Hank Williams with His Drifting Cowboys, MGM K11100, 1951, #4 Country
My Aunt Kay had left a few 78 rpm records at her parents’ house—my Grandpa and Grandma Wilson’s farmhouse. Grandma gave me one of them to take home: Hank Williams’ “Baby, We’re Really in Love,” with “I’d Still Want You” on the B-side. I loved both songs, and played them on my little record player often. One day, I played the record for my neighborhood friends. Donny picked it up off the turntable after we’d listened and read on the disc “This Is a Non-Breakable Record.” He said, “Non-breakable? Cool!” and tossed it against the wall, where it shattered into a dozen pieces.
no one else writes simple so perfectly
I did recently find a 45 of the record, and it sits proudly in my little collection. “Baby, We’re Really in Love” is a fine song (favorite couplet: “I run around in circles and laugh at fire alarms / I’m nutty as a fruitcake when you’re not in my arms”), and the flip side, “I’d Still Want You,” is just as wonderful. Of all the singer-songwriters whose work I cherish, Hanks’s songs are the ones whose value and appeal I’m least able to explain. They’re not that different in substance from countless other three-chord songs with catchy hooks. I think: so simple—anyone could write that stuff! They are simple, yes—but no one else writes simple so perfectly. The best of his songs are like elements: They are basic but solid and unimprovable. And it doesn’t have to be Hank delivering them. Great covers have been recorded by singers outside the C&W field. I think of Tony Bennett’s “Cold, Cold Heart” (or Norah Jones’ version), Ray Charles’ “You Win Again” and “Hey, Good Lookin’,” Al Green’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
Two of Hank’s best involve trains. I, like so many others, have always felt the mystique of trains (although I’ve only traveled by train once, long, long ago), possibly because my dad and both of my grandfathers worked for the railroad. That used to be a much more common occupation than it is these days. (Kinda like a kid today saying, “My dad and both of my grandpas are computer programmers.”)
“(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle” (the Hank hit that preceded “Baby, We’re Really in Love”) and “Ramblin’ Man,” which Hank recorded as Luke the Drifter, are train songs, but trains have little to do with my preference for them. Trains, though, may have inspired Hank to do some of his best work, a major-key song and a minor-key song that both convey a regretful resignation to fate. “I can settle down and be doin’ just fine / ‘til I hear an old freight rollin’ down the line…”
A friend recently bought an anthology of Hank Williams’ Luke the Drifter songs. In the liner notes, the song “Just Waitin’” was credited to “Bob Gazzaway of Happy, Texas.” My friend knew that my wife’s maiden name is Gazzaway, and I knew that an uncle of hers had prepared a nice genealogy of the family. I checked it out and was able to find a Bobby Rankin Gazzaway who had lived with his family in Happy, Texas. This had to be Hank’s collaborator, and it turns out that he and my wife’s grandpa Homer were cousins. When I told my father-in-law this news, he was pleasantly surprised (although, he says, he was never much of a Hank Williams fan). He then said that many years back there’d been a rumor that a Gazzaway had written a lot of Hank’s songs and not received any credit.
Among Hank Williams’ stellar output, “Just Waitin’” is no great shakes. It’s a narrative song, with Hank speaking over a basic repeated 1-4-5-1 pattern. Its simple message is that everybody’s just waitin’ on something, and never gettin’ anything done. A series of examples drive the point home. “The farmer’s daughter’s just waitin’ for the travelin’ salesman to take her into town / The city slicker’s just waitin’ for the country boy to lay all his money down.”
But here’s to Bob Gazzaway. I’m just waitin’ to hear the whole story about how he crossed paths with the great Hank Williams. Or maybe how he and Hank were longtime pals who wrote songs together, but the evil Hank stole all of Bob’s credit and royalties, leaving him to languish, unhappy, in Happy, Texas.