Every underdog has its day
That'92s right: National Underdog Day.
A holiday so lost in the mists of antiquity that no one seems to agree on whether it should be celebrated on the 15th, the 17th or the 18th, National Underdog Day deserves a hearty reception this year, for 2008 has been boom time for underdogs. Not for underdogs winning, necessarily '97 see the case of Alabama v. Florida '97 but for the sheer number and variety clamoring for our attention.
Regardless of what the Vatican Council proclaims, I suggest that the patron saint of underdogs should be Alabama'92s own Hank Williams. Beset lifelong by back pain, domineering women and potions taken to escape such discomforts, Williams somehow recorded more than 170 songs during his brief six-year career, 11 of which hit the top of the country music charts and doubtless paved the way to his induction at the inception of the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961.
What makes Hank the perfect underdog is a historic willingness to throw everything away; relationships, automobiles, royalties, even reputation. Maybe it'92s his white-trash ways, but maybe it'92s Zen perfection. After all, the man who practically invented modern country music managed to get himself thrown off the Grand Ole Opry.
More than 50 years after the fact, Hank'92s grandson is trying to get something done about that latter unpleasantness, in a quest that makes him a bit of an underdog, too. Shelton Williams, professionally known as Hank 3 (though, technically speaking, because there was no subsequent offspring named Hiram King Williams, there is thus no Hank Sr., Jr. or III), spearheads the Reinstatement Project, a grass-roots movement to persuade the Grand Ole Opry to restore Hank Williams'92s membership.
It was no error of paperwork. In 1952, Hank was arguably the biggest star in country music, having notched hits in the past year alone with '93Hey, Good Lookin'92,'94 '93Cold, Cold Heart'94 and '93I Can'92t Help It (If I'92m Still in Love with You).'94 His lifestyle, however, foreshadowed rock '91n'92 roll, replete with excessive drink and drugs, womanizing and the ritual destruction of hotel rooms.
The Opry knew of his wild ways when it brought the 26-year-old and his backup band, the Drifting Cowboys, onstage at the Ryman Auditorium to perform '93Lovesick Blues'94 one Saturday night in 1949. Used to polite renditions of popular tunes, the audience exploded upon hearing Hank'92s undiluted country soul singing, demanding an unprecedented six encores before allowing him to leave the stage.
Williams presented a quandary for the image-conscious Opry, an entertainment powerhouse since 1925 but also a public relations arm of Nashville'92s National Life insurance empire. National Life chairman Edwin Craig wanted no whiff of scandal associated with the program, broadcast to millions across the continent over the company'92s clear-channel radio station, WSM. Hank almost immediately became a member of the Grand Ole Opry troupe, but Opry manager Jim Denney was told to keep an eye on the youngster.
As a member, Hank was obliged to attend a certain number of broadcasts and bookings arranged by the Opry. Touring was a logistical challenge in the days before private jets and turbocharged buses, so Opry members making a living singing around the country during the week often had to hustle hard to keep their Opry appointments on Saturday nights.
According to Colin Escott'92s invaluable biography, Hank missed bookings right and left throughout early 1952, and his dissolute ways led to an ultimatum from Denney: show up for the Aug. 9 program and an Opry-promoted booking the next day or face the consequences. Hank blew off the broadcast and showed up drunk for the booking. Denney telephoned Aug. 11 and fired him, later calling it '93the toughest thing I ever had to do in my life.'94
Opry star Ernest Tubb recalled encountering Edwin Craig shortly thereafter and asking about the situation. '93I'92m sure Jim means well,'94 Tubb remembered the executive saying, '93but it may work the other way. It may kill him.'94 Sure enough, Hank expired in the back seat of a powder blue Cadillac little more than four months later, on New Year'92s Day, 1953.
After his death, Hank'92s legend continued to grow, as musicians in other genres discovered the songs of the so-called '93Hillbilly Shakespeare.'94 Country music grew in popularity as well, with stars in succeeding generations proclaiming their artistic indebtedness to Hank Williams. The Opry up and moved from Ryman, but Hank'92s image still greets you at the door each week, still moves merchandise in the gift shop, despite the fact Hank'92s name is still absent from the Opry roster.
Hank 3 has been joined in his quest by other artists, including filmmaker Blake Judd and painter Keith Neltner, who have mounted an online petition for you to sign at reinstatehank.org. (A physical petition book will join Hank 3 on tour around the country early next year.)
Is this merely a glorious publicity stunt by Hank'92s kin, or, worse, a perverse reverse stunt by the family-friendly Opry, leading to some sort of garish reconciliatory HankFest in Nashville later this year? I think not. To a lot of people in an ever-homogenizing South, the rebel Hank Williams is endangered, every bit as worthy of salvation as your snail darter or Cahaba lily. More so, maybe, because it'92s not about something as transient as a planet.
There are doubters reading this. To them, I say, find the new CD set, The Unreleased Recordings, taken from Hank'92s local radio broadcasts in 1951 and restored with brilliant clarity from old transcription disks. Effortless transcendence. Walt Whitman'92s YAWP in three chords with a steel guitar. The unexpurgated history of everything that was and could never be.
Here is a statement about reinstatement: if Hank Williams'92s plaque is allowed to hang in the Country Music Hall of Fame, it'92s only fair that Hank'92s spirit be allowed to hang backstage at the Grand Ole Opry.
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