I. Introduction: The Lost Highway
The Opry was a boisterous place the night Hank Williams made his debut, June 11, 1949; the crowd was hopping to the tunes of that Lovesick Blues Boy, as he was called. They demanded from him an unheard of six encores. This legendary performance was ended by Red Foley coming to the microphone to quiet the crowd, lest they cheer all night long (Henderson, Tassin, 1975, p. 41). And thus a true legend was born.
The reign of Hank Williams’ on the country’s most famous stage lasted three years, until August 11, 1952. His dismissal from the stage was bitter and marked by a promise to keep: sober up and you can return. Hank Williams died before he could be reinstated to his legendary position as king of Opryland. The Opry has yet to reinstate him to this day.
The call for Hank Williams’ remittal to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry has been loud and lasting. It is headlined by none other than Hank Williams’ grandson Shelton Hank Williams III, friends, family, fans, current Opry stars including Charlie Daniels, country stars such as David Allen Coe, and Grand Ole Opry personnel (Shelton Hank Williams III, Keith Nelter. Reinstate Hank Williams. Reinstate Hank Organization, Hank III, Nelter Creative, 2008. Web. 1 Nov.2010.). The reasons for this alleged “sin” are policies and discrepancies on the part of the Opry itself. These policies are fallacious and raise many questions about the way the Opry is operating, has been operated, and how they treat past and current members. Why can band members not be readmitted to the Opry posthumously? Why are dead members not considered members by technicality? Why is the Opry allowed to maltreat their elder members? These are all issues that the Opry needs to be held accountable for. In Tassin and Henderson’s Fifty Years at the Grand Ole Opry, they talk about the glory the historically popular institution of American music was; this glory is now something of a bad joke, with their policies as the punch line. The Opry must reinstate Hank Williams and thus be held accountable for past and current wrongs, as well, The Opry needs to completely revise their policies and make them work for the performer, not for the ultimate profit of the Opry’s business.
II. Hank Williams: The Tragic King of Country Music
Hiram Hank Williams was born in a log cabin in southern Alabama to a father, Lon, and a mother Lilly Williams in 1923. Lon left in 1930, leaving Lilly Williams alone to care for the family and leaving a seven year old Hank and his siblings fatherless for most of their lives. Like many country singers, Hank Williams began to show his talent in the gospel church-music.
But where he showed talent in singing, his music career truly began when he stayed with his cousin J.C. McNeil. When he stayed with the McNeil family he learned from his aunt how to pick the guitar, and learned from his cousin how to drink whiskey. He’d had his first taste of liquor at the age of eleven. Not totally uncommon in prohibition era Southern U.S., kids would learn to find the stashes of bootleg whiskey at the hoedowns and would drink when the coast was clear (Caress, 1979, p. 14). This was also his first taste of the string band style country music. These hoedowns marked his introduction into the music that would be his trademark. With a mixture of novelty songs, “negro blues”, ballads, laments, and many other styles of songs, and Hank would use their three common traits of melody, simplicity, and rhythm to create his very well known brand of country music.
It is a question who gave it to him, but it is certain that by the age of twelve he had a guitar in his hands and was eagerly learning to play it. The first lessons came from his aunt Mrs. McNeil, and beyond that two black street performers, Cade Durham and Rufe Payne (AKA Tee-tot). He sought out Rufe Payne when his mother moved the family to Greenville, Alabama. Rufe Payne taught the young Hank the important lesson of timing and rhythm, which was a mark of his later career. Hank Williams said of Tee-tot: “all the musical training I ever had was from him” (Hank Williams via Caress, 1979, p. 23). When his family migrated to Montgomery was the beginning of his true career in country music. His mother helped him trade in his $3.50 guitar for a sunburst finished Gibson. An amateur night at the Empire Theater was his break. He sang a song he’d written called “WPA Blues”, and he was a hit. He won the first prize of fifteen dollars and rode his success
to an audition of WFSA Radio Studios, one of the two big country stations in Montgomery at the time. He was awarded a spot as “The Singing Kid”, it wasn’t long after he earned a show of his own, twice a week for fifteen minutes. It was here that the first incarnation of his famous Drifting Cowboys was created, as seen in Figure 1. Through the ensuing years Hank Williams garnered a very large following, a heavy alcohol addiction, and was quickly becoming a hit. He arrived in Nashville with his wife Audrey in 1946. This arrival marks one of the greatest musical partnerships in American history: that of Hank Williams and Acuff-Rose upon his audition he was signed Acuff-Rose immediately. Both these men became mentors in the same realm as Tee-tot.
In June 1949, in its twenty-fourth year on the air, the Grand Ole Opry welcomed Hank Williams on stage. He began his yodeling tune “Lovesick Blues”, to an unprecedented six encores. His career on the Opry’s stage was marked with consistent absences, drunken appearances and similar antics. For this
he was relieved of his position amongst the Opry’s ranks, with the promise: sober up and you can return. He never did.
III. The Grand Ole Opry: Lovesick Blues
Hank Williams’ stint on the Grand Ole Opry’s stage was short lived. During his years at the Opry he made an impact on the Nashville sound as well as the barn dance and honky-tonk image. In a way, not only his work with the Opry, but the Opry’s sheer existence has affected the music culture surrounding Nashville: Music City. “The Opry, with its self-conscious history and traditions, relies on a homespun definition of country music” (Jensen, 1998, p. 68), this quote represents quite effectively the ideological standpoint of the Opry, especially in a post-Williams world.
For several years, Hank Williams was an Opry regular, but he garnered a reputation for being an unreliable performer. Though his performances proved him an ample asset to the Opry’s business, his performances garnering attention more akin to Frank Sinatra or The Beatles than to traditional figures like Ernest Tubb (Jensen, 1998, p. 74), garnering attention from both traditional country audiences and a growing pop-oriented audience; the first seeds of the current Nashville pop-trend in country music.
The Opry is the country’s leading institution in country music, and Hank Williams is much to be blamed for that. Williams is one of the most iconic figures in country music history, and his performance with the Opry is to this day stuff of legend. The Opry gave him the promise that if he would sober up he could return. His untimely death prevented his triumphant return to the stage he loved so much (Boucher, Smithsonian, 2003, p. 96). The Opry to this day utilizes Hank Williams name and image in everything from quotes and images on their website to radio advertisements (Shelton Hank Williams III, Keith Nelter. Reinstate Hank Williams. Reinstate Hank Organization, Hank III, Nelter Creative, 2008. Web. 1 Nov.2010.).
IV. Reinstate Hank
The fact that the Grand Ole Opry has yet to this day to allow Hank Williams’ remittal is one of great controversy in the worlds of Nashville and country music as a whole. The Reinstate Hank organization is run by none other than Hank Williams’ grandson, a country star in his own right. This organization is supported by family, friends, fans, current and former Opry stars (including Charlie Daniels), and even Opry personnel (Shelton Hank Williams III, Keith Nelter. Reinstate Hank Williams. Reinstate Hank Organization, Hank III, Nelter Creative, 2008. Web. 1 Nov.2010.). A petition is in circulation to gain Hank’s reinstatement. Rallies, protests, and events are created around this issue, as seen in Figure 2. The simple fact that the Opry is completely ignoring the issue is troubling at best. And it begs the question: ”If Hank Williams were alive today and wished an association with the Opry, we would certainly want to talk with him about re-joining the cast. One of the Opry’s many roles is to honor and
respect history, not attempt to re-write it,” (Fisher, Gray, 2010, para. 8). Pete Fisher who is the vice president and general manager of the Opry even went so far as to say that he was indeed proud of Hank Williams’ three year association with the Opry.
As is evidenced by our own country’s laws, when something is wrongful it is repealed. This brings to attention why the same can’t be true, why can former Opry stars be readmitted after they have passed? Hank Williams, after all, has received many prestigious awards posthumously, the most striking of which are a Grammy in 1989, admittance into halls of fame and museums, and a Pulitzer Prize in 2010. If all of these things can be awarded to him post-death, policies should not be the things in the way of his reinstatement into one of country music’s greatest institutions.
The issue at hand is not only of Hank Williams’ maltreatment at the hands of the Opry after his death in 1952. The Opry’s policies also allow them the freedom to maltreat their elder members, they are allowed to let elder members perform as much or as little as they deem “necessary”. This is clearly wrong when one considers the fact that it was the elder members who have kept the Opry alive for all these years since its early inception. Elder members who have continued to perform and continued to evolve country music; what would passed members say if they saw what their institution of music has become? Mother Maybelle Carter described the Opry as such: “The Grand Ole Opry sprang from such a neighborly sharing, and has become the symbol of country music to the world. She became that because she has always given, to those of us who were part of her as well as to the remainder of interested America, a down-to-earth and straightforward picture of a way of life” (Mother Maybelle Carter via Tassin, Henderson, 1975, p. 11). This vision of the Opry is something that should still exist, but it does not. The Opry’s policies and treatment of its members, and its exploitation of Hank Williams’ name and image mark a paradigm shift within the Opry itself. Where it once represented the down-home country music styling, it now represents a commoditization of not only country music as a whole, but the commoditization of the people that are involved in it.
This commoditization can be seen even in the essence of Music City (now called “Titan Town”). Where once all of Music Row was made up of Honky Tonks and other institutions of music, now it is made up of corporations and big businesses (Joe Buck, Trashville, Documentary). As Creech Holler says in the documentary on Nashville’s current state, Trashville: this does not represent the country, this does not represent country people.
Hank Williams influence on country music is wide-spread and undeniable. He’s been the king of country music since he first stormed the music-scene. The one and only real argument that the Opry poses is that, historically, it is in their policies that there can be no posthumous reinstatements. In the shadow of the vast amount of argument for Williams’ reinstatement, this seems meager. To combat this, we as fans of Country Music and of Hank Williams should boycott the Grand Ole Opry, their policies, and their exploitation of their members. Alternatively, there is the option of protesting, rallying, and creating resources for the public to understand why this issue is important and what effect it has on country music and America’s musical culture and heritage as a whole.
V. Conclusion: A House Without Love
For his contributions to a distinctly American music genre, Hank Williams deserves to be reinstated to the Grand Ole Opry, to the stage he loved so much. The Grand Ole Opry needs to answer several fundamental questions about their treatment of current and past member, and this is the first step to their being made accountable. The fact that one of America’s greatest music institutions exploits the image of one of their past greatest stars is sickening, and with the grassroots support of fans, musicians, current Opry stars, and even some of the personnel of the Opry, hopefully this sin can be atoned for.