Bruce Springsteen says it took him a long time to gain an understanding and appreciation of Hank Williams.
In his celebrated and widely reported key-note address to the South by Southwest Music festival in Austin Texas, Bruce Springsteen spent about five minutes discussing the legacy of Hank Williams.
Having explored rock and folk styles Springsteen says in the late 70’s he found his way to country music looking for more meaning and depth:
I remember sitting in my little apartment, listening to Hank Williams Greatest Hits over and over. And I was trying to crack his code because at first it just didn’t sound good to me. It just sounded cranky and old-fashioned…with that hard country voice. With that austere instrumentation. But slowly, slowly my ears became accustomed to its beautiful simplicity and its darkness and depth. And Hank Williams went from archival to alive for me before my, before my very eyes. And I lived, I lived on that for awhile in the late ’70s.
I haven’t followed Springsteen’s career that closely, but fans will know that in 1982 he produced his most sparse, spare, austere stripped down album called ‘Nebraska’. Apparently much of this record was made on a cassette recorder and the demo versions of many of the tracks were released as is. One would have to conclude that this album was his homage and tribute to Hank Williams.
I don’t think anyone has ever described the essence and truth in Hank Williams as clearly and well as Bruce Springsteen. Read this carefully, then read it over again.
In country music, I found the adult blues, the working men and women’s stories I had been searching for, the grim recognition of the chips that were laid down against you. My bucket’s got a hole in it. I’ll never get out of this world alive. Lost highways [sings a snippet of Charlie Rich]….Working man’s blues. Stoic recognition of everyday reality and the small and the big things that allow you to put a foot in front of the other and get you through. I found that country’s fatalism attracted me. It was reflective, it was funny, it was soulful. But it was quite fatalist, ya know. Tomorrow looks pretty dark.
As we all know Springsteen’s work has been very political. In the end it was the fatalism he found in country that forced him to move on.
One thing it rarely was…it was rarely politically angry, it was rarely politically critical. And I realized that fatalism had a toxic element. If rock ‘n roll was a seven-day weekend, country was Saturday night hell-raising, followed by heavy Sunday coming down. Guilt, guilt, guilt. I fucked up, oh my God. But, as the song says, would you take another chance on me? That was country. Country seemed not to question why, it seemed like it was about doing then dying, screwing then crying, boozing then trying. And as Jerry Lee Lewis, the living, breathing personification of both rock and country, said, “I’ve fallen to the bottom and I’m working my way down.”
Of course all of us who have followed country music through the years know that whenever country artists get involved in politics it all seems to go terribly wrong. I won’t even both bring forth examples, but I sure everyone would agree that country stars should stay out of politics, mainly because their music, their art is so deep and profound, and politics is so shallow and filled with flippant sloganeering most of the time, the two things just don’t fit together very well..
It’s interesting to note that the one thing that really attracted him to Hank and country was this: “Country was provincial, and so was I,” he said.
But in the end he had to remain political. He says,
What country never accounted for was why things happened — I wanted to know why Hank Williams Sr.’s bucket had a hole in it. Answers to those kinds of questions were found in folk music by the likes of Bob Dylan, and Woody Guthrie before him.
Springsteen has a new album called ‘Wrecking Ball’ which deals with the economic meltdown and real estate disaster that befell working class America in the last decade.
If you want to watch the complete Springsteen speech which is 51 minutes long, you can go to the NPR site. Only excerpts are available on YouTube. Note, the discussion of Hank Williams and country music comes at the 37 minute mark.