Eventually, even if you have a cursory relationship with country music, you need to get to Hank Williams. He’s a spectre that looms large over the genre; he was prolific, had a mind-boggling 35 top ten hits, and died young (he didn’t see 30). But most importantly, he basically invented the vernacular of popular country music for the second half of the 20th century. The songs about no-good men, sons without fathers, no-good women, the fire of a vengeful god, being so lonesome you could cry: all of that sprung from Hank’s acoustic guitar. There’s a reason everyone from Beck to Dierks Bentley can claim him as an influence.
Hank’s discography is pretty peerless, largely due to that early death; you can't cut a bunch of cash-in records when you die of heart failure in the back of a car at 29 due to a morphine shot and excessive drinking. The sales boost that artists’ catalogs experience when they die was also first experienced by Hank; he was beloved by some before his death, but after his records were hard to come by and he became an icon. He’s been dead for half a century, but his specter still looms large.
Which makes his life ripe for a movie treatment. So far, Williams’ life has yielded multiple movies; there’s the 1964 flick with George Hamilton as Hank, the 1980 Canadian movie with someone named Sneezy as Hank, and just earlier this decade, the unauthorized movie about his last days and death in a car. Earlier this year—and out now OnDemand and on BluRay—his life got yet another reworking via film, this time via I Saw the Light. It stars Hiddleston—the weeny Brit who plays Loki in The Avengers—who is honestly, despite all odds, the best part of the film. He plays Williams as a broiling, raging alcoholic and addict who is being barely contained by the God-fearing performer who wants to play the Opry more than anything else. He doesn’t nail Hank’s voice, but then again, no one probably could. The live performance shots—particularly a performance by Williams’ fire-and-brimstone alter ego—are when the movie is at its best.
But the rest of movie fails Hiddleston. Instead of showing Williams being the out of control alcoholic who was sleeping with most of the women in the lower 48, most of the “darkness” and the edges of Williams’ life are sanded off and left off screen. Sure, Hank shows up late a couple times, and seems drunk, but Hiddleston’s Williams’ is only seen as a charming rapscallion who’s got a wife who’s mad at him for cheating on her, and who makes good music. Hiddleston’s performance suggests something deeper that the movie never touches. I Saw the Light confirms all the criticisms Walk Hard lobbed at musician biopics. There’s a veritable checklist of all the weak tropes that directors hope read as making a movie “serious”: the long, lingering shots of uncomfortable concerts, the meeting with a journalist, the domestic strife. You don’t leave I Saw the Light feeling like you know the “real” Hank Williams; you’re seeing an overly SERIOUS version of him written to try to win awards
The image of Hank, the alcoholic, sad man writing incredible songs and wreaking havoc on his own body and those around him is even harder to square with the Hank we get in The Complete Mother’s Best Collection…Plus!, a new box set released this month. Hank spent an entire year of his short recording career doing a five times a week, 15 minute show on WSM from Nashville, where he helped sell Mother’s Best Flour, and performed songs in between. He was paid $100 a week for those five weekly shows.
The new box set—which clocks in at a mammoth 15 CDs and one DVD—compiles 142 performances, and is literally the entirety of the Mother’s Best archives on Hank that still exist. It’s a rare document, because you get to hear Hank as something other than a ghostly apparition who you know invented country music; he’s selling flour, and cracking up his cohost here. There are performances of his most known songs, from “Cold, Cold Heart” to “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” The real shocker is how many hymns Hank could play on the radio in 1950; it’d be hard to imagine the dudes in Florida Georgia Line shouting out god during a Mountain Dew ad in 2016.
Despite being too long for any reasonable human to devour entirely, Mother’s Best is, in a lot of ways, a stronger entry point into Hank than the biopic. The Hank you get to see here is a living, breathing guy, as taken at his peak by singing about his loneliness as he is about singing about god. He’s shilling for a paycheck, but also delivering haunting performances of the music that made him a legend. Hank would die only a year after this box set concludes, and given that he did most of his best work in a mostly pre-TV-in-every-home America, this is, in some ways, the only way to see him apart from his records. And that’s all we really want anyway.