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An all-star set of practitioners of timeless country music — plus members of Hank Williams' family carrying on his creative vision — performed a stirring concert at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's CMA Theater on Thursday afternoon to celebrate what would have been Williams' 100th birthday.
The Hall's Senior Editor Michael McCall tells the Tennessean that Williams is a "standard bearer of the core, honest and personal backbone of country music."
"Few artists — of any genre — have an influence strong enough to reverberate for as many generations as the genre has existed."
'Hillbilly Shakespeare's' genre-crafting excellence
Out of the 151 songs it is believed that Williams recorded in his abbreviated life — which ended in 1953 at age 29 — he achieved 11 No. 1 singles.
Sixteen songs from Williams' catalog were played at the event, sponsored by the Americana Music Association and Spotify.
The event's ending quintet of performances by Delbert McClinton ("Setting The Woods On Fire"), Williams' granddaughter Holly Williams ("I Saw The Light"), Wendy Moten ("Your Cheatin' Heart"), Rodney Crowell ("Honkytonk Blues") and Jeff Hanna and friends ("Jambalaya") encapsulated the many ways Williams' catalog shows folk's evolution into country, jump-blues, rhythm and blues, and zydeco-influenced rock 'n' roll.
Crowell saw Williams at one of the last five shows he ever played, at Cook's Hoedown Supper Club in downtown Houston on Dec. 14, 1952.
At the time, "Jambalaya" was America's No. 1 country song.
"My father told me about the night when I was 2 years old and saw 'The Hillbilly Shakespeare' play so much until it became the first memory of my life," Crowell told the crowd in attendance.
'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry'
"You could feel Williams' life in his verses," McCall says. "His music is the ultimate example of how personal songs become universal anthems."
Sam Williams is Hank's grandson. However, because Hank Williams Sr. died in 1953 and Hank Williams Jr. — Sam's father — and his third wife, Mary Jane Thomas, welcomed Sam into the world in 1997, nearly a half-century exists between his and his grandfather's life.
Like his grandfather, Sam Williams is an empathetic and thoughtful performer and songwriter.
He connects with his grandfather's spirit in his ambient, haunting and soulful cover of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
It was not from his father that Sam Williams became aware of the strength of his grandfather's work.
"My dad was a grumpy whistler who didn't listen to a lot of my grandfather's catalog," he jokes.
He became aware of his grandfather's music through Google and YouTube, and his mother telling him his grandfather was "one of the biggest stars ever."
Sam Williams feels that "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" has a unique lyrical and musical quality that allows it to exist wholly within his life and its related legacies, plus have Great American Songbook-type permanence in the world's many cultural traditions.
"Some parts of this song create accurate representations — both verbal and non-verbal — of how people feel," he says. Being able to convey the power of those representations uniquely has offered me the confidence and validation to carry forth my amazing but heavy musical pedigree in my own way."
McCall describes the most potent force of Hank Williams' work as the "simple poetry" of his writing.
He cites artists such as Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Van Morrison, Dolly Parton and Bruce Springsteen, who identify Hank Williams as inspiration.
"Alongside people like Johnny Cash in [country music and all music in general], Hank's work is so widely beloved that he's become an almost mythological presence.
About "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," Dylan wrote the following in his 2011 autobiography:
"I didn't have to experience anything that Hank did to know what he was singing about. I'd never heard a robin weep, but could imagine it and it made me sad."
Hank's 'clear, crisp vision'
The pain and stress of the lifestyle required to maintain such an incredibly iconic life eventually overcame Hank Williams.
"Because his body of work is so uniquely strong, people from all walks and circumstances of life can find themselves in [Hank Williams'] life," says McCall, noting crooner Tony Bennett also achieved chart-topping success with "Cold, Cold Heart" in 1951.
"From Chris Stapleton to Tyler Childers — and more — entertaining superstars in our space are unified by their love of Hank Williams' story of perpetually maintaining his artistic and human integrity," McCall says. "Understanding and conveying how you understand that aspect of Hank's life makes creating and singing about any of [life's elements] easier."
How Sam Williams perceives Hank's legacy trickling through and beyond the lives of himself and others, expanding his grandfather's impact.
"The times and music that mold us have diversified and changed," Sam Williams says. "However, who we are, at our roots, hasn't. At every moment, my grandfather's catalog provides a clear, crisp vision into and through our human emotions."
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Hank Williams' family, country stars celebrate his 100th birthday