Grand Ole Opry

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Williams’ life held a raw and wild mixture of talent and unhappiness, and the problems that locked themselves onto him were so great that the only wonder is he managed to hang on as long as he did. By 1952, three years after singing “Lovesick Blues” and after making $500,000 and writing such songs as “Cold, Cold Heart,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Jambalaya,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “I Saw the Light,” “Honky Tonkin’,” and “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” the bottom began to come out. He was showing up for concerts drunk or not showing up at all. In the same year in which he and his first wife were divorced, he was suspended from the Grand Ole Opry for being too drunk to perform. Hank Williams found a new wife, but now almost broke, he was forced to restage the marriage for money in a Shreveport, Louisiana, theater: two shows, an afternoon “rehearsal” and an evening ceremony. Williams’ health, like Rodgers’, was now beginning to go, and then, in typical country music style, instead of checking into a hospital or seeing a real doctor, he took his sickness to a quack with a faked medical certificate. Hank Williams by this time had only one ambition, to be allowed back on the stage of his beloved Grand Ole Opry. He might have made it, but on a long drive from Montgomery to Canton, Ohio, to play a date on New Year’s Day, 1954, he died of heart failure, perhaps brought on by an overdose of drugs. He was twenty-nine. Commerce goes on; today in Nashville the green Cadillac he died in is on exhibit, and for twelve dollars I was offered what was claimed to be the needle he OD’d on, set in Lucite.

Country music, which has been defined to death, resists every classification except Kris Kristofferson’s “If it sounds country, man, it’s country.” It is a blend of British balladry, American folk, Protestant hymns, Southern white themes, and black blues. “Sometimes the music is called ‘hillbilly music,’ ” writes novelist Charles Portis, “which is only half accurate, because the southern lowlands have contributed just as much as the hill folks, perhaps more; and sometimes ‘country and western,’ which is misleading because such of it as reflects the culture west of Abilene, Texas, tends to be pretty thin stuff. ‘Southern-white workingclass music’ would never do as a tag. But that’s what it is.”

Perhaps it’s even simpler than that. Mastering a guitar or banjo lick or working out a new style, as in the case of the Carter Family or Jimmie Rodgers or Hank Williams, may very well come as a relief from the tension and the boredom of the day’s work. Earl Scruggs, who popularized the threefinger banjo-picking style, said it cleanly: “I taught myself. We were on the farm and it was in the winter. I didn’t have anything else to do.”

Merle Travis, who wrote “Sixteen Tons,” “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette,” “Dark as a Dungeon,” and originated a whole new method of guitar picking—which he describes as splitting his left hand in half while he plays the bass with his thumb—once said, “There is always a better guitar player on down the road. Always.” The new musician gets richer tones, faster runs, and comes up with new chords, and people gather around and listen. Then someone else picks it up and then it travels. It’s easy to see how pickers can keep doing showboat runs and fast fret patterns on the back porch after work and eventually figure out a whole new sound, a whole new technique from simply trying to get ready for the new player who’s just ridden into town. A Grand Ole Opry favorite, “The Orange Blossom Special,” which no one wrote and everybody wrote, has a rich structure, much like jazz, which has evolved out of thousands of hours of fiddle and guitar players trying to out-perform one another. Listen to the song and watch for the setup which allows the soloists to step forward and do their stuff and then sit back down and wait to do it again. Listen also for the incredible accumulation that sets the stage for the best fiddler in the area and challenges him to try and cut it.

Travis, who is always looking for that phantom lick out there in the dark beyond his talent, told me about the competition and the search. Much of it is done under the guise of general horsing around, but the competition is there. “This old boy came to my dressing room down in Waco, Texas, with a sheet of music, wanting to know how I fretted a double B chord. I said, ‘A double B?’ Yeah, that fool thought B-flat was a double B. Called it big B and little B. Well, I asked him if his fingers were limber, and he wiggled them around and told me he could reach and hold anything. Right there was where he made his mistake. I wound that rascal around that guitar neck like a pea vine running through a cyclone fence. I had him put a finger on four places an octopus couldn’t reach, and I said, ‘You got it.’ That old boy was holding on, sweating bullets, and his hand was so cramped up and stretched out so far it was throbbing. He said, ‘Yessir, I got her. I got her. But she’s slipping. … It’s going to take some strong practice to do this one. But listen, I sure appreciate this.’ ”