I picture Hank, wobbly from drink and lack of sleep, standing on the shoulder of some old black top highway where he stopped to take a piss. A clear whiskey bottle with a couple warm swallows left dangles from his fingertips. It’s around midnight and as always people are waiting on him. Hank Williams considers the bottle, takes in the moon and says nothing.
He climbs back into the car. The emptiness inside doesn’t leave as he slurs from the back seat. Loneliness lifts long enough when he takes the stage in the next town for hooting fans in a smoky honky-tonk where he is always most at ease. At a break, he stumbles out the back stage door into a dirty alley, sweaty hair pasted to his skull and the ghostly pallor of the spent drunk.
In the distance he hears a midnight train whining low.
Hank wonders why he can’t stop living the songs he sings.
The greatest country song ever written tumbled out of Hank’s heart in the lonely spaces between.
Elvis Presley called I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry the saddest song he had ever heard. A dying Johnny Cash recorded a ravaged version with Nick Cave. It’s been embraced by bluesmen, punk rockers and Hollywod stars like Dean Martin and Andy Williams.
Hank originally meant it to be a spoken-word ramble in the style of his old Luke the Drifter recordings. He poured his heart out about Miss Audrey, the wife who broke his heart.
If you have never listened to this song, do it the next chance you get. If you already have, do it again soon, especially when the sadness creeps in.
Hank Williams sang “Lonesome” like a saint in agony. He sang plainly, as if heartbreak was a friend. Hank, who passed away in the back seat of a car at 29-years-old, wrote poetry in the darkness like the sun was coming up at any moment.
Even if you can’t recall exactly how a whippoorwill sounds, when Hank sings about him, you know that the poor bird was too blue to fly. And no one has ever seen a robin weep, but every time I hear Hank moan, I know it’s really Hank who has lost his will to live.
Country’s greatest poet never waxed poetic. His words were simple and honest. Pretty clear what he meant when he sang Cold, Cold Heart or when he cried You’re Cheatin’ Heart. Mind Your Own Business and Hey Good Lookin’ didn’t waste words. While there are scratched up pages of lyrics to prove otherwise, when Hank sang it sounded like he’d made up the words right there on the spot.
“I’ve never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind a cloud
To hide it’s face and cry…
Hank, standing along that black top, smells the night air. The moon, like Hank the celebrity, must hide his face to cry. Hank’s wife had left him. The Grand Ole Opry, the inner circle of Country music, had turned him out.
Hank, the natural poet, paid attention to the natural world around him. He uses the weeping robin and dying leaves to convey despair and the fading spirit of fall. Perhaps for Hank, it was another season of overwhelming emptiness.
The last verse of Hank’s song is perhaps the most mournful and beautiful ever written.
The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome I could cry