More than 60 years after his death at age of 29, Hank Williams still holds a magical power today. Dubbed the "Hillbilly Shakespeare" for the striking imagery of his songs, Williams successfully fused “hillbilly” style with Southern blues, changing the landscape of American popular music forever.
Vero Beach's Riverside Theatre kicked off its 44th season with the powerhouse show Hank Williams: Lost Highway at the Stark Stage that runs through November 12. Written by Randal Myler and Mark Harelik, the toe-tapping musical is a humorous and heartfelt tribute, revealing an intimate portrait of the passionate and troubled man behind the music.
Riverside is hoping to build on their heady success achieved last October with "Ring of Fire" that told the story of Johnny Cash's life. This bio musical follows Williams from his roots in Alabama to his meteoric rise to stardom on the stage of the world-famous Grand Ole Opry. He had 35 top 10 country singles, most of them in a five-year span between 1947 and 1952. Eleven reached the top spot, including timeless classics such as “Move It On Over,” “Jambalaya,” “Your Cheatin' Heart,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” "I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Hey, Good Lookin’.”
The production is co-directed by David and Sherry Lutken with David also serving as Musical Director. The first act unfolds concert style, as we see Hank and his crack band of sidemen work their way up from their earliest performances on the “Louisiana Hayride" to their resounding success at the famed Grand Ole Opry and all the stops along the way.
Donning Williams' cowboy hat for the Riverside crowd, Ben Hope sounds perfectly at home twanging and yodeling his way through one hit after another. He is spot-on, capturing Williams' unusual combination of high energy and insecurity. Hope is backed up by a formidable trio of musicians. They include Sam Sherwood (Hoss), Eric Anthony (Burrhead) and David Finch (Loudmouth), who stand in for Williams' Drifting Cowboys playing bass, guitar, and fiddle with proficiency that matches their easy acting skills.
Katie Barton plays Williams' wife Miss Audrey, who gives him plenty of grief and priceless material for his brokenhearted blues. “You wear a $500 custom suit," she cracks, "and I bet you haven’t changed your underwear in a week.”
Mama Lilly (Marcy McGuigan) is gunning for bear as the overprotective mother, while Sherry Lutken appears as a sassy diner waitress and quintessential fan. Rail thin and dressed in black, David Lutken expertly plays the supporting role of Fred "Pap" Rose, the legendary president of Acuff-Rose Music who tried mightily to mentor Williams, and narrates part of the story.
And then there's Tee-Tot (Tony Perry), who teaches a young Williams the meaning of the blues. The gravelly voiced mentor, a.k.a. Alabama bluesman Rufus Payne, advises young Hank: “You wanna sing about hard times, find some of your own.” Later he emerges as a kind of ghostly influence singing fragments of songs as signposts to Williams' ghastly self-destruction.
As Williams' success grew larger, so did his journey of hard living dependence on alcohol and prescription drugs. On New Year's Day 1953, Williams climbed into the back of his 1952 powder blue Cadillac as his driver barreled down the highway toward a concert venue in Canton, Ohio. Williams never made it. His abuse finally catching up with him, the iconic singer passed away in the back seat.
In the late 1940s Williams essentially minted modern country and western music, serving as its first superstar and martyr. More than six decades later his aura is still wrapped in endless mystery. Still, there will always be those haunting songs.
Hear that lonesome whippoorwill He sounds too blue to fly That means he's lost the will to live I'm so lonesome I could cry Did you ever see a night so slow As time goes draggin' by The moon just went behind the clouds again, I'm so lonesome I could cry.
It was reported that 20,000 people turned up to pay their respects at his funeral in Montgomery, Alabama. In its modest way, Riverside's Lost Highway shows us why.