I love Hank! I love to sing along with him as I drive. I believe I know all forty of these songs (and many others) by heart. As I listen and sing, memories come swarming into my consciousness. One of the great perks of old age is the ability to relive portions of my life that songs evoke.
Occasionally we read of some Christian writer or speaker telling of how their conversion was influenced by an atheist or pagan philosopher or author. Often it’s a classical thinker whose arguments or logic unintentionally pointed that person to Christ. Sometimes questions are raised that only find their answer in Christ. The other day I saw a reference to G. K. Chesterton and how Bertrand Russell had led him back to Orthodoxy. A recent article in Christianity Today was entitled, “Ann Rand Led Me to Christ.” So I think I need to give some credit to Hank.
I grew up on country music. The Grand Old Opry was on the radio every Saturday night, and country music (it was known as “hillbilly music” in those days) was regular fare. Eddy Arnold, Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff and others whose names I can’t recall, but the greatest, of course, was Hank Williams.
He first came to my attention with “Lovesick Blues” in 1949. I was 12 years old and struggling with raging hormones and pre-teen crushes. His songs of unrequited love had appeal to me and to my peers: “Wedding Bells,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Long Gone Lonesome Blues,” “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You.” We seemed to identify with his struggles even though ours were not quite the same.
Hank’s songs weren’t all about love, requited or otherwise. Hank was a man in conflict and many (most) of his songs seemed to come out of his own experiences. He had come from a church-going home (his mother was an organist) and knew the gospel. He sang gospel songs and even composed a few -- “I Saw the Light,” “House of Gold.”
I had first heard the gospel from a rural school missionary when I was in the second grade; I knew that Jesus died for me and that all I needed to do was believe in Him. But apparently the missionary, Mr. Hartsema, was not permitted to give an invitation or deal with us personally, so I didn’t respond. Or maybe I did …
Anyway, the only gospel music I heard was on the country stations and Hank sang some good ones. But he also sang songs of inner personal conflict – “Lost Highway,” “Lonesome Whistle.” I suppose they could be considered simply part of his blues’ repertoire, but they were a real expression of his life and were fast becoming an expression of my life, as I had started “Honky-Tonkin’” early on in my teens.
Hank was only 29 years old when he died. The cause of his death was given as a coronary, but it was known that he had begun a slide years earlier, triggered by his heavy drinking combined with pain pills (taken for a back injury acquired at age 17 while rodeoing). He had been fired by the Opry and divorced by his first wife Audrey. I was just short of 16 when this happened and by this time was well on my way to following his example of rowdiness.
What happened to Hank was a jolt. Here was a man only 13 years older than I was, a man who had, it would seem, everything going for him, and who died so young.
Perhaps a few lines from his song “Lost Highway” best express the reality of his life and what it told me:
“Now boys don’t start your ramblin’ around,
On this road of sin, or you’re sorrow bound.
Take my advice or you’ll curse the day
You started rollin’ down that lost highway.”
The conflict between bowing to the Lordship of Christ and following the demands of my own desires and my peers’ desires continued with me for a few more years until finally I clearly put my faith in Christ and turned my back on the Lost Highway. Hank didn’t “lead me to Christ” but he did show me that I had to make a choice, which he seemed unable, or for some reason, unwilling to make. I have often wondered if Hank ever did respond to the “Light” before he left this world.
Anyway, I still enjoy riding in the car next to Uni with Hank blaring out of the speakers, just like we did more than a half century ago. And I still like to sing Hank’s songs to her:
“Say hey, good lookin’,
Whatcha got cookin’?
How’s about cookin’ somethin’ up with me?”