Nashville Just Before the Outlaws Rode Into Town
By David Dalton

From Gadfly November 1998


There was something about Nashville back then, the pre-desperado days, that was as glamorous in its own hokey way as Hollywood in the forties, as much fun as you could have on prescription drugs and as devoid of irony as an infomercial.

I take out my Opryland Time Transporter, shake the crystal ball, and as I watch styrofoam snowflakes falling on a gaudy tour bus parked at a truck stop, I mumble, "Sing me back, baby, to, uh... March 17, 1973." Suddenly I'm out there, rolling through the unholy road-tour night as the Fabulous Flying Vestibule conveying Bocephus (Hank Williams, Jr.) to another one-nighter tails down the Interstate—flashing past orange metallic gas-station moons, radar deep-dish pies, truck-weighing stations, Stuckeys pecan pie emporiums and Heavy Mother State Park. Somewhere out there an embryonic Holiday Inn room like some alien pod is forming every thirty-six minutes. And somewhere between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, in the land of speckled peas, goobers, wildcats and fruit-jar moonshine, the resident maniac of this tour, Merle "Boogie King" Kilgore, is coaxing his two transistorized Japanese poodles.

"Spot! Fang! Talk to Daddy! Aw, c'mon, to yo Daddy, sweethearts." Their black button faces look back at him in bewilderment like anxious bathmats. Nothing is coming across. The Boogie King electrifies his man-in-the moon face, pushing his wide crazed eyes and supercharged bear grin right up against their motionless muzzles. But all of his wildness cannot conjure the little nippers.

The luxury tour bus—really a rolling house with its paneled walls, well-stocked bar, bunk beds and lounge—is a fixture of the country music scene. It's also home for Hank Jr. and his group for roughly 300 days a year. On the road since the age of eight, Hank Jr. is a fairly typical example of the new country star—rich, relaxed, hip. "Countrypolitan" is the way Nashville liked to describe itself back then. A word that, mercifully, didn't make it into too many dictionaries. The submarine-like life on the tour bus and grinding one-night stands would be hard to take if it weren't for the Boogie King's good-natured insanity.

Merle is now Hank Jr.'s manager but in those days the Boogie King opened Hank's shows. He's a singer-songwriter in his own right (he wrote "Wolverton Mountain" and "Ring of Fire" with June Carter).

It's that three-in-the-morning-tour-bus lull when all you can hear is the windshield wipers slapping time to a cassette tape playing some crazy song back there in the darkness, "Opal, You Ask Me," a six-minute marriage obituary that might well be the zenith of the "X's" lore. "X's" (ex-wives, ex-husbands, ex-lovers) are the leitmotif of country lyrics. "You can have everything I've got, Opal," the mock voice drones on, "the house, the car, the money in the bank, the muffler shop...." As the song fades out with some absurd business about an igloo in the remotest part of Alaska, Fang's steam-shovel mouth cranks slowly open, emitting a shrill, pre-recorded yelp. But, what's this? The little devil is going backwards!

"GOODGAWD HOUND!" booms the Boogie King, "can't yew heah yo master's voice?" Somewhere deep in Fang's circuits there's been a cybernetic lapse. It's something to do with the word "igloo." It's jamming the memory bank.

The Good Ole Days
Like any other country star, Hank Jr. played the Grand Ole Opry several times a year. Members were required to perform a certain number of Saturdays even though it only paid $30 a show—and that was for the headliners. This was when the Opry was still in the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville, a rough old converted tabernacle with wooden seats. It's been relocated—with the original stage floorboards—to a big complex outside of town called Opryland.

Nothing quite encapsulates the democratic folksiness of country music like the Opry. If God had decided to model the universe on an earthly concert hall it would have to be the Grand Ole Opry on a Saturday night. Pure random pandemonium and country bunkum raised to the level of great spectacle. I mean this was laid back. In front of a huge Hot Rize Flour sign showing a country boy and his dog going fishing, there's Hank Snow and Pat Boone (the Opry is nothing if not all-inclusive) in the spotlight getting into a somber duet of that old Hank Williams airport-hallucination number, "I Saw the Light." Guests, friends, family and fans would wander about backstage and visit, holding conversations, eating, drinking, selling used cars, and joking while a mother changed a diaper. The Opry's casual friends and neighbors attitude was really something to behold. Even the Avalon Ballroom in the high hippie days never approached the Opry for sheer looseness. Nobody was hassled, no star trips, no backstage passes even! And all this was going on right on stage. A sort of Noah's Ark with music. All of creation seemed to be there, swirling about in mass confusion, with the whole event being broadcast live to five million listeners.

There were no rehearsals at the Opry, everything was strictly spontaneous and acts followed one another according to a special country logic. A tragic love ballad was followed by some outrageous hayseed comic or clog-dancing troupe. Roy Acuff did his rendition of the country hymn "Great Speckled Bird" and then went right into his famous yo-yo act.

Backstage, fans would cluster around Hank who treated everyone from a cousin from Alabama to two schoolteachers from Savannah with the same easy-going hiya-howdy manner. Well, okay, there is one class of fan that got favored treatment: doctors. After a show, doctors would come up and while shaking hands with Hank, slip him a crumpled piece of paper in his hand.

"That was their way of showing their appreciation," said Merle. "We'd take those scripts and run right down to the all-night drugstore."

Booze and pills fueled the country music scene and probably still do. Roger Miller used to have a Lucite cube on his desk with a desoxyn floating in it and a sign underneath that read: "The Last Country Song." Speed was the coin of the realm. The way you knew if someone liked you or not was if they offered you a handful of pills when you split. By the time I left Nashville I was a walking pharmacy. I'd go to make a phone call and my pockets would be filled with pink and blue pills, speckled spansules and capsules.

Backstage there's a Texas dental supply tycoon and his wife. His hat and his wife's bouffant hair barely fit in the cramped dressing room. Hank is tipping back in his chair, telling stories of the Ol' Lovesick Blues Boy, the Drifting Cowboys, the toy horse his daddy made for him. The businessman and his wife are near to breathless listening to these tales of Ole Hank. There's something about all this reverence and astonishment that brings out the country demon in Hank. There's a wicked twinkle in old Bocephesus's eye.

"Know what this is?" he asks, pulling out a battered old Stella guitar.

"Nope, but I bet my hat you're gonna tell me."

"This here," says Hank, "was my daddy's git-tar." "No kiddin?" The tycoon's eyes are now big as Alabama belt buckles. "Yup," says Hank, "He wrote ‘I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry' on this very one." "Well, I'll be damn—" the man says. "That's gotta be about the most valuable object in all of country music, wouldn't you say?" "Near about. But, listen, I got plenty mementoes of my daddy and, well, me and Merle here, bein' a little strapped for cash right now...."

"Ya mean ya'd actually sell it, ya'd actually be willin to part with it?"

"It'd have to be something substantial, understand," says Merle. "This is Hank's heirloom."

"Oh, I can appreciate that," says the man. He's near falling over himself to get his checkbook out.

To him this is the Shroud of Turin of country music, and it well might be if Hank's daddy had ever got anywhere near it. A week ago you could have bought one yourself, for twenty bucks down at Sy's pawn shop. This "my-dear-old-daddy's-favorite-guitar" business was something I gathered they did quite often, Hank and Merle. Hank was a star, a big country star, so I don't think it was the money. I just think it was a country boy's love of all the hokum involved. Maybe a way of distancing himself from his daddy, because Hank Williams Sr. is as near to a hillbilly god as anybody is going to get.

It ain't easy being Hank Williams, Jr., son of the legendary Hank Williams, the most famous and beloved country singer of all time. Kinda like if your name was Ludwig van Beethoven, Jr. This would be bad enough if you were a bank manager but this kid, Hank Jr., wanted to be a country singer! What chutzpah! Not only are there all those great beautiful, sad songs of his daddy's to compete with—"Your Cheatin Heart," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "You Win Again," "May You Never Be Alone Like Me," "Cold, Cold Heart," "Lovesick Blues"—but there's the life itself, the very stuff of legend. Risin' son of white trash who spun the sorrows of the white sharecropper into high-lonesome poetry, became a star with fame and fortune, and then with flamboyant and inspired self-destruction threw it all away, spiralling into spectacular decline and fall, ending with death in the back of a limousine at age 29 from booze and drugs. Okay, now just you try and top that, son!

And he just about did. Hank Jr. came about as close to dying and coming back to life as you can get when, in 1975, he fell 452 feet off a mountain in Montana, shaving off one side of his face and cracking his head so badly that his brains spilled out. It was only due to the quick thinking of his guide who pushed them back in and bandaged him up that he survived. He regressed and had to learn to speak all over again. But two years later, bearded and with shades covering his perpetually tearing eye, he was out on the road again.

Musically Hank Jr. went in a very different direction from that of his dad. Where Hank Williams will always be the lonesome cat baying at the moon, Hank Jr.'s persona is gregarious and upbeat. The titles of his songs give you a clue: "Born to Boogie," "Hog Wild," "Buck Naked," "Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound," "Stoned at the Juke Box," "Wild Streak" and "I Like to Have Women I've Never Had." He's a damn party animal and his concerts, like those of Jimmy Buffett or the Dead, are licenses to party down. It's hardly surprising that "All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight" has become the anthem for Monday Night Football.

We fill the prescriptions and head over to Tootsie's Orchid Lounge.

An Evening with Luke the Drifter's Ex
After a few double Jack Daniels, Hank asks, "Wanna meet my mom?" He means Audrey Williams, the legendary Audrey Williams, wife of the Great Hank and supposedly the inspiration for all them achin' heart why-dontcha-treat-me-like-ya-usta-do ballads. Old Hank's mansion where Audrey lived was the stuff of redneck aristocracy. High gates, like the entrance to Xanadu, but these here gates got the notes from "Lovesick Blues" on ’em. The place seemed huge and haunted. Audrey herself seemed a little haunted, to tell you the truth. He had probably been a perfect menace to live with even without booze. But just add a few pints of Wild Turkey and Hank Senior could become a holy terror. But still Hank's memory must have been hard to live with, and it loomed over everything here. Which was why Audrey was doing her best to suppress it by redecorating the place in what you might call monumental Woolworth's Buddhist decor. There was a colossal cement Buddha in the courtyard bathed in pink floodlight and enough kitsch orientalism here to drive Edward Said completely batty. This was astute exorcism on Audrey's part since the serene Buddha is just about as far as you are going to get on this planet from Hank Williams père.

The house was filled with bizarre forties tchachkas. On a gnarled wooden side table sits a hillbilly band made up entirely of stuffed squirrels that played "The Old Rugged Cross" when you wound them up. I don't know quite what I expected of Audrey. Perhaps I imagined a grand Louisiana Hayride entrance. Curtains would part and out she would come in a cowgirl outfit and sing "There's a Bluebird on my Windowsill." But that night she was just like any other mother. Reminding Hank of this and that.

Aside from her faintly occultist Buddhist fetishes the only other bizarre thing about her was her bedroom. It was huge with a massive four poster bed in the middle of the room. At one end was a giant portrait of Hank Senior which, as in some Hollywood mogul's house, rolls up to reveal a movie screen. She was in her early forties I would guess and she looked good. She liked to have fun and was a wild woman to the end. Waking up in that four poster was a rite of passage for a lot of aspiring country singers. It was like getting Audrey's blessing.

Subsequently that giant bed acquired something of a Nashville curse. After Audrey died at the age of 55, Tammy Wynette bought the house, added another million dollars worth of stuff and died right there in the same bed at the same age.

A Hillbilly Museum and a Bible Lesson
The following afternoon I went to pay a visit on a living legend.  Going to see the grand old country singer Hank Snow felt like visiting Ulysses S. Grant. He came from the deepest strata of country music, so it seemed perfectly fitting that he should have a museum at the entrance to his house. As you walked in there were two large rooms filled with glass cases exhibiting all manner of Snowiana. Photos of Hank with various presidents, kabuki-like show suits, old newspapers, his portrait done in dollar bills, song lyrics, inlaid guitars, letters from Truman and Churchill, fantastic cowboy boots, wind-up Hank Snows, Hank Snow ashtrays, ceramic Hank Snows driving trains and sitting in outhouses. Hank was both curator and principal exhibit subject of the museum. He was short and feisty—like a yodeling Ross Perot—and he'd show you around, give you a run-down of his career, tell jokes of circa 1952 vintage and sell you souvenirs of himself.

There were a few other people I wanted to see in Nashville. You wouldn't want to go to Nashville and not meet Loretta Lynn. When I arrived at the motel where she was staying her husband, Moony Lynn, answered the door. A rascally dude who reminded me of a kind of landlubber Popeye. There was Loretta sprawled on the bed just like some teenager reading a fan magazine. Open before her was a book, and not just any book, it was the Bible! As I cast my eyes on this touching tableau I heard an alien voice whispering words in my brain that seemed to come right out of a simpy fan magazine story: "As I entered I was privy to an intimate slice of Loretta Lynn's inner life. There it was, glowing with quiet radiance, the green Gideon Bible that the coal miner's daughter had no doubt resorted to so many times before for spiritual sustenance during those lonely nights on the road." I would have been a little more impressed with this act of devotion if I hadn't noticed, as I approached to shake her hand, that she was reading the Bible upside down. I swear! I loved Loretta. She was the real thing. This wasn't even an act of insincerity on her part, this was just her way of helping me out, showing me a little Motel 6 diorama of the lonely coal miner's daughter in the dark night of the soul. But I felt like saying, "Hey, Loretta, stop writing my lines for me!"

It Came From Nashville!
There's a definite extraterrestrial component to country music but it's hard to put your finger on exactly what it is. Is it the prevalence of moon imagery in country songs, the outlandish get-ups or the utter absence of irony? It could be nothing more than listening to all them good-ole-boy astronauts waxing philosophical from outer space, but I suspect it's something else: the sour-mash surrealism that comes from fusing extravagant displays of hallucinatory artificiality onto just-plain-folksiness. An almost pathological need to maintain a semblance of normality (suggesting alien replication).

I knew I was really in an alien land when I met Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. Observed them, would be more accurate. In the presence of these two, words are superfluous. Like the cartouche of an Egyptian pharaoh, everything is included in the image. Porter was rail thin in a bright cyan Nudie stage suit so encrusted with rhinestone embroidery it looked like some form of luminescent lichen. Dolly was wearing an elaborate and saucy milkmaid outfit of the kind that naughty ladies used to put on in fifties girlie magazines before they took it all off.

And everything about them was big, oversized, super-sized. Their publicist tells me with a smirk that "Porter's, you know, thing" is rumored to be as impressive in its own way as Dolly's boobs. He delivered this salacious tidbit with the bored aside of a Washington bus driver pointing out the Iwo Jima memorial. I got the feeling it wasn't the first time he'd said it.

What was impressive about Porter Wagoner was his hair, a yellow wave so smooth and immaculate it looked like some sort of extruded polymer. It was the kind of coif Ramses II might have gone in for if he'd known the right cosmetologist. It was an extraterrestrial's attempt at a pompadour, just as Dolly's tits looked like a teenager's wet dream come to life.

That was the whole point of Nashville. It was a fantasy town, an allegorical, symbolic place like Oz. You'd miss the point by saying these people were phoney or ridiculous. And there ain't nothin' coy about the princes and princesses of Nashville. If you've got it, flaunt it. Carve your initials in the front lawn, put in a guitar-shaped swimming pool, fit out your limo with a hot tub. Country stars are make-believe royalty whose very flamboyance and over-the-top gaudiness is a kind of acknowledgement that this is all just dressing up. The line between persona and personality that was long ago eroded in rock ’n' roll is still toyed with in country music. These people are adults. They know the difference between fantasy and reality. Rather than self-delusion it's a form of exuberant make-believe, part of a hillbilly fairy tale in which a coal miner's daughter or a muffler-shop grease monkey triumphs over life's disappointments. They are carnival figures—the Maligned Ex, the Honky-tonk Angel—who act out the fantasies and fears of their fans, magnifying the daily humiliations and hurts of life to the level on which we experience them.

As Dolly and Porter walk out into the sunlight they are surrounded by fans and reporters. Bulbs on instamatics flash like fireworks as they—majestic beings!—move towards their gold metallic limo. A sheath of superreality surrounds them. Watching such blinding glitz is like attending a Hollywood premiere circa 1942. Just as they turn with a perfectly orchestrated swivel to wave goodbye, the publicist leans over to me and says, "Y'know, the more famous they get, the more down home they become." I knew just what he meant.