A lot of the people in the Birchmere’s waiting area Friday night were old — great-grandpa-old, Rascal-cart-old, time-to-pick-out-a-burial-plot-old. And that made sense, because they were attending a tribute to a guy who died more than half a century ago.
The performers were old-ish, too — I’d tag almost all of them as being on the far side of 60 — and I immediately recognized some of their actions. They were shouting keys behind each other’s backs, telling others on stage to “come in on the four,” farting a bass note or two before recognizing the progression. That’s what a pickup band does on stage when the members haven’t played together. In this case, though, the problem would only last for a couple of beats. It didn’t take long to recognize that every member of this little ensemble was a smokin’ hot player.
The musician being saluted on this night was Hank Williams — the original Hank Williams, the guy who probably played the biggest role in bringing country music to a mass audience, the musician whose influences still reverberate across American music. For the last 15 years, right before the new year, these musicians have gathered at the Birchmere to recognize the man and his work.
“Was he Hank Williams Jr.’s dad?” the woman next to me asked. She had been hauled to the gig by her husband or boyfriend, and admitted she knew nothing about Williams. I gave her what my wife called “the Wikipedia version” of Williams’ too-short, too-sad life, right down to that long white Cadillac ride at the end.
Up on stage were Robin and Linda Williams — longtime Virginia folkies familiar to anyone who hears A Prairie Home Companion on a regular basis — along with locals Bill Kirchen, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer. There were a few other musicians as well, chipping in on fiddle, mandolin and bass. They cut through all of the usual Williams nuggets and a few pieces that were deeper in the catalog. I was disappointed only in that I didn’t hear “The Lost Highway,” which I’d nominate as the saddest of Williams’ many very sad songs.
My wife grew up listening to this music; I grew up hearing Nat King Cole cover this music. It really didn’t play much of a role in my life until my 20s, when I realized that all of the cowpunk bands I loved were regularly calling this guy out. And I also realized that like his female counterpart, Patsy Cline, Williams was really a blues singer at heart. You could hear it even at Friday’s show, when some of those little yodels were about three degrees away from Howlin’ Wolf moanin’ the blues.
Modern country musicians still claim to be influenced by Hank, although I think they’re sadly more influenced by Molly Hatchet, and the sneaky simplicity of Williams’ tunes is the inverse of today’s overproduced music of all stripes. That probably means that when this old crowd is no more, Williams’ influence will slip away as well. But on this night in this place, his music was very much alive.