Home / Liner Notables: 24 of Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits

Liner Notables: 24 of Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits

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Garnering an embarrassment of riches and a treasure trove of tidbits from ye olde liner notes… 

“You’ve had to surveyed a lot of farm land over the back-side of a mule to be a good country singer,” Hank Williams is quoted in the liner notes of the 1970 anthology 24 of Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits. It’s the kind of vivid memory of unimpeded rural Alabama landscape recaptured in thoughts at night, and by extension, carried with him for economical and effectively-structured, emotionally direct – and sometimes plaintive songs written years hence:

    Hear the lonesome whippoorwill
    He sounds too blue to fly
    The midnight train is whining low
    I’m so lonesome I could cry

“My personal experiences are all I surely know,” wrote author Wallace Stegner, who once wrote about the splendor of the arid, brown landscapes of Western America as equitable to the lush green hills elsewhere, and about an innate responsiveness and appeal to a known topography, even if it’s one of sparseness and spaciousness taken in over the “back-side of a mule.” "I seem to have been born,” he once wrote, “with an overweening sense of place, an almost pathological sensitivity to the colors, smells, light, and land and life forms of the segments of earth on which I've lived."

Though the runner stumbles at the start of Greatest Hits’ liner notes — almost all wistfully biographical than discographical — Jerry Rivers, fiddler in the most celebrated edition of Williams’ band the Drifting Cowboys and commentator in question, gains a real local color foothold when he recovers and describes Williams early dedication. “From the time of his first clumsy guitar chord on the courtyard square in Montgomery, Alabama, he put all his efforts into becoming a successful singer/songwriter. It is only unusual that he accomplished both in an environment certainly not lending itself to success.”

Nevertheless, Williams — who was said to go "into anything like 'killin' rattlesnakes" in his short 29 years — persevered with single-minded drive and determination to produce his songs of “sincerity and delivery that held a listener or an entire audience spellbound.” Whether in the back of a bumpy car between gigs or a noisy Grand Ole Opry dressing room, Williams was able to tune out the world, and was almost obsessive about refining the song to death and in his seeking of approval afterward, “until a single line or simple idea unfolded into a tragedy or comedy of life and love as ordinary people live it.”

As a springboard from an inquiry by a Tennessee farmer — “Hank, how do you ‘make’ all those songs?” — Rivers offers the view that Williams did more than merely write a song on paper and sing it. He “made” a song “from his own creative genius, then he made it a lasting standard in American music with his own style of delivery.” It is only when someone pointed out Williams’ rural bearing and unpretentious grammar that spurred the comment about getting the lay of some south Alabama acreage from the back of a farm animal. “That he was able,” says Rivers, “to communicate with rural America is understandable.”

And, moreover, that he was able to convey his sense of place on a wider scale with his creative genius and style of delivery is undeniable.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch