Roy Acuff, the grand old man of the Grand Ole Opry, once scolded a stone-drunk Hank Williams for allowing a two-bit brain to cripple his million-dollar talent. Not only was Acuff's comment an accurate assessment of ol' Hank's dipsomaniacal predicament, it makes for a serviceable one-sentence review of the play Hank Williams: Lost Highway, which closes at Circuit Playhouse this weekend.
Lost Highway is a dumbed down retelling of the Hank Williams story. But the singing and playing couldn't be better, and in spite of all the criticism that follows, lovers of classic country music should reserve tickets while the getting's good. Because when Tim Greer opens his mouth to sing, the spirit of Hiram King Williams lives again.
At one point, a character in Lost Highway describes Williams' music as sounding like something that came from "far back in the woods" or deep down in a "hole" — as if the singer were some redneck answer to Tarzan the noble white savage. After all, Hank the hillbilly learned to sing authentic black-folk blues from Rufus "Tee-Tot" Payne, an obscure African-American street performer described by other characters in Lost Highway as someone sensible people should probably be afraid of. Even if you can forgive the show's authors for transforming Payne into the racist epitome of the magical Negro, the evolution of hillbilly music into rock-and-roll wasn't nearly so abrupt or personal. Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodels" had been hot sellers for a decade before the 13-year-old Williams stood on the street in front of WSFA radio in Montgomery, Alabama, singing and banging on his Silvertone guitar. Mexican radio stations had been blasting Carter Family songs across the country for nearly as long.
Although Williams, like most hillbilly artists of his day, worried that he'd never be understood by big-city swells, he was a sophisticated artist whose songs were quickly covered by crooners like Tony Bennett. He became the displaced father of honky-tonk music — a whiskey-soaked memory of rural life born of post-Depression transience and raised in the neon glow of postwar urbanism. In the passion play of modern American music, he plays the role of John the Baptist to Elvis' rockabilly messiah.
Lost Highway imagines Williams' band the Drifting Cowboys as a tightly knit group of childhood friends who only split up when Williams' drinking gets out of hand near the end of his life. This is nonsense. The show only fully acknowledges Williams' first wife, Audrey, establishing her desire to sing in the band as the couple's primary conflict. The play only touches on — if rather heavy-handedly — mutual infidelity, paranoia, and drunkenness.
In casting the Drifting Cowboys, director Emily Wells and music director Renee Kemper have wisely chosen in most cases to use musicians rather than actors. Consequently, there's some underacting and some ridiculous mugging, but when it's time to get down to the essence of what Williams was all about, nothing else matters.
It's too early in the season to start picking Ostrander winners, but Greer, a respectable guitar player and solid actor who skillfully navigates even the most painfully misguided aspects of Lost Highway, should be a shoo-in for a nomination. From the high-lonesome yodels of "Long Gone Lonesome Blues" to the faux-Cajun dialect of "Jambalaya" and the elegant minimalism of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," he captures Williams' timbre and phrasing without crossing the line into cheap impersonation. It is a remarkable performance that transforms this musical into the first must-see show of the new season. And there's not much time left to catch it.