Author: Rheta Grimsley Johnson
Publisher: NewSouth Books
Price: $24.95 (Cloth)
04/02/2012 Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a widely syndicated columnist of all things southern, well known to readers in 50 newspapers for her commentaries. She was, in 1991, a finalist for the Pulitzer in that category.
Recently Johnson has turned to memoir, publishing "Poor Man's Provence," the story of her years living among the Cajuns in South Louisiana, and "Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming"—a memoir mainly of her childhood in Montgomery. Although her memoirs seemed to me thoroughly heartfelt, she announces that in "Hank" she will "let down [her] journalistic hair and, for once, write about a passion: Hank Williams."
This volume is a kind of hybrid, part of it biography. Johnson covers Hank's upbringing, his mom, Lillian, his singing career, drinking, tempestuous marriage to Audrey, second marriage to Billy Jean, his death at 29, and so on, but a reader could get Hank's story, complete, from several different biographies, most recently "Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams," by the late Birmingham native Paul Hemphill.
This volume is also, however, the story of the place Hank Williams, and country music in general, has in the life of Rheta Johnson and her friends and family. And make no mistake, it is an important place. Music got Johnson through good times and, more importantly, bad times: "We needed Hank the way some need bottled oxygen to supplement their lungs."
Not any music will do. Country, and Hank in particular, "spoke our language and knew our secrets and made us feel better about our troubles and foibles." Hank wrote of "the verities, not things that do not matter next week….loss.…love, loneliness and guilt."
Johnson praises Hank Williams a great deal. After all, he hung the moon.
Some readers less entranced by Hank Williams might say she goes too far.
Johnson says, Williams, like Beethoven, was "of a special breed and knew it…writing for eternity."
And: "There is something almost startling about seeing Hank's actual handwriting, akin to looking at Charlotte Bronte's longhand manuscript of 'Jane Eyre' in the British Museum."
And: "Hank approached his music the way Vincent Van Gogh approached a canvas."
And, finally: "That he could tell those complete and universal stories in less than three minutes and in simple language makes Tolstoy seem verbose and Shakespeare one of his own fools."
Well, that's a real country music fan. And, undeniably, Williams is a much beloved Alabama figure, with his own museum, a highway named after him, and a much visited gravesite, like that of Edgar Allen Poe or William Faulkner or Jim Morrison.
Besides telling Hank's story and her own, Johnson includes a long section on Jett Williams, Hank's illegitimate but recognized daughter, sister to Bocephus, born Antha Belle Jett in 1953, who became Cathy Yvone [sic] Stone and then learned at 21, while a student at the U of A, who her biological father was.
Many people already know a lot about Hank, and a lot about Jett—she has published her own memoir. Those readers may be more interested in some of the tangential figures in Hank's life.
There are Braxton Schuffert, one of the original "Drifting Cowboys" band, interviewed by Johnson when he was 95; Hugh Harris, an Angola Prison guard and Hank Williams impersonator; and Helene Boudreaux, a Cajun chanteuse who sings Hank songs in English and French.
Johnson's affection for her subject is so strong it seems churlish to point out that although this book is beautifully designed, there are numerous typos and some odd errors: the movie "Casablanca" is one word, not two, and Ricky Ricardo's TV orchestra played in the Tropicana Club, not the Copacabana. The audience for this book, however, is clearly Rheta Johnson fans and Hank Williams fans, and they are many and they will love it.