From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. This concise, startling biography starts not with its subject, Hank Williams, but with its author sitting in the cab of his father's truck one day in 1949, hearing Williams sing "like a hurt animal." The brief incident immediately binds Hemphill and Williams (1923–1952) together as children of the rural South, united by the places and circumstances from which they came (Hemphill has written four novels and 11 nonfiction works dealing with the blue-collar South). Hemphill shifts from his own childhood to Williams's vagabond youth with scintillating descriptions of Depression-era Alabama. Against this backdrop, Hemphill tells the story of Williams's boyhood, which involved constant movement from town to town, infrequent school attendance and jobs as a shoe-shine boy and street performer. Williams's subsequent rise, from "Singing Kid" novelty to headliner at the Grand Ole Opry, could seem like a cliché, but Hemphill's descriptions of the "places where a chicken-wire fence separated the band from the crowd" lend a gritty reality. This frankness extends to the depiction of Williams's chronic alcoholism, violent marital troubles and lonely, sudden death at age 29. With the end of Williams's life, the book turns back to its author, as an older, wiser Hemphill recounts some of the sorrows of his own life. The connection between author and subject is what makes this book so rewarding.
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Hemphill's absorbing traversal of the life of the single greatest figure in country music is something less and something more than a biography. Hemphill traces the life of Hank (ne Hiram) Williams (1923-53) faithfully and factually and labels prominent myths as such, but he doesn't indulge modern biography mavens with sociological detail about Williams' world or with psychological insight about Williams and his family. In so doing, Hemphill discounts the fascination of the Depression era that produced Williams and of the dysfunctionality of his parents' and first wife's behavior, let alone his alcoholism from adolescence on. Compensating this avoidance of the potatoes of most biographies (the facts being the meat) is the book's style, which while hardly high-flown sounds eulogistic. In this respect, the book recalls some of the earliest written lives in European literature--Boccaccio's Life of Dante
, for instance--which each intended, without mythologizing, to establish its subject's legend. Despite some poor word choices and hyperbole, this is the finest work of literature about Williams yet written. Ray OlsonCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved