I thoroughly enjoyed this short but absorbing biography of the country legend. Having been a fan all his life, the author writes with great empathy and understanding, making the south and the country culture of the 1940s come alive. So one learns a lot about the history of the southern states and the development of the music. Hemphill takes one through the towns, the venues, truckstops and radio stations, the history of the Grand Ole Opry, the record companies and the major figures of early country music.
The story starts with an episode from the author's childhood in 1949 which recounts how the music of Hank Williams resonated with his father and him. Then it takes up Williams' childhood in Alabama where his musical mentor was Rufus 'Tee-Tot' Payne, a street musician. Eventually the Nashville music publisher Fred Rose became Hank's arranger and producer and soon after Williams signed a contract with MGM Records.
His first hit was Move It On Over and in May 1949 Lovesick Blues reached the top of the Billboard chart; the first of many number ones. Despite recurrent problems with demon drink, HW became a regular performer at the Opry. The next year, 1950, turned out to be an exceptionally rewarding time with massive hits like Long Gone Lonesome Blues & Why Don't You Love Me?
Hemphill succeeds in capturing the essence of Williams' poetic genius in his discussions of the famous songs, enthusing the reader to go back to the music and listen with a new ear. He analyses the lyrics, making them more comprehensible in the light of Hank's personal life and background. For example, the troubled relationship with his first wife inspired Cold, Cold Heart.
In those days, live performances were more lucrative than record sales so the singer spent much timer on constant grueling tours, in the days before the luxury tour bus. In a career of only 6 years, he recorded 66 songs of which 37 made the Billboard charts. I found the author's discussion of the different popular music genres of the late 1940s of particular interest. The legend's own compositions were covered by artists as varied as Tony Bennett, Louis Armstrong, Perry Como and Dinah Washington.
Fifty years after his death, his music has been interpreted by an impressive array of artists from almost every possible genre, like James Brown, The Bee Gees, Nat King Cole, Isaac Hayes and Elvis. In the introduction to her version of Pale Blue Eyes, Patti Smith pays tribute to Hank in a brief narration about his death in the back of a car on the way to a gig. That ill-fated final trip is described very well. With a young student at the wheel, snow storms turned the long journey into a nightmare even before Hank passed away in the early hours of New Year's Day, 1953. He was 29 years old.
The writing style is a pleasure, down to earth, often witty even when he narrates episodes from the dark side with lots of empathy. Lovesick Blues is one of the most enjoyable biographies of a musician that I have read. But the book would have benefited from a discography and stuff like Billboard country and pop chart positions, as well as an index. Five stars for reading pleasure, but one deducted for the absence of the aforementioned.