Hank Williams is an unlikely choice as a potential role model for me.
He was a singer and songwriter, but I’ve never had the least bit of musical talent. He was closely identified with country music, which I grew up hating. He was a hard-drinking man who was closely identified with the honky-tonks that I’ve always found distasteful.
I grew up hearing about Williams and his music, though. My father used to sing some of Williams’ old songs and I was struck by how emotional and authentic they sounded. (Williams had been popular when my father was in high school and college.) That didn’t seem like country music to me. It just seemed like the music of loneliness and heartbreak and redemption.
I haven’t given much thought to Williams and his music over the years, but I’ve been watching the Ken Burns documentary “Country Music” in the last few days. As I’ve come to understand more about this Alabama musician who’s been called the Hillbilly Shakespeare, it stirred something in my soul that I rarely allow myself to look at anymore.
And I couldn’t help admitting — quietly, where no one could hear — that I still want to be a star.
Hank Williams was raised by his mother after his father was sent to a veterans home to live because of issues related to shell-shock that he suffered fighting in World War I. They moved around south Alabama and ended up in Montgomery, where he would spend most of his short life.
Williams learned music from a black street musician, but he never had formal training. That didn’t stop him from getting early music gigs in local clubs and on Montgomery’s WSFA radio. His mother was his manager, but his early drinking problems made it unlikely that he would ever amount to anything.
Then he met Audrey Sheppard, a young woman who had a daughter and was still married when she met Williams. But they quickly became a couple and they married as soon as she could get a divorce. At first, they worked menial jobs — including a stint at a ship yard on the Alabama Gulf Coast — but Audrey became his manager and she drove him to make use of his dormant talent.
With Hank’s stage presence and ability to connect with audiences through deeply meaningful music — combined with Audrey’s ambition and guidance — Williams became a star, first for a radio station in Shreveport, La., and then for the biggest country music stage of them all — the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
For awhile, Williams stayed away from alcohol, but he ended up under its influence again. He and Audrey split after eight years, but he was a huge star by then. He was on his way to a concert date in Ohio one cold New Year’s Day when he died in the back seat of his car — he had a driver — under the heavy influence of alcohol and prescription drugs.
I have no desire to sing and I have no talent for writing songs. There aren’t that many things about Williams’ life which look like my own. But there’s something about his need for stardom — and his desire to connect to people emotionally through the confessional art he made — which somehow feel familiar to me.
When I was a child, I wanted to be a star in the worst possible way. At different times, I saw myself as a courtroom lawyer, a politician, an actor and probably a dozen other roles. But in every role I imagined for myself, I was a star. I wasn’t just a lawyer or actor or politician. I was a renowned star.
When I was a teen-ager, I used to perform on stage from time to time. I had some acting roles at church, but I mostly found myself doing stage oratory. I can still quote much of Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, which I performed at a volume that could wake the dead. I won a regional speech contest in high school and I constantly seemed to find ways to be on stage.
I liked being a star. I liked people treating me as though I had special talent.
Over the years, I’ve suppressed most of that. I’m not quite sure why. I guess it seemed as though those were the fantasy dreams of youth — and I needed to be practical. But there are times — even now — when I know I still want to be a star in some way.
It’s mostly when the night is dark and quiet, in the wee hours of the morning. When there’s no one around to disturb the silence — that’s the time when I have the most clear picture of all that I want in the world and of all that I still want to be.
In the light of day and with other people all around, it’s easy for me to get sidetracked with either fears or with the things others tell me I have to be.
But when everything else is cleared away and there seems to be so little to fear, I feel that I can still do anything I need to do — that I can still be the star of my own little personal show — and just have faith that some people want what I need to make, even if they don’t know it until I find a way to give it to them.
There’s still something in me that wants to be a star. I try to suppress it. I try to deny it. But it’s still there.
I want to be a star.
I don’t know how to manage it, but I know I can still do great things — things that people will pay for and which they will love — in a way that will make the teen-age version of me beam with pride one day.
I know that’s still possible, even if I don’t know how to get there.