With their sky high prices, Broadway-level shows are largely unknown to me. But thanks to an actor friend at my parish, I received a complimentary ticket to a matinee performance of “Hank Williams: Lost Highway,” which until late June will be playing on West 42 Street. It arrived there after a previous engagement in a small theater in Lower Manhattan, where its sell-out success prompted the producers to seek a larger venue. I went with the pastor and two parishioners.
Our actor friend, Mike Moran, plays the role of the narrator in what has been called a bio-musical about the life of one of the most talented country western singers the South has ever known. His songs are still played today, and although the fact that he died young serves as a reminder of the fragility of all human life, the enduring quality of his songs reassures us that the human spirit can live on.
His most famous songs are songs I knew in my youth, like “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Hey, Good Lookin’.” The day after seeing the play, I celebrated my usual early morning Mass for the Christian Brothers at LaSalle Academy. Over bowls of cereal afterwards, they were stunned to hear me break into a few lines of “Hey, Good Lookin’.” One of the brothers, accustomed to seeing me in a more subdued mood at 7 a.m., asked: “Are you on something?” No, it was just the happiness of reconnecting with the kind of music I knew so well in the 1950’s.
Hank Williams’s own life had little happiness in it. Born into a poor family in Alabama, he was given his first guitar at eight; his mother is quoted in the program as saying that she paid $3.50 for it, a secondhand model. “That was a lot of money then—I was making only a quarter a day nursing or sewing,” she said. His mostly absent father provided little support and was seldom around.
By age 10 Hank had already been introduced to alcohol while visiting the home of cousins, and in his teens the drinking became more pronounced. By the time his talent as a singer and songwriter was recognized, a degenerative spinal condition had become a source of constant pain. To deaden the pain, besides alcohol he resorted to the sedative chloral hydrate. His failed marriage to a young woman in his show known as “Miss Audry” increased his chemical dependence even more. While being driven from Montgomery to a show in Canton, Ohio, on New Year’s Day 1953, he fell asleep across the back seat of his car and never woke up. He was only 29 when he died.
Such a death, at so early an age, might have made for a sad end to the play, and I was expecting to leave the theater in a gloomy mood. And the latter part does portray his career’s bleak downhill slide. The ever more frequent periods of intoxication resulted in his being fired from the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville—a kind of holy grail for country western singers. We see Hank staggering as he tries to sing before an audience, while his back-up performers, the Drifting Cowboys, try to cover for him. But in fact, the play ended on an upbeat note with what might be called a resurrection scene. My actor friend Mike described it as Hillbilly Heaven. We see Hank once again, now vibrantly alive in his signature white suit, accompanied by Miss Audry and the Drifting Cowboys, singing as they had in their best days. Even his mother is there, clapping to the rhythms—though in her black mourning dress. It was indeed a kind of heaven, with the talents of all on full display.
Hank Williams came just before Elvis Presley and never equaled him in fame. The very brevity of his life can serve as a cautionary tale for multi-talented young people today faced with the dangerous pressures of an entertainer’s fast-paced existence—pressures that can prematurely put an end to their creative gifts.