Country legend Hank Williams lives again in film

NEW YORK • In the new film I Saw The Light, a surly Hank Williams, played by Tom Hiddleston, grudgingly consents to an interview with a New York City newspaper reporter. The writer asks Williams how he explains his popularity.

"Everybody has a little darkness in them," Williams replies, between sips of whisky. "I'm talking about things like anger, misery, sorrow, shame."

He adds: "I show it to them and they don't have to take it home. They expect I can help their troubles."

More than 60 years after his death at the age of 29, Williams - who has been called "the Hillbilly Shakespeare" for the striking imagery of his songs - apparently still holds that kind of power over listeners and I Saw The Light is only the latest manifestation of his legacy.

Most obvious is his perpetual presence in country music.

In his brief career, he had more than 30 Top 10 country hits, including the standards Cold, Cold Heart, I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry and Hey, Good Lookin'.

Over the years, his name has been invoked as the embodiment of artistic integrity (Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? by Waylon Jennings) and as a symbol of self- destructive living ("If I get stoned and play all night long, it's a family tradition," sang his son, Hank Williams Jr).

One way or another, it seems that he shows up somewhere on nearly every country record.

The impact of his music, though, extends far beyond Nashville.

In 1991, Bob Dylan said, "To me, Hank Williams is still the best songwriter", while Bruce Springsteen, in 2012, described how he had once "lived on" the music of Williams, with its "beautiful simplicity, darkness and depth".

Keith Richards, Beck and Johnny Cash all played on the Grammy- winning tribute album Timeless (2001) and, for The Lost Notebooks Of Hank Williams (2011), Jack White, Norah Jones and other artists set unrecorded Williams lyrics to new melodies they composed.

On screen was a biopic, Your Cheatin' Heart in 1964, starring George Hamilton. In 2012, The Last Ride re-enacted Williams' final road trip, when he died in the backseat of a limousine en route to a 1953 New Year's performance in Ohio.

Most of the score for Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show (1971) was made up of Williams recordings while Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom (2012) included six of his songs.

For his film, writer-director Marc Abraham said he wanted to focus on the tempestuous relationship between Williams and his first wife, Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen).

"That was the fire," he said. "That's where the songs come from."

He noted that everything from Williams' name and "snake-like vibe" to his defiant independence contribute to his long-lasting coolness. "He spit in the eye of the right guys; he got kicked off the Grand Ole Opry," he said. "He wanted to do it his way and he prevailed. For any young stud, that's kind of aspirational."

For Hiddleston, the contradictions in Williams' writing and personality help explain the continuing allure of his music. "There's an interesting tension between his charisma and masculinity and the vulnerability in his songs," he said. "It's the tension in the American man, perhaps."

Of course, Williams was also a prototype for the live fast-die young archetype familiar through tragic stars from James Dean and Marilyn Monroe to Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur. Frozen forever at the peak of his fame, his myth was further cemented by the eerie fact that his song, I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, reached No. 1 within days of his death.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2016, with the headline 'Country legend Hank Williams lives again in film'. Print Edition | Subscribe