HANK HUNG THE MOON
By Rheta Grimsley Johnson
New South Books, $24.95
Johnson is a newspaper writer and book author whose columns are familiar to regular readers of The Advocate. She lived for a while in Henderson, and her 2008 book Poor Man’s Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana, celebrated the south Louisiana lifestyle that charmed her and her husband Don Grierson.
Johnson’s work has taken the form of newspaper-sized columns for years, and her books are arranged in chapters that are about the same length as her columns. This one is no exception.
The “Hank” of the title is country music legend Hank Williams. Johnson’s book is about Williams in a way and not about Williams in other ways. She was born the year he died, so she has no personal recollections of him but she freely admits she is a huge fan. In this tribute she mines the memories of those who knew Williams or were connected to him like his illegitimate daughter, Jett Williams, born just days apart from Johnson in 1953.
Jett Williams didn’t even know Hank Williams was her biological father until she was grown, but when she found out, it changed her life. She wound up singing country music. “As I sing my daddy’s songs or play them on my radio show, I cannot help but reflect upon their penetration of one’s very bone marrow. Especially mine,” she told Johnson.
And Johnson observes that “Of all those on earth who think Hank hung the moon, Jett thinks he hung it the highest.”
She’s not alone, of course. Johnson talks to former band members and others who didn’t really know Hank Williams but found their lives transformed by his music. Some saw him in person and it moved them, like country star Porter Waggoner who decided to become a singer after seeing Williams perform live.
Johnson revisits some familiar characters and places in the process of showing how Williams’ popularity was widespread. She returns to Butte La Rose to talk with singer Hélène Boudreaux, who was in the Provence book, about how Williams influenced her life.
“When she sings, it is sometimes in English, sometimes in French,” Johnson writes. “And often, whether in English or French, it is one of Hank’s songs she is singing.”
“At the time I discovered Hank’s voice, we were so French I could not connect with his words, but I did with his voice. I’d listen for his singing on the radio. It did not matter what he sang, just so I could hear his singing,” Boudreaux told Johnson.
As usual, Johnson tells her stories in the same lyric style that has made her newspaper columns so popular. She has a feel for the poetry of people and place.
“The office and recording studio is in a barn-like building on a road Norman Rockwell might have painted, only it would have been too perfect for him. Storytown Road meanders through jade Middle Tennessee hills near Hartsville, northeast of Nashville. The road loops and winds through green farms that smell of fresh-mown hay, the proof of honest labor. And beyond the office-barn is a modest brown house with a red roof where Hank Williams’ daughter and her husband live,” she begins her chapter on Jett Williams. It is hard to read prose that fine without wanting to see more.
The book is shot through with references to Johnson’s husband Don as well. He died in 2009, and Johnson writes poignantly about scattering his ashes in the Atchafalaya Basin.
“I realized something about myself when I got heavily into writing this book — if you don’t realize something about yourself while writing a book you probably haven’t invested much thought,” Johnson writes.
Readers will also realize something when they work through this beautifully written collection of stories — all of us seem to have some connection with Hank Williams. For Johnson, he seems to have written the soundtrack of her life. For others, he was an icon, an inspiration, a lost father, a sad story and more. But Hank Williams was something to everyone who ever heard his music.