I Was Thinking Tonight About Elvis, Hank, and Gillian

I was reading about Hank Williams, went to hear Gillian Welch, and wound up thinking about Elvis Presley.  Just finished the late Paul Hemphill’s wonderful biography of Hank Williams, Sr.   This being “the Year of Alabama Music,” I have decided to do a study of some great Alabama musicians.  It’s a pretty great list.  Anyway, sometimes secular musicians, especially in folk, country and blues, are windows into what Stephen J. Nichols calls, “the gospel in a minor key”  I call it, “the rest of creation that never finds its way into church.”  We’re pretty long on the resurrection side of things, so that means we don’t often enough spend time down in the human soul and its perplexing alleyways.

Hank Williams knew all about those hard places of life.  Dead of damage by drugs and alcohol by the age of 29, Williams was the first and arguably greatest country music star ever.  A high school dropout from South Alabama who knew how to make people feel his pain and write about pain everyone feels.  After his death, Williams’ popularity and legend grew, but about the time of his untimely death, Elvis arrived on the scene.

Hemphill says Elvis was almost the end of country music.  Both he and Hank perfectly represented their ethos and time—Hank the rural and small town world that still lived inside most people raised in the Depression, and Elvis the bombastic musical fusion of the world that America in the 1950s began to aspire to be.  Both sons of the South, about to blow wide open by the searing Civil Rights movement, all of its contradictions laid out where the whole world could see us exposed.

Last Friday, Vickie and I went with our friends Gay and Dan to hear Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at Workplay Theater on the Soundstage.  If you don’t know her, you have probably heard her somewhere.  She writes and sings a plaintive, almost “old time” style.  Their concerts usuially only feature two guitars and an occasional frail or two on the banjo.  Spare, haunting, perfectionistic, well- crafted songs and harmonies.  Gillian and David joked a lot about how “down” their music is.

They write about hard times, pregnant teenagers and careless men, broken hearts and do it in a voice she described to NPR in an interview as a “stoic” voice.  Surely she and Rawlings are the only duo to emerge from the Berklee School of Music with a sound like they have.  They seem to have plopped down into the twenty-first century by mistake.  They should have been playing on porches in 1946.  Instead, they perform for middle class lawyers in jeans and t-shirts grooving on soul music of a world they barely remember.

That was August 12, a week ago as I write.  Then, four days later, came the day Elvis died.  Especially here in the South, August 12 is still considered tragic because the federal government didn’t declare it a national holiday.  I still remember where I was—working as a carpenter in Dunn, NC, framing a house for a rich lawyer out in the country.  We listened to radio all day, the only relief to the scortching Carolina summer.   But sometime in that day, the news came.  “Elvis Presley died this morning.”

I was nothing like Elvis, but he was one of us.  His music filled our cars on long trips, helped us date, and was the background music at Myrtle Beach.  The world never understood the part we all shared with him –a Southerner out in the wider world, never really at ease with it, overwhelmed by it, ashamed of ourselves in ways we could never explain, but still having something to say.  Not unlike Hank.

Maybe that’s what keeps killing people like them, I don’t know.  They carry something heavy about them, something they would sing about and live out, but never could quite exorcise it.  Restless, haunted by hounds of heaven and hell, searching, adored and showered with wealth but never able to carry it off.  And then they were gone.

So it was good, last week, before I even knew we were about to remember that it was August 16, 1977.  Elvis was dead, and I was in Dunn, NC, putting up rafters.  Thirty four years ago, the King was gone.  Hank abdicated his throne and Elvis took it but it took him, too.  What they lived, what they sang about, what finally killed them both, is too important for us to keep out of religion or life.  So I mourn these two poets, storytellers, prophets of the broken heart, laureates of human longing.  If you don’t realize that there is something spiritual about Hank’s “Cold, Cold Heart” and Elvis singing the old “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” the old Carter family tune that Elvis turns into a soul shiver, or the maudlin “Long Black Limosine:”    

Hank Williams' goes home

So Hank, Elvis, it’s been an oddly moving time to be with you both.  You are the troubadors of where we come from and where we tried to go.  We won’t forget you.   Let me end with the song Gillian and David sang from their Time the Revelator album, “Elvis Presley Blues”.  Rest in peace.

I was thinkin that night about Elvis,
Day that he died,
Day that he died.

I was thinkin that night about Elvis,
Day that he died,
Day that he died.

Just a country boy that combed his hair,
and put on a shirt his mother made and went on the air.
And he shook it like a chorus girl.
And he shook it like a harlan queen.
And he shook it like a midnight rambler, baby,
like you’d never seen, never seen.
like you’d never seen, never seen.

Listen to it here

About Gary Furr

Gary is a musician, writer and Christian minister living in Alabama.

Posted on August 19, 2011, in Blues, Books, Christianity, Country Music, Culture, Hope, Music and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on I Was Thinking Tonight About Elvis, Hank, and Gillian.

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