KPBS AIRDATE: September 2, 1992
It’s the kind of story we love to love. Creative artists who are focused with pinpoint brilliance in their professional lives but disastrously out of control of their personal lives. Whose every act of creation is balanced by one of destruction. Think of Mozart, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Lenny Bruce, Elvis. Their stories are always more tragic when the artist dies young.
So here we have the meteoric rise and precipitous fall of Hank Williams, the man who turned the country on to country in the late forties, and after four years at the top of the music world, died in 1953 – at age 29.
What we like in these stories is the details, but we don’t get many here, because, apparently, nobody knows them. We learn that Williams was a boozer, he had a hard-headed, Bible-thumping, back-breaking Mama and a first wife who dragged him down in any number of ways. He ran around, she ran around, they got divorced, he married again. We learn nothing of the second wife. Instead, we meet an unnecessary waitress with whom he has a one-time fling, but who stays onstage, inexplicably, throughout the show.
Never mind. What we miss in personal background is more than
made up by the music, which reflects the inner workings of the man. We get a good sense of Williams’ early inspiration — a black, blues street singer named Tee-Tot — and a feel for how Hank’s music evolved, mixing Hillbilly, cajun, boogie, blues, yodeling, swing and gospel to come up with timeless winners like “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, “I Can’t Help it if I’m Still in Love with You,” “Jambalaya,” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Can’t you just start right up singing these songs? And they’re all over forty years old. And they still sound great, as whined and yodeled by Mark Harelick, who co-wrote the show with Randal Myler, the director.
“Lost Highway” is more of a concert than a play. Harelick himself has called it “a performance piece with connecting text.” The setting is perfect for a country concert. Outdoors on the Globe’s Festival Stage, with Harelick wailing his guts out and charming the audience as Williams must have done in the early days. He sounds like him, even looks like him: lean and gaunt, dark and intense. He puts a lot of ache into those lyrics, just as Williams did. And you just can’t help but like him.
Harelick has great backup, in his talented band, posing as The Drifting Cowboys, and especially in Ron Taylor as the boom-voiced powerhouse, Tee-Tot, who mesmerizes the audience with his blues and the mournful slide-guitar of Kevin Moore.
The set is as appropriate as the setting, the cast is excellent, and the music…. Well, even as a non-country fan, I loved it. You should know that Mark Harelick doesn’t play for Tuesday and Wednesday performances, but I hear that Michael Bryan French is purty darn good.
Spend an evening on the ” Lost Highway “; you’ll have one hand-clappin,’ foot-stompin’, heckuva time.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.