the middle of a New Year’s Eve snowstorm with the father of country music dead in the backseat of his car. There’s a character with a story to tell.