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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
Good Ole Days
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.
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.
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
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.
was their way of showing their appreciation," said
Merle. "We'd take those scripts and run
right down to the all-night drugstore."
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.
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.
what this is?" he asks, pulling out a battered
old Stella guitar.
but I bet my hat you're gonna tell me."
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...."
mean ya'd actually sell it, ya'd actually
be willin to part with it?"
have to be something substantial, understand," says
Merle. "This is Hank's heirloom."
I can appreciate that," says the man. He's
near falling over himself to get his checkbook
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
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!
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.
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.
fill the prescriptions and head over to Tootsie's
Evening with Luke the Drifter's Ex
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hillbilly Museum and a Bible Lesson
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.
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!"
Came From Nashville!
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.
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.
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.
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.